UPDATE: Check out this MSNBC poll. Pay particular attention to the question about first-time caucus-goers and second choice.
Disclaimer: As many know, I did work for John Edwards in Iowa in 2004 and am still supporting him.
There are four basic dynamics which the media has chosen to ignore which should have a serious impact on the Iowa caucus results. This analysis doesn’t account for a couple of major factors which could also be critical. Momentum is always important. Who will have the momentum after Christmas? And caucus experience matters. Whose staff will maximize their advantage with knowledge of caucus math and guts to persuade shaky supporters of other candidates in the middle of the caucus rather than just hiding out in their candidate’s corner? But I’m predicting that these four dynamics will be decisive:
1) Who Is Voting?
The magic question in the Iowa caucus is who will vote? For various reasons polling the caucus is incredibly difficult. While people may self-identify as voters, it’s difficult to cost-effectively ascertain whether each respondent actually understands what is required to vote in a caucus (e.g. publicly declaring your vote to all your neighbors, waiting around for as much as a few hours, missing most of the Orange Bowl, etc.). Therefore, the only hints we have about the reliability of candidates’ support are the internals of polls. While polls do vary, Edwards generally leads among experienced caucus-goers and among age groups more likely to vote – namely those over the age of 35. Hillary does lead among the all-important 65+, but retirees aren’t as important in the caucus as non-retired voters over 50 since absentee voting isn’t an option.
2) Who Else Are They Voting For?
In most elections that question doesn’t even make sense. But in Iowa it’s arguably more important than the first question. Across the state, votes for also-rans like Richardson, Biden, Dodd and Kucinich would probably collectively garner anywhere from 20-40 points in a traditional primary. But in most precincts those candidates won’t have enough support to be “viable”. Under caucus rules, if a candidate does not have at least 15% in a precinct those voters either have to convince others to support their candidate, support another candidate themselves, or go home. In most cases people won’t just go home. They are already there and want their vote to be counted. For example, in 2004 I persuaded about 10 Kucinich voters to support Edwards when they were just 2 votes short of viability.
This is why the fact that Edwards consistently leads as the “second choice” of Democratic caucus voters could be huge. This gap will only widen due to the 3rd dynamic.
3) Who Are They Not Voting For?
A related issue to second choice is last choice. While this isn’t exactly a polled question, it’s a real phenomenon. In 2004 Dean and Gephardt became a lot of caucus-goers “last choice” because of the nasty negative turn their campaigns took in the final 2 weeks. This voter anger directly benefited Kerry and Edwards. While it’s hard to see from outside the state, it seems that Obama and Clinton are repeating that same old mistake.
4) Where Are They Voting?
Again, this might not matter in a traditional primary but it matters a lot in the Iowa caucus. Without getting into the hairy details, having exceptional support in a few areas is not nearly as valuable as being “viable” everywhere. If a candidate is viable in all precincts that are awarded more than 1 delegate and in the majority in all the small (mostly rural) precincts that are awarded only 1 delegate then they would have the overwhelming majority (approx. 2/3) of the vote. John Edwards’ campaign, according to all the anecdotal evidence and the limited polling broken down by region, benefits from a much more even distribution of support across the state.