The primary season officially gets underway tonight, as Iowa voters brave the winter weather and head to the caucuses. This will give political wonks some actual hard data to discuss, instead of just opinion polling and sheer speculation, so it's a big day on the political calendar for us. Because it's such an auspicious day, I'm going to make an honest attempt to pick the winners and almost-winners for both parties.
I've always believed that political pundits should not only make such predictions (rash though they might turn out to be), but also post their ongoing scorecard, in much the same way sports announcers do with their picks for various games. Since this is the start of a new election cycle, my slate is wiped clean as I attempt to pick the primary winners for the 2016 race. My self-imposed rules are pretty flexible. On the Republican side, I'll be picking the top three winners (in order), until the race tightens so much that only the outright winner will matter. On the Democratic side, I'm only going to be picking the winner from the beginning, since there are really only two viable candidates in the race (sorry, O'Malley supporters...). So picking the top two slots is really a binary selection -- I can't count it as "two picks" whether I'm right or wrong, because I don't think that'd be a fair way to count. And finally, I'll only be playing this game until a clear nominee emerges from both parties (once one candidate has won, picking further primary wins is kind of pointless).
OK, enough with the rules, let's get on with making the picks. First up, let's take a look at the Republican side.
In both the Republican and Democratic contests, picking the winners means estimating the turnout. Will the weather affect turnout? Will first-time voters actually make it to the caucuses? Has the polling been wrong all along? Those are the key questions, and they require more than a little reliance on nothing more than gut feelings.
So what does my gut tell me about the topsy-turvy Republican race? Well, first of all, it's telling me that the following candidates have zero chance of making the top three: Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, and Rick Santorum. The only candidate who truly has a chance at defying expectations and winning third place is Ben Carson. Iowa was supposed to be a stronghold for Carson, and indeed he's been one of only three candidates to lead the Iowa polling during the last six months. But Carson couldn't maintain this lead for very long, and his fall in popularity has been uninterrupted since then. Even with tons of Iowa Republicans who love his life story of redemption, Carson is now nothing more than an afterthought. I think he'll stay an afterthought, and win fourth place (at best).
This leaves the top three candidates to pigeonhole into the top three spots. Marco Rubio's campaign is dreaming of a second-place finish here, but they'll be content with third. Rubio is locked into what his campaign calls a "3, 2, 1" strategy -- place third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and then win South Carolina outright. While the second two parts of that are doubtful, the first one is eminently within reach. Rubio placing second would require either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to have a truly awful night, to be blunt. In the polling, Rubio is the only candidate of the top three to show a significant late-breaking upward movement, and late-breaking trends sometimes turn out to overwhelm all the polling data on caucus night. Even so, I just don't see Rubio making up enough ground to grab second place.
Ted Cruz is the second candidate who managed to lead the polling in Iowa during the past six months, but he probably peaked too early. Once Trump started attacking him (especially over his Canadian birth) roughly a month ago, Cruz has seen his numbers slump significantly (although not disastrously -- he's still averaging above 20 percent support, which most of the other candidates would kill for, at this point). This is normally bad news for any candidate -- you obviously want to head into the voting with your polling trendline heading up, not down. However, pretty much every campaign consultant I've heard has admitted that Ted Cruz has put together what is most likely the best "ground game" Iowa has ever seen. Cruz is pinning his chances on the state, because (much like Carson) he thinks the state is friendliest of territories for him to win over. Evangelical voters have an outsized influence here, and Cruz has been courting them for a very long time. Cruz always saw Iowa as a necessary springboard for the remaining states on the primary schedule. He could win the GOP nomination without winning Iowa (hey, this year anything's possible), but it would be a lot harder to do than if he chalked up a clear win here. So Cruz has a lot riding on tonight. Right now, he's praying for a low turnout of committed caucusgoers who made up their minds to support him months ago.
Donald Trump, of course, is the frontrunner in the polls, and has been for much of the last six months (to everyone's amazement) -- both in Iowa and nationwide. However, tonight will answer a key question on everyone's mind: Will Trump supporters actually vote? Are all those crowds at his rallies just there for the entertainment value of watching Trump, or do they really support his candidacy enough to turn out? Trump is relying on a large number of first-time voters showing up for him tonight, which is always a risky strategy (because such voters rarely actually make the effort, historically speaking). So if the turnout is high tonight, Trump likely walks away with the win.
Enough recap, though, it's time to pick the winners. I'm guessing that the polls are actually correct on the Republican side, and am going with a rather conventional pick: Trump wins first place, Cruz places a close second, and Rubio takes third (far behind the other two).
In essence, I'm betting on a big turnout. I think Trump voters are a lot more committed than the mainstream media has been giving them credit for. To these voters, supporting Trump is no joke. In fact, if Trump isn't the eventual Republican nominee, I bet a lot of them won't even bother to vote in the general election -- that's how committed to the idea of "President Trump" they are. The mighty Cruz ground game effort will fall short of being enough to push him over the top, in the end (although it will place him close to Trump). Cruz will move on to New Hampshire (where he has a decent shot at second place), but he'll be concentrating much more on the Southern states in the weeks to come, where he also thinks he's got a good shot at winning. Marco Rubio may beat expectations when it comes to the share of the vote he pulls in tonight, but he will not manage to take second place. Rubio is playing a longer game at this point, and sees his opportunities getting better as other Republicans eventually start getting out of the race. But it'll be a big night for Trump, and it very may well be the beginning of Trump's eventual nomination.
Since there are fewer Democratic candidates, there is less to consider when predicting a winner. Martin O'Malley may be the key to victory -- for either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Because of the rather Byzantine rules of the Democratic caucuses, if O'Malley doesn't receive at least 15 percent support in each caucus, his name will drop off the list of choices and his voters will have to move to another candidate (although "undecided" may remain a choice for them). Because the race is so tight, the candidate they move to may thus be the deciding factor. O'Malley, of course, has zero chance of winning Iowa, any other state (outside of the bare possibility of Maryland), or the Democratic nomination. The only real question for O'Malley is whether he drops out of the race immediately after Iowa, or whether he hangs on to see another crushing defeat in New Hampshire before he hangs up his spurs. Sorry, Martin fans, but that's the reality.
The polling between Clinton and Sanders is about as close to "completely tied" as you can get. It's so close, it depends on which poll you believe. Bernie is up in some polls taken in the past two weeks, and Hillary is up in others. Taken as a whole, Clinton probably has the edge in a late-breaking move towards her, but it's impossible to tell if all this is happening within the range of error of the polls or not. As on the Republican side, it mostly comes down to turnout. If the crowds are big, Bernie likely wins. If they're small, Hillary will emerge victorious.
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Bernie Sanders takes the night. This one is about as close to a coin toss as you can get, meaning gut feelings play a large role. My gut may indeed be biased, because a Sanders win tonight means a much more exciting contest for at least the next month or so. If Clinton were to win -- even by a very small margin -- it will take a lot of wind out of the sails of the Sanders campaign, and everyone in the media would start talking about her inevitability once again (rather than, if Bernie wins: "Clinton repeating 2008"). Since I write about politics, I have a vested interest in seeing a more interesting contest, so perhaps that's a large bias when I listen to what my gut is telling me. We'll find out soon enough.
But I'm not basing my pick solely on wishful thinking. Sanders seems to have the edge in generating excitement from his supporters, but at the same time I think the media has been missing the excitement Hillary's been creating. Sure, Hillary voters are as a whole older and more staid, but that doesn't mean their commitment to their candidate is any less than the whippersnappers "feeling the Bern." It's been kind of lost in all the noise about the horserace, but seeing the first woman president is a huge deal for a whole lot of voters. Hillary has a good chance of winning because the demographics who support her are also the ones most likely to actually show up and vote on caucus night. Hillary has a geographic edge as well, since she'll probably do better in the rural areas of the state than Bernie. If Bernie's support is all concentrated in the college towns, then Hillary could easily walk off with more delegates when the whole state is counted -- even if Bernie wins the cities by huge margins.
But I'm betting (as with Trump) that Bernie's supporters actually do show up in greater numbers than predicted. I think the turnout will be big, although perhaps not as big as 2008. Bernie supporters know that Iowa is critical for him to win, and they know that the rest of the country's Democrats are watching them closely. This, coupled with mostly-clear weather, will add up to enough of a turnout (with plenty of first-time voters) to give Bernie a clear shot. What will push him over the top -- especially in some of those aforementioned rural areas -- are Martin O'Malley voters who have already decided they don't want to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Because Democrats in Iowa don't just add up all the votes (the way Republicans do in their caucuses), we won't have "margin of victory" numbers to chew over afterwards. It'll all come down to the delegates. If I'm right and Bernie wins, it won't be by much. Clinton and Sanders, in this scenario, will exit Iowa with an almost-equal number of delegates -- which are the truly important thing for winning the nomination itself. If I turn out to be wrong and Clinton wins, the delegate count could be close as well, but there's more of a chance she'll beat all expectations in the delegate breakdown and win a large-than-expected delegate edge.
In conclusion, as we all await the first-in-the-nation voting results tonight, here are my first four picks: Bernie Sanders narrowly beats Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, while Donald Trump wins the Republican race, followed by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Don't agree with me? Let me know in the comments section which picks you'd make instead. With each of these "predict the vote" columns, I will be posting my ongoing record of correct picks, but since this is the first one it's nothing more than "0-for-0" so far. Happy caucus night, everyone!
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