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Morning Jay: A Primer on the Iowa Caucus

6:00 AM, Dec 30, 2011 • By JAY COST
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We’re just a few short days away from the Iowa caucuses. And with that in mind, here are five big points to consider about the caucus, and what they mean for the GOP nomination battle.

Iowa flag

1. Turnout will be low. Caucuses are not like primaries, where there's a relatively large portion of the party electorate turning out. Far from it. The Republican process is not as time intensive as the Democratic one – where undecided caucus goers are actively wooed by advocates for the candidates – but turnout nevertheless is low.  In 2000 and 2008, Iowa caucus turnout was less than 10 percent of the vote that the Republican nominee won in the general election.

The caucus thus heavily favors strong Republican identifiers and very conservative voters, much more so than any primary outside the deep South. This is why Jon Huntsman has chosen not to contest Iowa and why Mitt Romney has approached it with some caution. The real question this time around is: how does low turnout affect Ron Paul, whose strongest support comes from the sorts of independent voters that caucuses usually do not attract? This uncertainty surrounding the Paul candidacy accounts for at least some of the variation between the polls – different pollsters are estimating different levels of self-identified Republican, independent, and even Democratic turnout, and thus different support for Romney, Paul, and others.

2. More surprises might be in store. One of the important functions that party identification serves is that of an educational tool. If I told you that you must choose between Mike Smith and Tim Jones for Congress, and that was all, you would not know whom to support. But what if I told you that Smith was a Republican and Jones was a Democrat? In that case, about 80 to 90 percent of voters would then have at least a direction to lean.

In nomination battles, party identification has absolutely no meaning. This implies it is hard for voters to develop a sense of which candidate is closest to their views, and in turn we can see some surprising swings throughout the season. We have already seen a lot of volatility this year. The RealClearPolitics average of the Iowa polls has had a whopping six candidates occupy the lead at one point or another.

And this is not the first time we have seen a lot of volatility. Barack Obama did not really begin his surge until November 2007, just a month or so before the contest.  Ditto Mike Huckabee. And, what’s more, the final polls understated the size of Obama and Huckabee’s lead, suggesting that a good chunk of voters swung toward the frontrunner at the very last minute. The same was true in 2004: John Kerry was basically tied in the polls with Howard Dean, John Edwards, and Dick Gephardt until just a few days before the caucus; he ultimately won by a very solid 6 points.

So we could have a real surprise next week. We have already seen the makings of a last minute Rick Santorum surge, and given the relative closeness of all the main candidates – with support ranging from about 9 percent to only 22 percent – this is a wide open race.

3. Grades will be distributed on a curve. Who will win and who will lose? The answers to those questions do not necessarily follow the actual rank order of the caucus results! The nomination battles are funny that way. The best evidence of this is actually the New Hampshire 1992 primary, where Bill Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas, but credibly declared himself the winner. The media loves comeback stories and above all they love surprises – so if somebody surprises by finishing in third place, that could be counted as a win. On the other hand, if somebody disappoints with a third place finish, that might be counted as a loss.

(By the way, this is perhaps the biggest reason I hate the nomination system we have now, for it gives the mainstream media a say in determining who is a real candidate and who is not. They do not deserve that power, especially over the Republican party!)

4. It’s a long month ahead. One thing is for sure – the field will be winnowed after Tuesday. There are four self-proclaimed conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney – Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Santorum. It’s hard to think that all four of them can survive, especially if Romney and Paul finish in the top two. Given all of the effort that these candidates have poured into Iowa, it might be hard for any of them to justify continuing their campaigns even after a fourth place finish, let alone a fifth or sixth place result.

These candidates might not recognize the writing on the wall right away, but the media will make it clear enough. The big problem for these conservative alternatives is that there really is no major contest for them until January 21, in South Carolina. That leaves them susceptible to a kind of media “death watch” for the next two weeks. Absent alternative news that might buoy their prospects, those back-of-the-pack finishers will be forced to answer questions for two weeks about why they are still in the race, whether they think they can honestly win, and so on. This is how fields get winnowed.

5. Iowa has the most to lose. As much as these anti-Romney candidates have on the line, the Hawkeye State has even more. It is a substantial privilege being the first contest in the country, and Iowa has had a terrible track record in pointing toward the ultimate nominee. In 2008 Huckabee won the caucus with a solid, nine-point victory, but failed to go anywhere after that. In 1980 George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan, and in 1988 Pat Robertson actually placed second.

Iowa could effectively lose its plum spot if major candidates stop contesting it, which is very possible if it throws up another quirky result. Huntsman has already declined to contest it actively, and if Ron Paul ends up winning, that could add fuel to the anti-Iowa fire. That’s not to say that it will technically lose its first-in-the-nation position, but if big time candidates start boycotting it, then it could effectively be pushed aside in 2016 or 2020.

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