Both the GOP and Democratic races will turn on whether emotion tops organization.
The Iowa Caucuses on Monday night can be expected to provide some clarity in the contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations, but don’t expect too much. One way to look at the results is to think of what outcomes would surprise you, and change your assumptions about the state of each contest and where each is headed. Anything contrary to your expectations should be considered potentially significant.
In the Republican race, the fight between front-runner Donald Trump and Ted Cruz is expected to be very close, though most assume that Trump has an edge. If either won by, say, five or more points, that would be significant. If Trump won by a healthy margin, many (though not me) think that given his big lead in New Hampshire polling, he would be unstoppable.
Conversely, if Cruz wins by a handful of points, Trump’s big Granite State advantage could seriously erode. Part of Trump’s appeal is that he is seen by his supporters as a winner, a guy who can do anything. A loss by more than a few points, besides possibly causing Trump’s head to explode, could peel back a layer or two of his aura of invincibility.
Cruz clearly has the superior organization, and that might well matter, though the argument for Trump is that he can motivate voters, even those without a history of political involvement, to turn out on their own as they have for his rallies. Should another candidate—say, Marco Rubio—squeeze into a second-place showing, that would be a development of some significance.
One of the most important questions in this race is which one of the four establishment-oriented, conventional candidates—Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich—will emerge as the winner of this bracket and how long it will take. The worst thing that could happen for the establishment is for three or four of these conventional candidates to survive past New Hampshire. The best-case scenario is for three to drop out before the South Carolina primary.
Among the most ideologically conservative candidates, any results that give Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, or Rick Santorum a new lease on life, prolonging their candidacies, would be significant and not a great sign for Cruz, who’s on the cusp of effectively shutting down this bracket.
For Democrats, anything different from a close outcome between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would be worth your attention. This is a contest between Clinton’s carefully constructed organization and the idealistic and passionate band behind Sanders. Sanders is generating more enthusiasm, an almost cult-like feel, but can emotion trump organization? Sanders’s entire campaign is predicated on doing extremely well in Iowa and the 14 other caucus states, as well as New Hampshire and the five other New England states, which comprise the most liberal region in the country. If he manages to dominate the caucus states and New England, he will need to expand his support beyond the young as well as soy-latte-drinking, Birkenstock-wearing, Subaru- and Volvo-driving white liberals. Losing Iowa by more than a few points would put in jeopardy his big lead in New Hampshire.
Keep in mind two things. First, don’t put all your eggs in the momentum basket. New Hampshire voters have demonstrated a temptation or even willingness to repeal the Iowa outcome, reinforcing their claim as the picker of presidents. Second, nominations are about delegates, and very, very few are selected in Iowa, New Hampshire, or, for that matter, South Carolina and Nevada, the other two February contests. March is the month that is the mother lode of delegates; then the process extends at a more muted level until the California primary on June 7.
At this point, my gut suggests that by the time we get deep into the process, Trump will appear to have the support of the populist, less ideological third of the GOP, roughly where he is now; Cruz will have consolidated conservatives and roughly one third of the party; a conventional candidate (Bush, Christie, Kasich, or Rubio) will be pulling about a quarter, with the remaining fifth up in the air. That spells a contested convention.
On the Democratic side, Clinton may well have a challenging first two weeks of March, maybe a little longer. But keep in mind that the caucus states are relatively small—the largest are Minnesota, Washington, and Iowa—as are the New England states, with Massachusetts by far the largest. Caucus and New England states are relatively front-loaded in the process, so things should get friendlier for Clinton as we get deeper into the calendar.
The most important factor in the Democratic contest is the outcome of the Justice Department’s examination of Clinton’s State Department emails. While I doubt that Clinton or one of her top State Department aides will be indicted, in the 15-to-25 percent chance it happens, that’s when this race gets really interesting. Democratic rules require that delegates vote for the presidential candidate they were elected to represent “in good conscience.”
In the past, the Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck, probably the leading authority on Democratic rules, has pointed to the situation in 2004. Had John Edwards’s messy divorce and illegitimate child emerged and he had won delegates, what would have happened to those delegates? Kamarck has cited the “in all good conscience” phrase in the rules, which would very likely apply, suggesting that extraordinary events could effectively release delegates. You could also expect the large bloc of free-agent “super delegates” to play an important role in such a case. Suffice it to say, the five months between now and the July conventions will not be boring.