Sabato's Crystal Ball

Iowa: At Last

Who is favored to win, and what will the results tell us?

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball January 28th, 2016


As the 2016 presidential race officially begins, both party contests are in a place that we, and many others, did not expect them to be. On the Democratic side, frontrunner Hillary Clinton faces a stern challenge from a stronger-than-expected foe, Bernie Sanders. And the Republicans could be on the verge of nominating Donald Trump. Still, no votes have been cast. Pulling down the curtain on a contest yet to begin is both premature and foolish.

Here’s how we’re looking at Iowa right now on both sides.

With just a few days to go before the Monday caucuses, we believe Clinton is decently positioned to survive Iowa. Momentum and excitement appear to be more on Sanders’ side, but he may be over-reliant on a base of supporters that are not well distributed throughout the state and a bit less likely to turn out at the level he needs, as we explain further below. If despite all this, Clinton still comes up short, let’s not forget that Iowa’s Democratic activists are overwhelmingly white and somewhat more liberal than in many other states where Clinton will be favored due to strong minority backing. So a Clinton loss here is far from fatal.

For the Republicans, the late momentum (at least as this is written) appears to be Donald Trump’s, and he has built a modest edge in the kickoff contest. The GOP’s leadership, faced with a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea (Trump and Ted Cruz) from their establishment perspective, seem to favor the flexible Republican Trump over the ideologue Cruz, at least for now. We still have questions about Trump’s ability to get his supporters to caucus locations on Monday, but if he can jump that hurdle, he may only grow in strength in the state contests to come.

As we know from previous elections, polls in Iowa routinely miss the mark, and late surges can produce unexpected results. Both party electorates are still in flux, and we can only offer our best guesses about the situation 100 hours before Iowa votes, and in advance of a potentially important Fox News Republican debate on Thursday night — a debate that Trump apparently has decided to skip.

It’s unclear what effects this might have on the race. Trump’s absence (assuming there isn’t a last-minute reentry) diminishes the importance of the final pre-Iowa debate, removes Trump as the on-stage target for seven opponents (all of whom would be shooting bullets at the frontrunner), makes Trump even more the center of attention, and provides an alternative event for his followers to watch and other networks to cover in order to poach audience from the debate. So perhaps it’s another Trump master stroke — unless Iowans feel dissed by the maneuver or think Trump’s behavior signals instability that doesn’t match the demands of the Oval Office. Marginal changes in voter attitudes can easily have a decisive impact on the very competitive Iowa battle.

In any event, the overall Iowa picture, as best we can determine it, is that (1) Sanders and Cruz both have the upset potential to emerge as the Iowa victors; but (2) As of right now, Clinton and Trump look like modest favorites in Iowa.

As we suggested, Iowa does not always pick the eventual nominee — in fact, winning it confers only a coin’s flip chance of winning the nomination — but it will help us answer some key questions about both this contest and contests to come in future cycles:

1. How real is Trump’s support?

For many weeks, the two dominant GOP players have been Trump and Cruz, Cruz and Trump. Back and forth the lead has gone, at least as measured by the polls. The larger the turnout on caucus night, the more likely new participants attracted by Trump will be showing up (although, let’s remember that Cruz and most other candidates are also recruiting newbies). The CW suggests Cruz may have peaked too early, setting Trump off to attack him on “natural-born citizenship” and insufficient antipathy to illegal immigration. More important, Cruz being in the Iowa catbird’s seat rang alarm bells in the U.S. Senate and other power centers in Washington. Cruz is roundly disliked by his colleagues and they are determined to do what they can to stop him. Not surprisingly, many Republican activists see D.C.’s unhappiness with Cruz as a badge of honor for him — but when you make enemies of the shrewdest, wiliest leaders around town, you’re in for some unpleasant hazing when the opportunity presents itself. A well-liked senator would have found plenty of cover in the Senate for the citizenship dispute; instead, some senators fanned the fires around Cruz. Similarly, critical comments about Cruz from the two top Iowa Republicans, Gov. Terry Branstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley, probably cost Cruz some altitude, even among evangelicals.

Still, Cruz’s devoted followers know the caucus process intimately and often carry the day. Therefore, one key question that Iowa will help answer is this: Are the more established Iowa Republican insurgents (including Tea Party and evangelical voters) still running the show, or has Trump been able to get sizable numbers of new people to come not just to rallies but into the belly of the beast? By means of the Sarah Palin endorsement and skillful use of what many consider the non-issue of citizenship eligibility, has Trump also been able to grab a bigger slice of Cruz’s Tea Party and evangelical backers? And the other, more traditional questions on the GOP side need to be answered: Who gets tickets out of Iowa besides Trump and Cruz? Does the Des Moines Register endorsement of Marco Rubio (despite intense Republican dislike of the generally liberal paper) help lift him to an impressive finish? Rubio has been running a distant third in most Iowa polls. Will another candidate seize third or fourth so unexpectedly that we all chatter about him or her, generating a rocket boost in New Hampshire?

It is true that if another candidate, like Rubio or Jeb Bush, had Trump’s national and state-level polling numbers, we likely would consider that person a clear favorite for the nomination. The burden of proof is higher for Trump, and that’s reasonable for a candidate who has never before competed in an election. There’s also not much indication that Trump has the kind of vast, professional voter turnout operation that is typically important in winning Iowa. We’ll find out whether that matters on Monday.

One factor perhaps working in Trump’s favor is that the Republican caucus process is actually fairly straightforward. Republicans will gather across the state at caucus locations. After hearing speeches from the various campaigns, participants vote via secret ballot. The election night “winner” is the person who won the most votes statewide. This cycle, Iowa’s GOP delegates are allocated proportionally according to the statewide result, making the presidential preference vote binding for the first time. The Democratic caucuses are more complicated. Participants separate into groups supporting each candidate, and those candidates who fail to reach 15% of the participants in a given caucus location are deemed not viable (with a higher threshold in smaller precincts), meaning their supporters can go to other candidates. It’s a public event without a secret ballot. If there are “shy Trump” voters, Trump’s supporters in Iowa will have the benefit of casting their vote in secret.

2. How hard will Sanders make Clinton work?

Nothing, not even the email crisis, has shocked the Clinton campaign like the Sanders surge in Iowa. This time, Clinton thought she had made the course corrections necessary to get off on the right foot. Sanders is no Barack Obama, to begin with, and she had put far more resources into Iowa than ever before. She had so many national advantages that, surely, Hawkeye Democrats would see that it was her turn, that she was the only electable one, that a tough fall campaign demanded a swift nomination crowned with unity. Well, no. Iowans have proven resistant to all those arguments, although the contest is still clearly winnable for Clinton: Polls show the race is effectively tied.

If Sanders defeats Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, we still believe that Clinton will be the nominee — though she may limp into the Philadelphia convention if the contest turns into a long, painful slog. For those who point to national surveys that show Sanders scoring bigger victories than Clinton against the top Republicans, we suggest that Sanders’ novelty has something to do with it. Except in a fractured, multi-candidate field — and maybe not even then — it is very difficult to imagine a 74-year old socialist becoming president of the United States. It is almost as difficult to visualize Democrats choosing a man whose nickname may turn out to be George McGovern. (We say that respecting Sanders and his blunt honesty — and the fact that he has refrained from most negative campaigning.)

However, should Iowa turn into a decisive victory for Sanders, followed by the same in New Hampshire and closer-than-expected Clinton wins in South Carolina and Nevada, there will still be no closing ranks around Sanders. Instead, telephones will ring off the hook in the Biden household. And if the vice president says no, then phones will jingle at whatever hotel John Kerry is staying in around the globe. Kerry still has his White House ambitions after a close 2004 run, and substituting one Obama secretary of state for another makes some sense.

One wrinkle in Iowa that could help Clinton is that turnout in an individual caucus location has less bearing on the Democratic outcome than the Republican one. That is, each Democratic precinct caucus is electing delegates to the next step in the delegate-awarding process — county conventions on March 12 — and the number of delegates in each precinct “is based upon the number of Democratic votes during the most recent presidential and gubernatorial election,” according to the Iowa Democratic Party’s delegate selection plan. So regardless of how many or how few voters show up at each precinct, the number of delegates is unchanged. There’s no statewide presidential preference vote like on the GOP side; for Democrats, the Iowa result that will be reported Monday night is the number of caucus delegates each candidate has won statewide, not a raw popular vote, and no delegates to the national convention will be pledged by its outcome. Therefore, it’s possible that Sanders’ support might be over-concentrated in certain cities and college towns. “Even if Sanders racks up delegates in population centers, Clinton can beat him by winning dozens of smaller counties,” NBC News’ Alex Seitz-Wald wrote. Bloomberg’s Steven Yaccino adds additional color about caucus shenanigans.

There was a time when Clinton scoring big in Iowa would have elicited a yawn. But now, if Clinton wins Iowa by any margin, she will have benefited from the more recent perception that Sanders is a foe of the first rank, created in part by his eyebrow-raising percentages in current Iowa and New Hampshire polls. Even a Hawkeye squeaker in Clinton’s favor may well seal the deal and make her nomination quasi-inevitable. We have to add “quasi” because there’s always something up with the Clintons. Who knows what’s next?

In an Iowa town hall meeting broadcast on CNN Monday, Clinton noted a famous quote from moderator Chris Cuomo’s father, former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York: “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” One of Clinton’s problems is that she campaigns in prose, and that lack of inspiration may not be fixable.

3. What is the GOP leadership up to?

Campaigns regularly develop false narratives. One such narrative with great currency at the moment is that the Republican establishment has come to terms with Trump, has accepted him as the likely nominee, and believes they can live with that — and even win in November. The reality is that most mainstream Republicans want neither Trump nor Cruz; they simply haven’t settled on an alternative among the crowded mainstream lane (and granted, they may never do so). Given a choice limited to the two top outsiders, yes, probably most GOP elected leaders and donors would reluctantly select Trump. The hope would be that he’s more malleable than Cruz, less dogmatic than he appears (and except for immigration, there is reason to think that), and more willing to work with establishment figures in the campaign and, should he be elected, in the White House.

Yet the bold National Review gambit to rally conservative thought-leaders against Trump has reminded Republicans that Trump is a stunning departure from their past. He is less consistent, less party-oriented, and far more outlandish than all modern GOP nominees. (Business tycoon Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee, may be closest to the Trump model, though the comparison is far from perfect.)

Should Trump win Iowa, it will not prove that Trump is a more acceptable candidate to the party generally, just that in the first contest, Trump managed to triumph. There are powerful individuals in the party who hope first to deep-six Cruz by denying him Iowa’s seal of approval. Then, as the contest moves to territory less favorable to Trump (sometime after New Hampshire — if it ever comes), Trump will be the common target. If at last, the establishment lane can be consolidated around one survivor of the current quartet (Marco Rubio seems to be the best current bet, but also qualified are John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush), the party will have a distilled referendum on its nomination and future direction. Many fewer observers think this is going to happen now than just a few weeks ago, but we’re leaving the door wide open. Why should a crazy election season become tame so quickly?

4. Which candidates are on the chopping block?

Many of the dozen Republican candidates who are still in this race are hoping for a miracle. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum know what miracles are like: They both surged at the end in 2008 and 2012, respectively, to capture Iowa. However, once Iowa is over, the chance for the miracle is gone. There will be very little reason for either contender to stay in the race unless they perform dramatically better than their current polling. Both are under 3% in polling averages of Iowa.

Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, two political outsiders like Trump, both have dropped way down from the heights they achieved earlier in the campaign, particularly Carson. Fiorina now hardly gets any attention at all, and to the extent that Carson gets coverage it’s generally a story about his imploding campaign (his former campaign manager now advises Trump, for instance). At one time Carson looked like a real threat to win Iowa. He’s actually still in fourth place, but his support is only about a third of what it was when he was rising in October (he’s now mired in the mid-to-high single digits). Fiorina has never looked particularly strong in any state, and she’s below 5% in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Rand Paul’s campaign insists that its caucus numbers will surprise, but his bid has been a bust. If he stays in, it might just be to honor his “sunk cost” in his home state of Kentucky, where he helped pay for a March 5 caucus, replacing a May primary. Paul now has a credible Senate opponent, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D), which might hasten his exit (we still see Paul as a big favorite for reelection to the Senate). Jim Gilmore, despite earning a rare invite to an undercard debate on Thursday, is barely running an actual campaign. His official exit, whenever it comes, will be little noted.

Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich are all locked in a death struggle with one another to finish well in New Hampshire. They cannot all do decently there, and it’s possible that none of them will: Rubio could finish ahead of all of them, and that’s not even mentioning Trump, who currently has a large lead over the rest of the field in the Granite State. One or more of these candidates will probably be out after New Hampshire, which will strengthen those who remain. And what happens to Cruz if he loses Iowa and finishes poorly in New Hampshire, as candidates with his evangelical profile often do? His campaign appears built for the long term, but if he doesn’t do well early he will be in unexpected trouble.

As unlikely as it appears right now, even Trump’s candidacy could fall apart early if he disappoints in Iowa and then loses steam in New Hampshire. Yet Trump’s consistently strong showing in most national and state polls suggests he’ll be a top finalist, come what may. Still, Trump has a long way to go to win over the majority of his party, and a bigger majority of the GOP’s elected leaders, who have deep doubts about his ability to carry the Republican banner. In our view, the billionaire businessman’s campaign is the closest thing to a hostile takeover of a political party in the nation’s history.

Our overall point is that we should expect the field to get much smaller, a field of a dozen cut to perhaps half a dozen or fewer over the next few weeks.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has the financial wherewithal to continue on against Hillary Clinton for months. But he needs victories — at least a few of them — to stay relevant. At the very least, Sanders looks strong in New Hampshire, and Sanders’ home state of Vermont will give him a home state kiss on March 1. Clinton is also built for the long haul, unless an external factor, like the continuing investigation into her private email server while she served as secretary of state, drives her from the race. The one Democrat who probably won’t be around for much longer is Martin O’Malley, who could be out as soon as a week from now if he doesn’t make a significant (and very unlikely) move in Iowa.

The Federal Election Commission will release fourth quarter 2015 campaign finance reports for all the candidates on Jan. 31. That will be another indicator of which ones have the resources to fight on — and who will be heading for the exits.

5. What’s the future of the leadoff contests?

Give Iowa and New Hampshire their due. No question these states’ citizens take their responsibilities as America’s presidential screening committees seriously. It has become part of their own self-identity, and they jealously guard it because they believe they can do it better than voters in many other states. Of course, they also do it because having the first caucus and primary is an economic bonanza, worth hundreds of millions of dollars in direct and indirect expenditures — not to mention intimate association with future presidents who will appoint some of them to office and help preserve their questionable sacred cows (such as ethanol, an Iowa issue seemingly as vital as terrorism and climate change).

Maybe it’s widespread recognition of these benefits, and general jealousy of them, that has kept other states alert to opportunities to dethrone this special Hawkeye and Granite state privilege. Though they would never admit it publicly, the national party committees would shed few tears if the future nominating calendar got shuffled. Mainstream GOP leaders have worried for years about the outsized evangelical impact in Iowa (remember Pat Robertson outpolling Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988?), while more conservative Republicans grouse that “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire is too liberal or libertarian, especially on social issues. Similarly, Democrats fret that their Iowa brethren are leftist, and the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey showing that 43% of Democrats applied the label “socialist” to themselves backed up the concern. Plus, both states are among the whitest in the nation.

Because Trump is a national phenomenon and leading in many states, it will be hard for party traditionalists to blame Iowa if he soars on Feb. 1.

But Cruz is another matter. Iowa has the power to make him the party’s golden boy, at least in the preliminary round, with implications for the nomination itself. Iowa’s Republican leaders are well aware of the discontent about their state’s premiere status. That might explain why some Iowa leaders seem more open to Trump than Cruz (the Washington Post’s James Hohmann explored this strange dynamic earlier this week).

If Cruz wins it all, Iowa will have nothing to fear, but if things don’t work out for the Texas senator or for the party, efforts to dislodge Iowa (and maybe New Hampshire too) could start again in earnest come 2017.

And national Democrats may see Iowa the same way if Sanders upends the establishment favorite and weakens Clinton’s candidacy.