Thursday, January 03, 2008


Forecasting Iowa

Washington Post crack political reporter Dan Balz has an enlightening piece out today forecasting the Iowa caucuses, in which he asked several political strategists from both parties (including yours truly) to answer eight critical questions about today's big vote. You can find the article (and a quote from me) here.

The last time Balz asked me to contribute to a Q&A story like this, I decided to post my full responses here. So I thought I would do the same with my Iowa answers (with some very minor editing for style). Here we go. . .

1. Will either race end in Iowa?

Extremely doubtful.

On the Democratic side, the only way I could see Iowa being determinative is for Hillary to win big, which would suck all the oxygen out of Edwards balloon, and then leverage the momentum from that to steamroll Obama in NH and SC. But that is just not a realistic scenario at this point — the race is too close and too unsettled with too many X factors. Plus, Hillary and Obama both have enough money and organization and determination to survive at least until SC, and if they split NH and SC, probably all the way through to February 5th.

On the Republican side, either Huckabee or Romney is most likely going to win, but neither is strong enough to win by knockout. Like everyone on the GOP side they both have major flaws that have been documented ad nauseam, and they both need help in other places (and possibly from other candidates) in order to find a path to the nomination. Huckabee won’t be able to win New Hampshire and will have trouble competing nationally money-wise and organizationally afterward. Romney is not a lock in NH even if he squeaks out a win in IA, and if he loses, he will have a much harder time fending off McCain’s surge. This field is so weak and the Republican electorate so uninspired/unimpressive, I think it’s more likely there will be a brokered convention than a clear front-runner after Iowa.

2. How big will the Iowa bounce be this year?

It’s too hard to predict at this point — my sense is that we won’t really know until after New Hampshire. But I suspect it’s going to be somewhat less than expected — more Pat Robertson than Jimmy Carter -- based on the complex dynamics in both races. Which is to say, it will probably have a clarifying effect, not a catalyzing one.

On the Democratic side, it’s unlikely anyone will win by a margin big enough to qualify for a “big mo” acquisition. Edwards and Obama will get a nice little free media bump if they come in first, but Hillary is strong enough in NH that it won’t be enough to make the difference — they’re still going to have to beat her on message and mobilization. If Hillary wins a close race, she will be strengthened going into NH, and she will be the prohibitive favorite, but you can’t count Obama and his money out — especially given the wildcard of the independent vote and the lack of intensity of Hillary’s vote. And while most people disagree, I tend to think Obama can survive close losses in IA and NH if he can lock down the black vote in SC and get a win there.

On the Republican side, Huckabee will get a huge temporary boost, but much like his showing in the Iowa straw poll, there is a good chance he won’t be able to really milk it for what it’s worth because of his limited organization and money. And unless Romney really defies expectations and wins by 5-10 points, I don’t think his winning a close race is going to be a deck-scrambler in NH — he’s still going to have take out McCain and pray that Paul can cut into McCain’s cantakerous Yankee vote.

3. Will women prove to be Hillary secret weapon?

Possibly, though based on how close the polls have been, if she wins, I suspect her secret weapon will be her teams ability to win over the Biden, Dodd, and Richardson voters who are attracted by their experience after those second-tier candidates fail to meet the 15 percent threshold in most precincts.

4. Which candidate will turn out the most first-time caucus attendees?

Most likely Obama, but I tend to agree with the conventional wisdom that he will not be able to turn out a whole new critical mass of voters.

5. Can evangelical Christians carry a candidate to victory in the caucuses?

Yes, especially in this Republican race, which is filled with deeply-flawed, uninspiring candidates, and given how attuned Huckabee is to the evolving sensibility of political evangelicals, which is much less wedded to laissez faire economics and much more concerned about global warming than economic conservatives.

6. If Edwards or Huckabee win, what is their second act?

Huckabee’s got to do something serious to show he’s not just a one-trick non-phony -- that he is ready to be commander-in-chief and lead the richest economy in the world, and that he can rebuild the Republican coalition. I’d go right at Romney’s supposed greatest strength, the economy, and come out with an aggressive, semi-populist jobs plan that will appeal to blue collar voters and small business owners that are a big segment of the Republican electorate in NH and who don’t see more Bush-o-nomics as the solution to their insecurities.

Edwards has to do something to address his two biggest vulnerabilities, which is that he strikes a lot of voters as being a phony and that he just does not look or sound presidential. Not sure there is anything he can do about the former; on the latter, he would be wise to come out with a strategy for winning the war on terror and/or lining up some major military/foreign policy endorsements.

7. Will a white, rural state support an African American candidate?

Polls are pretty useless here, you have to go by actual voting results, and there is some reason to be optimistic. Obama outperformed expectations in southern Illinois in his U.S. Senate race, though he was running against weak candidates. And if you look at the vote breakdown of Harold Ford in Tennessee, he ran pretty competitively in white-dominated areas of the state — my southern friends tell me his undoing was in the Memphis suburbs, where his family’s corruptions problems were well-known and turned out to be a pretty big burden for him.

Of course, it matters who the African-American candidate is. What makes me particularly optimistic about Obama’s cross-over appeal is that he is not Al Sharpton; that he is not driven by or premised upon identity, grievance-fueled politics, but just the opposite — an inclusive, inspiring figure who can make a lot of whites (particularly younger whites in the new south) feel good about supporting a candidate of color.

8. Will big money carry the day?

Maybe I am showing my bias here, but I think message (and to a lesser extent muscle) will ultimately be more determinative than money in this race. McCain — both the 2000 and 2008 versions — is exhibit A for that argument.

9. Who is the super surrogate? Bill Clinton? Oprah Winfrey? Chuck Norris?

Depends on who wins :)

My sleeper surrogates of this race are Hillary’s mother and daughter. My bet is they are helping to humanize her in Iowa, and could well do the same in NH and SC. Whether it’s enough to tangible effect on a sizeable portion of skeptical voters remains to be seen.

10. Why are there so few Republicans competing in Iowa?

Bad investment to payoff ratio. Both McCain and Giuliani concluded early on that their vote ceiling was pretty low, and McCain in particular could not afford to blow his limited war chest just to show there, while he could afford — because of his name recognition and strength in NH — to pass up the relevance points you get for campaigning hard in Iowa. I have no explanation for the mystery that is Fred Thompson.

11. Is the caucus process defensible?

I have much less of a problem with Iowa’s system of choosing their delegates than with the disproportionate influence this one small and unrepresentative state plays in choosing our president. I am a big supporter of the Lieberman-Alexander-Klobuchar rotating primary bill’s approach, which seems much more sensible, fair, and democratic to me.

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