The biggest myth about the Iowa caucuses is that the candidates are running against each other.
I don’t mean that the candidates are not competing against one another for votes, nor that the finishing order does not matter. The field of candidates will narrow after the caucuses because, as the Christian Science Monitor points out, Iowa is more about determining the losers than the winners. Since 1972, when the modern primary process started, no Democrat or Republican who has finished worse than fourth in Iowa has won their party’s nomination. Only two who finished fourth, Bill Clinton and John McCain, went on to win their party’s nomination. Of the nine Democratic and seven Republican caucuses that were contested, five Democratic winners and three Republican winners went on to be the nominee.
What I mean is that the true prize of the night will go to the candidate who can beat the real opponent: expectations. These expectations are set by a mix of polls, on-the-ground reporting, media commentary, and general buzz. Whichever candidate can exceed expectations will get a boost of favorable media coverage and enthusiasm going into the New Hampshire primaries next week, which is likely to move the polls in their direction.
So what are the expectations going into caucus night?
For the Democrats, it’s that Hillary has somewhere between a three to ten point lead in Iowa over Bernie Sanders, that Bernie Sanders was closing the gap with his enthusiastic supporters but may have stalled out, and that O’Malley will finish a distant third with something between 0% and 5% of votes.
What about on the Republican side?
The expectations are that Donald Trump will finish in first with something between 25% and 30% of votes. To win, he will need his enthusiastic supporters, many of whom have never caucused before, to turn out. Strongest with evangelicals and holding the most effective ground operation, Ted Cruz looks likely to finish in second, though it’s not clear how far behind Trump. Marco Rubio, who just might have seen a burst of upward movement in the final weekend (as a result of the Des Moines Register endorsement or some other reason), will finish in third, with support in the mid-teens. Ben Carson is likely to finish in fourth, with something like 10% of the vote. And the remainder of candidates are expected to finish with five percent of votes or less.
I’m not saying that this is what is going to happen, just what political media are expecting on the eve of the caucuses. Whoever can favorably upset their expectations of finishing order and vote share will get a boost going into New Hampshire next week. Whoever unfavorably upsets their expectations could conversely see their New Hampshire numbers slide.
If Hillary can win a 10-point victory or more against Sanders, she could start to close the gap in New Hampshire, where polling presently shows her trailing by double digits. If Sanders can pull out a win in Iowa, or even hold Hillary to a draw, he is likely to hold onto his New Hampshire lead and could even expand it. If O’Malley can somehow break out of the single digits, he will likely see his New Hampshire numbers improve.
With more candidates, the Republican race offers more possibilities. If Cruz can beat Trump, it will be a coup for the Texas senator and a body blow for the New York mogul. For Rubio, finishing in first or second could bring a big surge going into New Hampshire. The margins matter here. If Rubio finishes a close third behind Cruz, he could help himself a great deal. But a distant third might push establishment-friendly and moderate Republicans to take another look at Bush, Christie, and Kasich. If someone from the bottom of the heap — Bush, Christie, Fiorina, Kasich, Huckabee, Paul, or Santorum — can break out from the rest of the pack, they could earn some much-needed momentum.
As the New Hampshire polling presently stands, Trump is the frontrunner with around 30%. Cruz, Kasich, Rubio, Bush, and Christie are all around 10%, fighting for a distant second place. Expect these numbers to change after Iowa. Exit polls of previous New Hampshire primaries have shown that nearly half of voters make their final decision after the Iowa caucuses.
After Iowa, poll numbers will move. Some candidates will drop out. Endorsements will be made and loyalties will shift. So strap yourselves in. The American presidential election is just about to begin.