(updated since January 29th) After the mindnumbing levels of coverage over the last year…the first actual voting of the primary season finally starts tonight, with the Iowa caucuses. To answer the simple horserace question, Donald Trump seems positioned to come out on top on the Republican side, as is Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. In both cases, polls narrowed over the weekend, adding a dose of uncertainty.
For the long term, a better question to ask is: can we get clues about who will eventually get the Republican and Democratic nominations? (For a hint, mouse over the image.) To get a sense of where things might be headed, here’s what I will be thinking about tonight.
On both sides, the race appears to have narrowed over the weekend. Iowa is a must-win state for Bernie Sanders. Neither Trump or Clinton needs it. And what other GOP candidates need, Iowa probably won’t deliver.
First, the Republican side. In the 4 surveys that
started since last Saturday January 23rd, were conducted January 26-29, Trump‘s median support is 31.0 ± 0.4 % 26.5 ± 2.4 % (median ± estimated SEM). Trailing him are Ted Cruz at 24.0 ± 1.1 % 23.5 ± 1.5 %, Marco Rubio at 15.0 ± 1.3 % 18.0 ± 1.7 %, and Ben Carson at 8.5 ± 0.7 1.7%. The weekend’s results give the impression of net movement from Trump toward Rubio (and of course a more complex reshuffling among candidates could also have accounted for such a shift). Given the Iowa GOP rules, which award delegates strictly proportionally to vote share, these four candidates should get multiple delegates. Nobody else would get more than one delegate out of the 27 that will be awarded on Monday. However, I can think of two difficulties in predicting this outcome. First, the polls might be off on average. Pollsters have to guess about who will vote (for instance, by estimating turnout and identifying newly registered voters). Those guesses can be wrong. A veteran Iowa pollster, Ann Selzer of the Des Moines Register, has twice gotten results that show Trump with about 5 percentage points less support than other surveys taken at the same time. On Saturday, Selzer came in for Trump at 28%, not far from the other surveys. So, at this point, multiple estimates have now converged.
More important than a Trump win (which seems likely) is his vote-share percentage. As I’ve written before, I have done a detailed simulation of the delegate-allocation process. I estimate that to get a majority of delegates by Super Tuesday, Trump needs to get at least 30% of the popular vote in the early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina). He’s at 33% in New Hampshire and 38% in South Carolina. Trump seems likely to come close to 30% in Iowa as well. According to my calculations of the delegate process through Super Tuesday, any finish in the 20′s is OK for him, though a second-place finish behind Cruz (or Rubio) is bad publicity.
Working in Trump’s favor, primary voters tend to commit fairly late in the process, and before the weekend, they were moving in his direction:
It was probably a good move on Trump’s part to skip last night’s debate. That move helped lock in opinion – and also led him to own yet another round of news coverage. That guy knows how to play the media. Also, as Josh Marshall has written, the appearance of domination matters.
Regarding other candidates, Ted Cruz could extract a win, but Iowa was supposed to be a strong state for him anyway. Marco Rubio could finish strong, but his bigger problem is the deeply divided field of candidates, which Iowa will not resolve.
As pointed out in The Atlantic yesterday and by me in The American Prospect a few weeks ago, GOP delegate selection rules work against establishment candidates – and favor Trump. My delegate-selection calculation assumes that the Republican field will still have at least four candidates after South Carolina. Right now that assumption looks OK. First, we have Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. Then Kasich may finish in second place in New Hampshire, which means he would likely stay in. If Jeb Bush stays in too, that makes five. In this way, the closeness and division of the “establishment tier” (Kasich, Rubio, Bush, Christie) works in Trump’s favor.
Speaking of the benefits of division…in New Hampshire, GOP delegates are awarded proportionally, but only to candidates who get above 10% of the vote. After that, unassigned delegates go to the top finisher. Currently, only Trump, Kasich, and maybe Cruz are above that threshold. That means that with 30% of the vote, Trump is likely to get 15 (and as many as 17) of the 20 delegates awarded. Doesn’t that blow your mind?
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Now, the Democratic side. In three surveys that included January 29-31, and started on or after January 25th, Hillary Clinton is at
48.0 ± 1.5 % 46.0 ± 2.1 % and Bernie Sanders is at 42.0 ± 1.0 % 43.0 ± 2.5 %. So Hillary appears to be ahead slightly. However, Iowa Democratic party rules say that if a candidate gets below 15% in a precinct, his/her voters must be reassigned. That means most of Martin O’Malley’s support ( 5.5 ± 0.9 % 3.0 ± 0.4 %) has to go somewhere, and they prefer Sanders by about a 2-to-1 margin. Over the weekend, O’Malley’s support appears to have declined and the Clinton-Sanders margin narrowed, suggesting that O’Malley supporters will vote strategically. And then there are the undecided voters, who are 8% of voters. So although Clinton is still favored, there is quite a bit of uncertainty tonight.
However, I estimate that Sanders doesn’t just have to win Iowa. He has to win by a fairly large margin. Why is that? Clinton runs stronger in states with fewer whites than Iowa, which is almost everywhere else. So Iowa is a high-water mark for Sanders, at least for now. My guess is that Sanders has to win by 5 to 10 percentage points in Iowa to be competitive for the nomination. Exactly what he needs is hard to estimate, since a win will also get him media attention that could boost him further. In any event, a convincing Sanders win is the one genuinely newsworthy event on the Democratic side.