For decades the maxim regarding the presidential nominating process has been that there are three tickets out of Iowa, meaning the top three candidates have done well enough to be considered viable contenders for the later contests. It’s a bit more complicated than that, of course – Arizona Sen. John McCain finished fourth in 2008 after not campaigning in the caucuses but still won the nomination – but it is true that candidates need to at least meet if not exceed expectations, and falling short can have serious consequences.
For underdog challengers, finishing towards the top can propel them into the spotlight, while expected winners who fall short can see their campaigns quickly fall apart. In 1996 former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander used his unexpected third-place finish to rise as a serious contender, and more recently former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum used their surprise wins to vault into contention. In 2004 former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean finished a distant third and the same fate befell then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, ending the former fairly quickly and foretelling Clinton’s eventual loss to then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Several articles this morning provide some analysis and insight on what sort of expectations candidates are facing, what the meaning of certain results will be, and what people should be looking for. This is from the assessment provided at CNN:
[Ted] Cruz turned Iowa into a boom-or-bust state when he predicted that [Donald] Trump might run the table if he wins the Hawkeye State and told voters that caucusing for anyone else amounts to supporting Trump.
That strategy might push him over the top and into first place. But it also means anything else is a bust -- and could leave him limping out of the Hawkeye State into New Hampshire, where Trump is also in the lead….
Then there's what Twitter users are calling #Marcomentum: The sense that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is surging late. Polls show him consistently running third behind Trump and Cruz, and if he manages to come close to those two, it would be a boon among establishment Republicans who are still searching for a candidate with a real path to the nomination….
The three governors looking to win the "establishment lane," meanwhile -- Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich -- are all looking ahead to New Hampshire. While a stronger-than-expected result in Iowa could help, a poor showing is unlikely to hurt enough for any to drop out….
Nate Cohn at The New York Times weighs in with a similar piece, offering the following thoughts:
Eight years ago, Barack Obama won college towns and metropolitan areas by wide margins. But he was still very competitive in rural Iowa, and even outperformed Mrs. Clinton in wide stretches of the more conservative western half of the state. Whether Mr. [Bernie] Sanders can broaden his appeal beyond liberal bastions and college towns, as Mr. Obama did, to anything near the same extent will be a crucial test of his viability….
What’s clear is that a victory for Mr. Trump would put him in an extremely strong position, especially for a candidate with significant weaknesses. He is likely to win New Hampshire, regardless of the result in Iowa, and back-to-back victories would give him a legitimate chance to steamroll to the nomination over an extremely divided field.
A loss for Mr. Cruz wouldn’t end his chances — he has a strong national organization and a natural appeal to those who describe themselves as “very conservative,” one of the party’s largest and most committed factions. But the Iowa caucus electorate is as conservative as it gets. It is far more conservative than in the primary states in the South, where his campaign hopes to do well. If he can’t pull off a win in Iowa, it will be hard to explain why he should be expected to fare better elsewhere.
A key side story will be the outcome for Mr. Rubio. A strong third place or even a surprise second-place finish might give him the momentum he needs to break the deadlock among the other major mainstream Republican candidates competing in New Hampshire: Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie.
If Mr. Trump wins tonight, the party’s establishment will be in a race against time to winnow the field of mainstream Republicans before South Carolina or Super Tuesday; a strong performance by Mr. Rubio could assist it greatly in that effort.
Charlie Cook at National Journal provides the following insights:
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.
The Hill suggests that disappointing finishes in Iowa could be the end for a couple of campaigns:
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are the likeliest to pack up if the former Iowa caucus winners have a disappointing finish on Monday….
Both candidates pegged their entire campaign strategy on Iowa, holding the top two spots for number of campaign events there, according to the Des Moines Register. But Huckabee hasn’t hit more than 4 percent in an Iowa poll since November, while Santorum hasn’t done so since July….
Several other campaigns are also in need of a stronger-than-expected finish in order to do anything other than limp into the New Hampshire Primary next week, according to the piece:
Carson, like Huckabee and Santorum, has gone almost all-in on Iowa as he looks to woo evangelical voters with his faith-inspired message. While he briefly rose to challenge Trump at the top spot of Iowa polls in November, he has since crashed back to Earth in large part because of national security fumbles.
The former neurosurgeon is in much better shape financially than the former caucus winners, however. Carson raised $23 million in the final fundraising quarter of 2015, which will likely put him ahead of most of his GOP rivals…. Even if his fundraising dries up, Carson can likely still ride on fumes as long as he cuts spending.
Paul and Fiorina face a different calculation--their strategies don’t hinge solely on Iowa, which allows them to play a bit of a longer game regardless of their results.
Some critics have called on Paul to end his White House bid and focus on his reelection in Kentucky as Republicans seeks to maintain their slim majority in the Senate….The Kentucky senator will continue his presidential bid until the Nevada caucus on Feb. 23 despite the pressure to return home, GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak predicted, as he looks to cobble together pieces of the libertarian segment that previously flocked to his father, former GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Fiorina will also likely chug along after the Iowa caucuses and continue until at least the New Hampshire primary contest. She has divided her time fairly evenly in both early-voting states and doesn’t appear to be in financial danger.
Politico provides some crucial expectation setting in another article this morning, predicting wins by Clinton and Trump in their respective caucuses:
When The POLITICO Caucus debuted in mid-February of last year, a majority of Iowans said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker would win the caucuses if they were held then. Now, nearly a year later, roughly the same number — 60 percent — see Donald Trump as the winner when the votes are counted Monday night.
The results just among Iowa Republicans were virtually identical to those in the other three early states: A majority see Trump as the most likely winner, with a significant number still believing Cruz will emerge in first….
A number of Republicans said Cruz’s organization would catapult the Texas senator over Trump.
“The Cruz ground game will carry him across the finish line with Trump in a close second,” said an Iowa Republican.
But even those Republicans who picked Cruz to finish on top concede he has slipped — not just in recent weeks, but in the past few days as well. One Iowa GOP insider cited a poor debate performance last week and controversial Cruz get-out-the-vote mailers that resembled official documents accusing individuals of a “VOTING VIOLATION” for past non-participation.
Over on the Democratic side, Clinton seems the overwhelming favorite, more so than Trump in the GOP contest:
Democratic insiders weren’t nearly as divided as their GOP counterparts: They said by a wide margin that Clinton will defeat Bernie Sanders on Monday night, crediting what they say is her vastly superior organization.
“Hands down, Clinton has the best operation,” one Iowa Democrat said. “It doesn't matter who I speak to — whether it's in a big county or small, on the western side of the state or eastern — they all say the same thing: They see no evidence of Sanders organizing. They have a lot of people, but none of them are trained or prepared for what will happen on Monday. The lesson they took from Obama’s 2008 win was that big crowds equate [to] support in a caucus room. They seem to [forget] that Obama also had the best caucus campaign Iowa had seen up to that point. Unfortunately for them, Clinton has a stronger operation than even Obama did then, and her supporters are more committed than theirs.”
Republicans seem less convinced of Clinton’s victory, however:
But while Democrats overwhelmingly say Clinton will win, Republicans disagreed. A majority of GOP insiders insist Sanders’ energized supporters will carry him to victory.
One New Hampshire Republican cited the disclosure on Friday that the State Department won’t release 22 email messages on Clinton’s home server in picking Sanders as the likely winner.
It probably won’t be until around 9 p.m. Eastern time before any results start to trickle in, and it may not be until after midnight before results are available. The only prediction that seems certain is that there will be at least one significant surprise that either provides a substantial boost or casts new doubt on the viability of at least one candidate.