A – The state of play
B – Candidate by candidate analysis
C – Summary
A – State of Play
There’s a lot of divergence among the polls, but the general spread seems to put Clinton and Obama near each other with 26-29% of the vote, and Edwards around 22-24% in Iowa. Let’s call this the Big Three.
The Iowa caucus is divided into discrete groups called precincts, with some 4-9 delegates available at each. Note that a candidate cannot win part of a delegate…winning 1.9995 means that you’ve won 1. Every Iowa precinct will have more than 4 delegates available, which means that any candidate with 20% support will get something out of that particular precinct.
Every analysis predicts that Hillary and Edwards can anticipate strong support across the state, buttressed by their organizations with strong local networks. Whether Obama’s network can compete is still a question. As I said earlier, however, the concentrated nature of Obama’s support in urban areas means that his support will likely be undercounted. In 2004, CNN’s “entrance poll” pegged Dean’s support at 20%., but he received 18% of the delegates. Edwards’ statewide appeal (plus some last-second maneuvering — see below) boosted him from 27% support amongst caucusgoers to finishing with 31% of all delegates. Obama is in the same situation as Dean…much of Obama’s support will not count due to the fact that this process rewards broad, thin support over concentrated deep support.
While we have polls about which Democratic candidates are most popularly a second choice, they do little good. An MSNBC poll that improbably puts Edward in the lead in Iowa also has it that 41% of caucusgoers have Edwards as second choice, Clinton is the second choice of 31% asked, and Obama is at 27%. However, with Clinton and Edwards viable statewide, don’t expect their supporters to need to go to their second choice. In any case the campaigns are organized enough to have local precinct captains who will keep their groups together to avoid helping a competitor.
With their cohesion and relevance assured, the second choice of those backing Edward or Clinton doesn’t matter much. Which makes the poll quoted above kinda useless.
B – Candidate by Candidate analysis
Of course, the Big Three campaigns will have orders to corral as many supporters as possible, even if it doesn’t raise their delegate count. More precisely, they will have orders to keep their supporters away from any other candidate who may benefit. Further, if a leading candidate does not reach 15%, the campaign will have orders about which weaker cousin to support — the standing order from Dean central was for non-viable Dean groups to go to their nemesis Gephardt, knowing that he was not going to finish well. Less-organized or persuasive campaigns may not have such orders, or be able to carry them out. (By the way, for a metric of what an organized campaign is, it’s one of the three whose candidates who have made it onto the Rhode Island primary ballot.) Furthermore, prepared campaigns will be ready to work this system, and will have designated people to seduce the non-viable supporters with tailored arguments. This only helps Hillary and Edwards at this stage.
Obama: Obama will be viable in much of the state, and he does apparently have a decently organized campaign. However, we can expect that in much of the state, particularly rural areas, Obama will not be viable or even well-organized.
I can’t imagine Hillary being much of a second choice for Obama-ites. I can see many going toward Edwards due to the similarity of their message, though that represents a strategic risk. Short of Edwards, I’d expect to see many Obama-ites resolutely let their voice count for naught rather than support another candidate, or move toward Kucinich.
Richardson: This is the big kahuna. With about 8% of Iowa behind him, Richardson will have a lot of support across the state, and much of it will not be viable. His supporters will have a strong role in this process. Where would a Richardson caucuser go?
Well, most of Richardson’s supporters are attracted by deep resume and experience. That leaves out Obama right off. Given Richardson’s occasional defense of Hillary during the debates, and the fact that she is the most experienced of the Big Three, I foresee Hillary getting a grudging boost from non-viable Richardson folks. Edwards has a shot at those who like Richardson as a leading voice against the war, as does Kucinich. But Hillary is the big winner here. Just because Richardson’s supporters don’t have her as a first choice doesn’t mean that they hate her. Conspiracy theorists can chime in here, but a strong assist from Richardson in Iowa locks him in as her VP.
Biden: Has a long Washington attachment, and deep experience similar to Richardson. However, Biden supporters I’ve seen are also attracted by his occasional populism and liberalism on personal freedoms. I can see Edwards taking up much of Biden’s support insofar as anyone wins.
Kucinich: In 2004 Edwards reaped rewards from a deal he cut with Kucinich to receive Kucinich’s non-viable supporters. Amazingly, his supporters went to Edwards nearly en masse despite the massive dissimilarities in their platforms. Already, people are speculating if it could happen again. Whether Kucinich’s steady 2% will be ordered somewhere again is unknown, but 2004 showed they will likely go along with it.
Dodd and Gravel: Both poll around 1%, which doesn’t add up to much. I don’t have much of a read on Dodd’s campaign, and I expect Gravel’s people not to join up with any other candidate.
C – Summary
Because of the ridiculous nature of the caucuses, there is a disconnect between the popularity of a candidate, and their level of success in Iowa. Organization is key, as is attracting supporters of second-tier candidates. As the candidate among the Big Three most focused on experience, Hillary Clinton can expect to benefit from Richardson’s and Biden’s supporters who similarly value that aspect. Edwards, helped by the smartest and most local ground game in Iowa, may also peel off a great deal.
The caucus is going to be a great challenge for Obama. Unless extensive training was been offered to his local supporters, they may be played on caucus night the way that Dean and Gephardt were. There seems little natural support for him from second-tier supporters, so expect some sleepless nights for his strategists.
What I don’t say here, I say here.