First off, with Hillary actually finding new supporters at this stage (warning: PDF), she looks increasingly inevitable. As with Dean, the best hope is to puncture that momentum with an early victory. Given her steady 10+ lead in New Hampshire, the best bet seems to be Iowa, a state where Clinton and Edwards have been trading leads since the beginning, with Obama not that far behind. In a traditional poll, I’d say that really increases the likelihood that at least two people could come out of Iowa calling themselves winners.
Explanations for the Iowa process abound, but as someone who witnessed them in 2004, I’d point out three big things that affect youth voting:
Caucuses suck: Doors close at a certain time, they’re filled with procedural crap, they take a long time, and they aren’t particularly welcome to newcomers. They’re pretty much designed to be hostile to young voters.
Votes are public: Joe Trippi has a story about witnessing a 1980 caucus where a child was forced to change her vote by her father. See, caucuses take place with public division, where you literally stand in the location in the room designated to your candidate. Which means that the more dependent, less politically confident people are more easily influenced and/or threatened. This may include children living at home (and demure spouses for that matter — one woman in Iowa told me that her husband hadn’t informed her yet for whom she’d be caucusing).
Not all votes are equal: Each precinct has a set number of delegates to the convention where the delegates are actually selected. That number does not change, regardless of how many people show. In 2004, for instance, the only precinct we won in the Cedar Rapids area was Mount Vernon South, home of Coe College. The students loved us, came out in force, and Dean won 5/7 of the vote there.
And in some cow pasture in the middle of nowhere, the Kerryatrics came out, and he got 3 of those 4 delegates. The fact that the voters in MVS outnumbered the voters in, say, Cedar Rapids 38 by 3 to 1 didn’t matter.
In all likelihood, college will be in session during the caucus, unless things really spin out of control. Which means Generation Obama will be concentrated in college/urban areas (both of ’em). He’ll likely sweep those precincts, but not outside those areas. That’s Hillary territory. Simply put, territory is a basis for the caucuses to a much greater extent than it is for traditional polling.
And that’s my Iowa caucus thing for tonight.