Iowa voters tomorrow night will go to their local precinct caucuses to cast their lot with a presidential candidate. The winner is hardly guaranteed his party’s nomination — in fact, it’s possible that neither Iowa winner will come out as the favorite for the nomination — but the caucuses will certainly be the end of the road for some candidates.
Here are our analyses of the races as they stand now and the most likely outcomes:
Republicans: This is a two-way contest between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The battle for third place is among former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.), Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.). Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is not even spending this week in Iowa. Instead, he is campaigning in New Hampshire.
Ever since finishing second in the Iowa straw poll last August, Huckabee steadily climbed here in Iowa, aided by his evangelical pedigree, his sincerity and the fresh-face factor, and less critical press coverage than any other candidate. Polls of likely Republican caucus-goers consistently showed Huckabee ahead throughout December, but more recent surveys are a mixed bag, showing slippage by Huckabee.
Polling the caucuses is notoriously difficult, because caucusing, unlike voting in a primary, can take all night. Turnout is a bigger commitment, and it’s harder to predict. While pollsters try to correct for this, the room for error is huge.
Romney is close or leading in the post-Christmas polls. This is probably good enough for him. He has a much bigger team in Iowa and much more money to spend than do Huckabee and the other Republican candidates. Romney’s campaign should be better than Huckabee’s at getting its supporters to their caucuses.
Huckabee, however, has two potential caucus-night advantages. First, he enjoys more enthusiastic support than does Romney, who, for many Iowa Republicans, is just the most electable or the most acceptable of the top-tier candidates. Huckabee, by contrast, has a strong core of dedicated voters who share his religious views. Huckabee has recently come under a steady barrage of criticism by economic conservatives and a constant drubbing by Romney’s well-financed campaign.
Two weeks ago, we wrote that Thompson was the “X-Factor.” Most Iowa Republicans hadn’t given him much thought as of mid-December, but he has spent the last two-and-a-half weeks in the Hawkeye State. Post-Christmas polls do not show a big spike, but he does seem to poll even with McCain for third place. A decent third-place finish for either of these men would be a boost going into New Hampshire.
Ron Paul could make a splash, as well. He’s in fifth place in most polls, but his supporters are unmatched in enthusiasm and dedication. A third-place finish for Paul is not out of the question.
- The most likely outcome appears to be:
1st Place: Mitt Romney
2nd Place: Mike Huckabee
3rd Place: Fred Thompson
4th Place: John McCain
Democrats: This is a three-way contest among Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.). It’s possible that there are only three survivors out of Iowa for the Democrats and that the second-tier candidates will be gone by New Hampshire.
- The similarities between Obama 2008 and Howard Dean in 2004 are real and could show themselves Thursday night. Obama is the new, fresh face in the race with youthful, enthusiastic, and idealistic supporters. For Dean, that same formula translated into caucus-day bust. Will the same happen to Obama?
- Obama leads in most polls, and significantly in some. His negatives are much lower than Clinton’s, and his positives are higher than Edwards’. He has as much money as Clinton and the edge in enthusiasm. However, his campaign team in Iowa is the least experienced of the top three. He could flame out like Dean, but all considered, he has to be viewed as the favorite.
- Hillary’s organization may be the strongest, but her negatives are the highest. Her hardball tactics against Obama will hurt her. For the Democrats, who have a viability threshold of at least 15% in each precinct, second choice matters, and that is where Hillary’s negatives will hurt her. She doesn’t appear to be the second choice for very many voters at all.
- Edwards has run in Iowa before and done well. His second-place finish in 2004, however, was in a weaker Democratic field. His negatives are low, however, and many polls have shown him as the most popular second choice among supporters of the second-tier candidates. In polls, he is right on Hillary’s heels, and it is likely he will pass her in the caucuses.
- The second-tier candidates — Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson — will struggle to reach the 15% viability threshold in many districts, with the top three garnering 85% among them in most areas. Of the three second-tier Democrats, Richardson has the best chance of even registering in the final results.
- The Democratic field looks to shake out this way:
1st Place: Barack Obama
2nd Place: John Edwards
3rd Place: Hillary Clinton
4th Place: Bill Richardson