Why should just a few hundred thousand voters taking part in a bizarre caucusing ritual in a demographically unrepresentative state have such a massive impact on who runs for president? It seems pretty shady, but that’s a whole ‘nother question. This time around Iowa will probably have a big impact on the campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Nate Silver cited five reasons on his blog today. Here’s a synopsis of what he said:
Iowa results will dominate news cycles for weeks. The tone of that coverage could sway a large swath of voters toward the scrappy upstarts. Trump lives and dies by dominating news cycles and manipulating coverage. Nobody wields press coverage like a weapon as well as the Donald. The press still doesn’t love Sanders, but a surprise win over Clinton would force the press to begin taking him more seriously.
There’s room on the bandwagon. With much of the Democratic electorate just beginning to feel the Bern a showing within two percentage points of Clinton would be a press boon. While Clinton remains quite electable, she’s still not well liked. Sanders has the opposite problem. He’s incredibly likable, but electable? He’ll have to begin to see an Obama-like groundswell soon. Trump still has to convince Republicans that he can actually win a general election.
Iowa will cement opinion among party elites. The unknown drives party power-brokers nuts. They really want a clear front runner to emerge, and they want to be as early to that party as they can be. Nothing’s worse than backing the wrong horse, though. So post-Iowa handshakes between Republican big-wigs and Trump may be forthcoming… unless he bombs. Sanders will not likely see a huge bump in endorsements from a strong showing in Iowa.
Iowa will weed out the posers. Again this benefits Trump, who’s decision to skip the last debate has made the other candidates seem small. Those who don’t have the money to go the distance will have to cash it in. O’Malley is actually very important to Sanders, since he siphons off some of the “I just don’t like Hillary” vote.
Iowa matters because it’s the first concrete test of whether pollsters are on track or not. This matters most for Sanders, who has gone from 29 points down in Iowa to within the margin of error in many polls. The moment of truth is here. An extremely strong showing by Clinton in Iowa–say an 8-10 point win over Sanders–would be incredibly hard to overcome. Nobody really knows if Trumps polling numbers are soft, but it seems as though the suspicion is that they are, mostly likely the result of Trump being the candidate most likely to be over-hyped.