Countdown in Iowa

Tonight, at long last, the voters get to have their say as the good people of Iowa trek to their caucus sites. Better to say, "some voters" because the Iowa caucuses are not exactly representative of the broader electorate, perhaps not even of the Iowa electorate. On the Democratic side, the liberal activists are heavily represented and on the Republican side, the caucuses have a disproportionate number of evangelical voters. Iowa has helped pull both parties to their extremes ever since the caucuses first landed on the national radar when a peanut farmer from Georgia won the caucus in 1976.

The Democratic side is more clear-cut than the Republican. Hillary Clinton needs a win, but she can survive a loss so long as it is very close. Remember, her husband lost ten of the first eleven primaries and caucuses in 1992 before running the table. But, a big loss would hurt because so much of her campaign this time is built on maintaining the aura of inevitability, an aura she tried to cultivate in 2008 and which then-Sen. Barack Obama shattered in Iowa. That said, it was not Iowa that doomed Clinton in 2008: She went on to win New Hampshire the following week. What killed her chances last time was that her campaign team had assumed they would sew up the nominating fight on Super Tuesday, then she and Obama mostly split the states that day, and her campaign had done nothing to plan for what followed. Obama went on to win the next eleven contests. A source told me that the day after Super Tuesday, the Clinton campaign had a conference call during which their lack of preparations became evident. The next big contest was the Wisconsin primary. Mrs. Clinton asked if Wisconsin had an open primary, open to all voters or just to Democrats. No one knew the answer. The next day, the campaign announced the resignation of its campaign manager.

People forget that Obama lost most of the big primaries, in New York, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and the non-binding contest in Florida. In each case, Clinton won narrowly. Obama took the nomination because he won a series of small caucuses and primaries in the weeks after Super Tuesday by wider margins, in states like Idaho and Montana and Alabama, securing a significant, ultimately insurmountable, lead in the awarding of delegates. Team Clinton would not let that happen again and it is far from clear that Sen. Bernie Sanders has the kind of organization that Obama had.

Still, Team Clinton has not been able to address the core issue that has stalked her campaign this year as it did in 2008: She has trouble closing the sale with voters. If they have an alternative, they tend to take it. That is why a loss tonight by a wide margin could spell trouble for her. A big win would make her look like a winner, and she could follow it up with a better than expected showing in New Hampshire. In any event, people who were predicting a coronation for Clinton misunderstood the degree to which the Democratic base really wants a more populist economic agenda. Sanders has tapped into that. Does he know what to do with his own success: He looks like the dog who caught the car as one campaign operative told me the other night.

On the Republican side, a win by Donald Trump could make it increasingly difficult for anyone to knock him from his front runner status. Iowa is not the kind of state that should warm to him: He is not a natural with evangelicals, his demeanor and his language being, hmmmm, what to call it, not exactly akin to the words and example we find in the Gospels. If he can win here, as E.J. Dionne noted last week, borrowing from Frank Sinatra, Trump can win anywhere. He is leading the polls in the next two primary states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and there is no reason to think he could not prevail in the seven southern states that form the core of the SEC primary on March 1: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. If Trump loses tonight in Iowa, I do not think his chances are hugely harmed, if we confine our focus to political considerations. The thing about Trump is that psychological analysis seems as important as political, and it would be fascinating to watch how he deals with a loss.

The southern states that will vote in the SEC primary are also favorable turf for Sen. Ted Cruz who is counting on a win tonight to turn the nominating contest into a two-man race. Cruz was beaten up in last week’s debate, and Trump’s passive-aggressive attacks on Cruz’s being born in Canada -- "I don’t know if he is eligible or not, but lots of people are raising the question" -- seems to have dented Cruz’s poll numbers. If Cruz does not win the most votes, he can still effectively turn the race into a two-man contest if he runs far enough ahead of the rest of the field.

The nightmare for Cruz is something akin to what happened in the Democratic contest in 2004. The frontrunners all year had been neighboring Rep. Dick Gephardt from Missouri and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. In the final weeks of the campaign, the two men ran nonstop attack ads against each other, Iowa voters were turned off, and on election night, Sen. John Kerry was atop the leader board, followed by Sen. John Edwards. The Cruz-Trump fight the past couple of weeks might have a similar effect on voters. Trump could survive that scenario. Cruz can’t.

The lesson of 2004 has evidently not been lost on Sen. Marco Rubio who sees his path to the White House made possible by a surprise strong showing tonight, both close enough to Cruz and far enough above the other candidates swimming in the "establishment" lane. Rubio has spent most of the week in Iowa, while Governors Chris Christie and John Kasich have concentrated on New Hampshire. These latter candidates should be instructing their Iowa voters to back Cruz or Trump. Why? Because, in 2004, after coming in third in Iowa, Howard Dean’s lead in New Hampshire evaporated and Kerry overwhelmed not just Dean but candidates like Gen. Wesley Clark who had not campaigned in Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire. Clark’s strategy was to be the last person standing between Dean and the nomination, but by the time the voting ended in Iowa, Kerry was that person. Kasich, Christie and former Gov. Jeb Bush need to make sure that Rubio does not emerge from Iowa with fresh wind at his back.

That said, even if Rubio does outperform expectations in Iowa, I do not think the analogy to 2004 works entirely. The “establishment” strategy is premised on the belief that once the GOP race turns into a two-man contest, voters will come to their senses and deny Trump or Cruz the nomination. The problem is that most Republican voters believe either Trump’s core message that personality counts more than political experience or Cruz’s core message that if the GOP sticks to its most conservative principles unflinchingly, it can win elections and dismantle the Obama legacy. Or they believe both. Rubio might get to the point where he is the only one in the establishment lane, and traditionally, that is the lane that produces the eventual nominee. I just don’t think this year will follow that pattern. What makes Rubio – or Kasich or Christie or Bush – think they can outperform Trump or Cruz in the SEC primary states? Are there any real moderate Republicans left in states like Pennsylvania or New York to propel them to victory? You hear some commentators, and many of the spin doctors for the establishment candidates, point to the fact that the SEC primary states are no longer "winner-take-all," which is true, but read the fine print: Candidates need to clear a twenty percent threshold to get any delegates. None of these establishment candidates are anywhere near that threshold, and if they all stay in the race, none of them will be.

It does not look like it will be a blowout on either side, so get ready for a long night. Naptime should get an extra hour this afternoon. In 2012, it took sixteen days before we knew that Rick Santorum had bested Mitt Romney! I don’t think we will be waiting that long again, but I do think that this time tomorrow, the race will have come into far sharper focus.


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