Obama's Iowa Victory Hidden in the Grassroots?

Why Second Choice Might Mean First Place on Caucus Night

Absolutely fascinating news from the Iowa Obama campaign ...

While Obama & Clinton & Edwards are close to tied in Iowa, Obama reportedly has a substantial lead in the "Who's your second choice?" category. In Iowa, where I've worked on the caucuses three times (1988, 2000, 2004), this is very, very important.

This second place lead is actually the most significant political intelligence that has come up in the last few months other than fundraising .

How does someone know this? Ask the Obama field campaign. Then ask the Clinton field campaign. You can ask Edwards' folks, too.

But why does it matter that Obama could have a big lead in this seemingly silly category?

The strange caucus vote-counting rules create this uniquely Iowan situation. A successful caucus night strategy requires knowing who has you as their #2 (more on that below). Also, the fact is that we're still sort of early in the process matters (Early? EARLY? I've been hearing about this damn caucus for a year already!) . There are lots of ups and downs to come.

If Clinton does not win Iowa, the door will be wide open for a real challenge in New Hampshire and South Carolina soon afterward. Only Obama has the cash to really take advantage of a second or third place showing by her. Even better for him, the Illinois senator is also reportedly running a dramatically better ground campaign in S.C. though she has at least as strong an operation in New Hampshire.

Now let's talk how the caucus process -- understood only by a political scientist or activist with too much time -- gives Obama a path from second choice to first place.

First, as other candidates (especially Edwards) weaken before the caucuses, Obama will pick up more voters than Clinton because more folks list him than her as Option B. Because his pond supposedly has more fish to catch than hers, the current tie in the polls might then turn into an Obama lead.

Second, on caucus night the Iowa caucus rules require each candidate to have a minimum number of supporters (15%) at each precinct meeting in order to get any supporters counted in the final statewide tally. So, if one candidate does not have 15% of the caucus goers who show up, they then must decide to throw their support behind a "viable" (15%+) candidate. If Obama is way ahead in the second choice support category, he will come out with extra support that Clinton does not get and that was not reflected in the pre-election polling.

Arcane? Byzantine? Confusing?


That's why the Iowa caucuses can be so very exciting. There are lots of obscure twists and turns on the way to the finish line.