As fascinating as the news being made here in Maryland the past several days, there’s actually more important things going on elsewhere. The Iowa caucuses are tonight! OMG OMG OMG!! I’ll be doing some live coverage tonight and here’s a special treat: national corespondent Dave Asche will be debuting tonight as a real time blogger. So look for not just one but two bloggers posting updates tonight. For now, here’s Dave with a preview of the caucuses.
The election to choose the 45th President of the United States officially begins tonight in Iowa. The wildest election in recent memory will, at last, begin to sort itself out until we are down to the two general election candidates.
Conventional wisdom among the political pundits and oddsmakers is a close victory for Hillary Clinton and a solid win for billionaire reality tv star Donald Trump. But as we have seen in prior elections, and this election season as well, conventional wisdom does not always win out at the end of the day.
There are several variables that can increase the fortunes of campaigns and several that can send others into a tailspin. So here are a few things to watch for that will have implications for tonight and down the road in the primary season.
Turnout: Like with any election, Iowa is all about turnout. On the Republican side, front runner Donald Trump is relying very heavily on large turnout, made up of first time caucus goers, to put him over the top. The same exact scenario takes place on the Democratic side where Bernie Sanders is hoping the coalition of young, more liberal, first time voters that put Obama over the top in 2008, will do the same for him.
Democrats set a record in 2008 with 240,000 voters turning out to caucus. It is unlikely turnout will be that high this time around. Sanders’ supporters are passionate, but this is nothing compared to what we saw with Obama in 2008. But if turnout is around 200,000, it will likely be a good night for the Sanders campaign. If turnout is around 150,000, closer to the 2004 caucuses when 125,000 people came out to vote, Clinton comes away with a much needed victory in the state.
Republicans typically do not have as high a turnout as the Democrats do. Their highest turnout levels were in 2008 and 2012, where around 120,000 people came out to cast votes. Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum rode their strength among evangelical Christians to win in 2008 and 2012, respectively, and that is what Ted Cruz is hoping for also. If turnout looks like it is going to greatly exceed 2008 and 2012 numbers, Donald Trump will pull off one of the more miraculous political primary victories we have ever seen. A turnout level similar to 2008 and 2012, and the possibility of more Ben Carson supporters jumping ship, should deliver the state to Cruz.
Martin O’Malley: Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley will not win tonight, obviously. But his supporters will likely have a hand in who does. If a candidate cannot garner at least 15% of the vote in a precinct, that candidate’s supporters are free to move to their second choice.
Both Sanders and Clinton have been courting O’Malley supporters hard and polls show the former governor’s supporters pretty evenly split between the two frontrunners. With O’Malley unlikely to hit the 15% mark in a number of precincts, his supporters will make a huge difference for one of the other campaigns.
There is a caveat to this, however. And that caveat is if O’Malley’s supporters refuse to move on to another candidate. This is a likely scenario on some college campuses across the state where he may, in some cases, do better than Hillary. If Hillary is weak in some of the precincts where younger voters dominate, she could move her supporters to O’Malley to boost his numbers, and prevent Sanders from winning delegates.
O’Malley wanted to be a major player in Iowa when he got into the race. And while this is not the way he wanted it to turn out, he will certainly be a kingmaker of sorts in the Hawkeye State.
The Trump/Cruz battle: The turnout scenarios have already been addressed regarding these two. But the winner among them will have major implications for the race going forward.
A Trump victory will put him on cruise control (pun slightly intended) for the next few weeks. A win in Iowa means likely victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina and after that, it may be too late to stop the train that is Donald Trump.
I know the establishment has made a concerted effort to take down Ted Cruz, but if I am an establishment Republican, I am rooting for a Cruz victory in Iowa. A Cruz victory means a long, protracted race with he and Trump destroying one another, and splitting the anti-establishment vote. This would allow for an establishment candidate, assuming the GOP can coalesce around one, to run up the middle and start racking up wins and delegates.
Ironically enough, the establishment’s best hope may be a Ted Cruz victory tonight.
Marco Rubio: The surge behind Rubio has yet to materialize the way many people thought it would. In fact it hasn’t really happened at all. But there have been reports of some momentum behind Rubio over the last 48 hours. If you ask me, how he does tonight will be the biggest sign of things to come in New Hampshire and beyond.
Rubio has been playing the expectations game very well over the last week by lowering his and talking up Ted Cruz as the favorite to win. By doing this, all Rubio has to do is exceed expectations. If he is anywhere within four or five points of the second place finisher, it is a victory for him. It will be a pretty big story in the media and it would show that he is the strongest candidate in the establishment wing of the party.
And given the quirks and unpredictability of the caucuses, there is a chance Rubio could do a full court press and siphon enough support from Kasich, Christie, and Bush and finish in second. Neither of these three are polling very well, but their supporters could give Rubio a major boost if they decide to support him. Rubio after all, is the second choice for many caucus goers. A lot will have to go right for this to happen, but Iowa has surprised us before.
A strong finish by Rubio sets him up very nicely going forward. If he falls short, it might be all over for the establishment in 2016.
The Aftermath: Mike Huckabee has already said he will drop out if he doesn’t finish in the top three. So he’ll be out after tonight. Rick Santorum, who won here in 2012, will likely bow out if his finish tonight matches his anemic poll numbers.
The big one to watch for is Ben Carson. It’s hard to believe, but just six weeks ago he was the frontrunner in Iowa due to his strong support from evangelicals. He has been in a tailspin ever since and if he finishes at say, 5%, does he realize it is over and exit the race?
If Carson, Huckabee, and Santorum all drop out, who do their supporters go to? Right now they are polling at a combined 4.2% in New Hampshire and 11% in South Carolina. Will any of these three candidates endorse someone if they do drop out? If not, will their supports coalesce around one candidate?
A lot will be determined by what happens tonight, but if many of these supporters decide Trump or Cruz is their guy, it will be very hard to stop either of them from winning in South Carolina and many of the SEC Primary states that follow. And they could provide a modest, but not insignificant boost, to a candidate in New Hampshire as well.
A few weeks ago, I said on this very blog that I couldn’t shake the feeling that Cruz and Trump will not be the top two finishers in Iowa. Since then, every poll and every indication has shown my feeling was wrong. But, man, even with all of the evidence against me, there is still something in the back of my mind that keeps telling me Trump or Cruz will finish in third.
We’ll also see if Bernie’s momentum is for real. He has to win Iowa. Period. Anything short of victory means it’s over for him in the long run.
We’ll have to wait and see how it all ends. The race to the White House begins in just a few hours.