When the apple dropped on Thursday night, we formally entered a presidential election year. In the last two cycles, the first voting event — the Iowa caucuses — occurred immediately, on January 3. But this year, thanks to some energetic maneuvering by both parties to discourage states from rushing toward the early parts of the calendar (a.k.a. “front-loading”), we’ll be treated to an entire month of post-holiday corn-fed political goodness from Iowa before voters gather on Monday, February 1. Since an awful lot of caucusgoers have in the past changed their preferences in the last couple of weeks (with 2012 winner Rick Santorum the last to surge out of nowhere in the past few weeks), the extra time adds some extra drama to the race.
Here’s a simple primer on things you should understand to make sense of the campaigns, spin, and media coverage.
The Republican Campaign: Cruz and Trump Battle to Stay on Top
Compared to the Democrats, the GOP has a much larger field, and the stakes for both winners and losers in Iowa are higher. The candidate with the most momentum at present is Ted Cruz, who has been getting key local and national Christian-right endorsements (self-identified Evangelicals represented 57 percent of caucusgoers in 2012) and has overtaken Donald Trump in most recent polls of the state. Trump is expected to start running TV ads in Iowa very soon, but the key question is whether he has the ground game to get his supporters — who are significantly less likely to be past caucusgoers — to the precincts on Caucus Night.
In chasing Cruz, Trump could get some help from the Huckabee and Santorum campaigns, who have little choice but to go after the Texan with clawhammers since he’s poached their own common base of support. A key measure of Trump’s get-out-the-vote effort will be how far turnout exceeds the 120,000 benchmark set in 2012, when far fewer candidates were in the race.
Since the Donald seems to do relatively well among independents and even some registered Democrats, it’s worth noting that Iowa allows registered voters to change their party affiliation at the door on Caucus Night. Fortunately for all the candidates, the Republican caucuses (unlike those held by Democrats) feature simple candidate-preference straw polls that don’t take a lot of time or training.
The Establishment Candidates Struggle to Survive Until New Hampshire
Meanwhile, the “Establishment” candidates (Bush, Rubio, Christie, and to some extent Kasich) who have been battling over New Hampshire have been showing some signs of paying more attention to Iowa, probably on the theory that they’ll get a post-Iowa bounce in the Granite State if they finish as high as third in the caucuses. Rubio, who is in third place in most polls now, is finally spending more time in the state after his campaign got a bit indiscreet in showing their disdain for the traditional Iowa formula of heavy personal campaigning. Bush got headlines for doubling his field staff in the state, leaving the TV ads to his super-pac. He’s also continuing to pound Rubio for his Senate attendance record, which seems kind of stupid but must be working to some extent.
The Wild Card: Two Late Debates and One Key Poll
Like the Democrats, the Republicans will hold a debate in South Carolina this month (on January 14, a Thursday, with the Fox Business Network sponsoring). But they’re also holding a Fox News debate in Iowa on January 28, on the brink of the caucuses. This unusual event will probably have sky-high ratings in Iowa, and could immediately precede the release of the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, a highly regarded survey conducted by Iowa pollster Ann Selzer that has been known to capture — and perhaps stimulate — late momentum. The timing of both these events is especially significant for Republicans insofar as last-minute switching from doomed candidates is very likely.
How the Iowa Results Will Affect the GOP Race
At present, no one is threatening Trump and Cruz for the lead in Iowa. If Trump wins, and particularly if he gets the usual “bounce” in initial polls in New Hampshire (where he’s already leading, and which will hold its primary eight days after Iowa) and later states, expect a full-blown panic to hit Establishment Republicans. This could perhaps even make Ted Cruz more acceptable to them, but would more likely produce a consolidation of support behind the Establishment candidate doing best in Iowa and/or looking strongest in New Hampshire. For candidates like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and maybe even one-time Iowa leader Ben Carson (whose poll numbers have dived as his campaign has fallen into disarray), Caucus Night could mean curtains.
The Democratic Campaign: Is Clinton Really Vulnerable?
After a brief period of panic this summer, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has regained its strong national lead and much of its sense of “inevitability,” but the early states have been known to punish front-runners. The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton is favored to win in Iowa, with New Hampshire being Bernie Sanders’s most likely “breakthrough” state — with the significant proviso that enthusiasm can serve as an X Factor in Iowa, and the Sanders campaign probably has an advantage in that metric. Given Sanders’s especially strong level of support among the youngest voters, it’s worth noting that 17-year-olds who will turn 18 by November can participate. This helped produce a strong campus turnout for Obama in 2008.
Though polls sometimes don’t adequately capture how likely it is that respondents will actually turn out on a cold night to a caucus, Clinton has led Sanders in every published poll of Iowa since September. In the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, Clinton has 50 percent in Iowa, Sanders has 38 percent, and Martin O’Malley has 6 percent.
While Sanders may have an enthusiasm advantage, grassroots organization could be a different matter. Aside from the head start Clinton has from her 2008 contacts in the state, and the fairly extensive infrastructure set up by the Ready for Hillary super-pac before she announced, she’s benefiting from overwhelming support from unions that are politically active in Iowa. She’s been endorsed by three of the most significant: AFSCME, SEIU, and the Machinists, along with both teachers’ unions. That means she will have hundreds of organizers on the ground to identify supporters, get them to their precincts, and train them on what to do when they arrive (not as easy a proposition as in the Republican caucuses, since Democrats don’t just vote for their favorites but instead go through a lengthy process of dividing up into preference groups, redividing if there are candidates who don’t meet a minimum “viability” threshold — as will be the case in many precincts with Martin O’Malley supporters — and then electing delegates to a county convention).
Both candidates are well funded enough to do what they need to do in Iowa. But how much they spend and what they spend it on will largely depend on how they play the crucial expectations game.
The Expectations Game
Success in primaries isn’t just about raw vote totals: Often, it’s about whether candidates are perceived by the media to have done better or worse than they were expected to, which can then create positive or negative momentum that feeds into fund-raising and enthusiasm.
Unless she is confident of a big Iowa win, Clinton will need to play the expectations game very carefully. An “upset” Sanders win in Iowa followed by a less surprising win for Bernie in his neighboring state of New Hampshire could set off some alarms in the Democratic Establishment, even though a Sanders path to the nomination after New Hampshire is hard to discern, given his relatively poor appeal at present to the minority voters who will dominate primaries in the South and elsewhere, and Clinton’s expected dominance of “super-delegates” — (the roughly 700 governors, members of Congress, and members of the Democratic National Committee who are guaranteed seats at the Convention and are not controlled by primary or caucus results).
If she appears to be in trouble in Iowa, expect her campaign to point out early and often that her husband won the nomination in 1992 without winning either of the first two states (though that’s a bit disingenuous since Iowa was off the table that year thanks to the brief campaign of favorite son Tom Harkin). Sanders will also play the expectations game, but it’s unclear at present whether he’ll try to fire up his troops with a public effort to win Iowa, or play possum in hopes of an upset with spillover effects in New Hampshire.
If Democrats exceed the 239,000 who turned out in 2008 — an astonishing number at the time, typically attributed to the Obama campaign — then something interesting is going on: either a potential Sanders upset, or a legendary performance by Clinton’s GOTV forces.
In terms of predictable extrinsic events, there will be one more Democratic debate before the caucuses, in South Carolina (another dreaded weekend event on Sunday, January 17). And if the race is close, look for the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, usually released the weekend before the caucuses.
What to Look for on Caucus Night
As noted above, the Republican results reported by the news media on Caucus Night will be based on simple preference ballots cast by caucusgoers. For Democrats, the numbers you will see are actually percentages of estimated state convention delegates for each candidate based on how many county convention delegates they’ve actually snagged. Candidate spinners and the media will be on hand to help the rest of the country “understand” what it’s all supposed to mean. And a lot of the hype you’ll hear between now and February 1 will be designed to shape what opinion leaders think of it all.
On the Republican side, look for jargon about there being “three (or four, or five) tickets out of Iowa” or some such effort to impose order on the chaos and winnow the unwieldy field. And on the Democratic side, look for exaggerations of what victory or defeat in this one venue will mean for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The hype will be as bountiful as a good Iowa bumper crop of corn.