It’s countdown time: the Iowa caucus is eight days away on February 1, followed by the New Hampshire primary on February 9. And while a numerical majority of the individual Presidential contests will be held throughout the month of March, it is the Iowa and New Hampshire contests that will winnow down the field and bestow the “winner or loser” title on each contender.
Since the last analysis we did three weeks ago, the Presidential race has already begun to separate the (perceived) winners from the (perceived) losers. Therefore, it’s important to discuss the dynamics of what is currently happening in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Iowa Republicans (February 1 caucus): (Current RealClearPolitics polling average Trump 29, Cruz 26, Rubio 11, Carson 9)
When discussing the Republican Presidential race, it’s important to appreciate that there is a “moderate/Establishment track” occupied by Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and John Kasich. The other major candidates (Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina) are all vying for supremacy within the “conservative track.”
Ever since 1988, the Iowa Republican electorate has been considered to be evangelical friendly (i.e., their electorate is tilted towards the “conservative track”), which means that very little is expected from the “moderate” candidates. And that is what polling is showing right now: Trump and Cruz are battling it out in Iowa, although some recent polling suggests that Cruz has slipped.
Therefore, the Iowa caucus (which is only open to registered Republicans) will either boost or weaken the Trump and Cruz campaigns. Given that the Trump campaign has benefitted from extensive news media coverage, it is critical for him to show his viability by either winning or running a close second. The Cruz campaign, on the other hand, MUST win this state to show that he can compete with Trump among “conservative” caucus/primary voters.
Iowa will also to some extent determine how much press attention the remaining conservative candidates (Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, and Fiorina) get, and there undoubtedly will pressure after Iowa for them to withdraw. Assuming this happens, Cruz would likely benefit.
In the author’s opinion, there is another intangible worth following starting with the Iowa contest: GOP turnout. In other words, are Republicans enthusiastic about their candidates/chances to win the Presidency in 2016, or are they likely to stay home ? We saw in 2010 and 2014 that higher primary turnout was an early clue of GOP intensity in the fall midterms.
New Hampshire Republicans (February 9 primary): (Current RealClearPolitics polling average Trump 32, Kasich 13, Cruz 11, Rubio 10, Christie 8, Bush 8)
While the Iowa caucus will undoubtedly thin the “conservative track”, the more moderate New Hampshire electorate (which allows Independents to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primary) will similarly thin the “moderate track.” Here, Trump has consistently maintained a large lead, while no one has really broken out of the “moderate track”, as 40% of the vote has consistently been divided almost evenly among four candidates. To a large extent, a second place finish in New Hampshire is critical for both Kasich and Christie (and, to some extent, Jeb Bush, who is facing publicized rumors of mutiny from his donors).
However, there is another story to be told: the dilution of the “moderate track” vote could also catapult Cruz into second place, provided that he wins in Iowa.
After New Hampshire, Republicans go to South Carolina on February 20 and Nevada on February 23. By then, the “non Trump” candidate will be clearly established.
Iowa Democrats (February 1 caucus): (Current RealClearPolitics polling average Clinton 48, Sanders 42, O’Malley 6)
While is it popularly thought that unions dominate the Democratic caucus in Iowa, there is a strong undercurrent of “intellectual liberal” sentiment here as well, and Bernie Sanders is giving Hillary Clinton a competitive race. While Hillary Clinton is in the driver’s seat, her campaign can ill afford to lose (or win narrowly) in Iowa if she wants to keep the contest from dragging out until June like it did in 2008 (Clinton finished third in the 2008 Iowa contest, behind Barack Obama and John Edwards).
New Hampshire Democrats (February 9 primary): (Current RealClearPolitics polling average Sanders 52, Clinton 40, O’Malley 3)
Given New Hampshire’s proximity to Vermont (Bernie Sanders’ home state), Sanders MUST win this primary to be considered a legitimate candidate in subsequent contests (he currently has a large lead there). Assuming a New Hampshire win and a win/close loss in Iowa, Sanders then must prove he can compete among union and/or minority voters. Nevada (whose Democrats caucus on November 20) has union voters and Hispanics, while South Carolina (their Democrats have a February 27 primary) has a black majority Democratic electorate. If Sanders can’t compete there, then his remaining hope is among union voters in the larger states whose primaries commence on March 1.
In conclusion, there are 15 candidates running for President (12 on the Republican side and three on the Democratic side), and the Iowa and New Hampshire contests will go a long way towards determining which of those 15 will make it to subsequent contests.