On February 1st, the first election of the 2016 Presidential race will occur: the Iowa Caucuses. Since 1972, when the Democratic Party first changed its nomination schedule so that Iowa would be the first state to vote (closely followed by the Republican Party in 1976), the Iowa Caucuses have received massive national attention as the first events to set the tone for the rest of the nomination process. This is largely because they serve as the first test for the difference between poll numbers and how many supporters actually show up to vote. This tension between perceived enthusiasm/momentum and actual numbers of votes is a particularly important one in an election cycle defined by the battle between establishment values and radical changes.
Upstart candidates on both sides of the aisle, like Sanders, Cruz and Trump, have demonstrated a flair for capturing media attention as well as the popular imagination. However, it remains to be seen whether or not they can actually draw enough moderates to win their parties’ nominations (let alone the general election in November). On the flipside, establishment-backed candidates, like Rubio and Clinton, are assumed to be the more “sensible” options, but with only lukewarm support, may be outgunned by the oppositions’ rabid fanbases.
Polling website FiveThirtyEight has released polling results projecting Clinton and Cruz to be the winners in the Caucuses. In other words, there will be an establishment win for the Democrats and a grassroots win for the Republicans. Based on a system called polls-plus, in which polls are taken nationally and endorsements are taken into account, victory is nearly certain for Clinton with an 82% chance of winning to Sanders’ 18%. Cruz faces a slightly more contentious battle, with a 51% chance of winning to runner-up Trump’s 29% (the other percentages being distributed over the rest of the Republican candidates).
These numbers are good news for the Clinton campaign. Many Democratic voters feel more excited about Sanders, but hesitate to potentially waste their votes on a candidate seen by many as impractical. Holding such a wide margin in early polling reinforces the notion that Clinton is the inevitable nominee, while Sanders is a pipe dream. On the Republican side, the logic flows in the opposite direction. Cruz and Trump continue to hold wide leads over the rest of the party in all national polling, meaning that non-moderate Republicans have little to fear in terms of potentially wasting a vote on a non-establishment candidate. These polls also spell trouble for the Trump campaign. One need only look at Trump’s Twitter account to see what a large part his domination of the polls has played in his campaign’s mythos. He is a candidate who sells himself as an unstoppable success machine, incapable of failure. Any signs of weakness could break his momentum, causing voters to evaluate him as a politician as opposed to a right-wing superman.
Still, all this analysis entirely depends on how much one buys into the idea that Iowa is important for setting the tone for the rest of the election cycle. Iowa is perceived as a swing state without strong allegiance to either party. This is somewhat questionable seeing as both members of the state’s Executive Branch and representatives to Congress are almost all Republicans. It is also a very rural state, ranked 30th in total population and 36th in population density. It seems like a stretch to say that Iowa is representative of the country as a whole.
That being said, Iowa does serve an important function for separating the supporters willing to sign a support pledge and attend a rally from those who will actually trek through the snow to vote or caucus. Caucusing in particular requires more of a time commitment than simply filling out a ballot. Political polling is often unreliable, and the only numbers that ultimately matter, are how many people a candidate can convince to support him or her on election day. Iowa will give us our first look beyond the hype, at where the candidates truly stand.