A Rummy-eyed look at Iowa

We apply Rumsfeld's "known knowns" and "known unknowns" to the caucuses.

By Walter Shapiro

Published December 21, 2007 6:25PM (EST)

In honor of Donald Rumsfeld, we will attempt to apply to the Iowa caucuses the same incisive and dispassionate analysis that Rummy brought to the Iraq war.

The known knowns:

1) The Iowa caucuses will be held in both parties at 7 p.m. on Jan. 3.

2) Kickoff time for the 2008 Orange Bowl featuring Virginia Tech and Kansas is also 7 p.m. Central Time.

The known unknowns:

1) The weather could determine the outcome of the Democratic contest, especially since the scariest two words you can say to a Hillary Clinton organizer is "ice storm." That is the danger inherent in a strategy that partly depends on turning out elderly women on caucus night.

2) Turnout in general. In 2004, on the night of Howard Dean's meltdown, about 125,000 Democrats attended the caucuses. For the Republicans in recent years, turnout has ranged from 87,000 (2000) to 100,000 (1996). But the caucuses have never been held this close to the holidays, which suggests that this "too much too soon" schedule may depress participation a bit.

On the other hand, the Democrats are buoyant about their candidates -- and Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards boast perhaps the three best organizations the state has ever seen. If turnout stays below, say, 135,000, Edwards is the likely beneficiary, since he runs strongest among regular caucusgoers.

The Republicans -- even in their amnesiac moments when they forget who resides in the White House -- are in a downbeat mood. Turnout guesses (they are far too shaky to be called estimates) from GOP pros range from 70,000 to 90,000. Mitt Romney, who constructed and paid for a formidable organization, presumably benefits from a low turnout. The more Republicans who flock to the caucuses, the more likely a big night is in store for Mike Huckabee. The wild card: Whether Ron Paul (railing in ads against NAFTA and a North American super-state) will attract enough new-breed caucusgoers to make a difference at the margins.

3) The mystery wrapped inside an enigma for the top strategists in both parties is how effective campaigning will be over the holidays. Will the political junkie class in Iowa (and that is the best synonym for a regular caucusgoer) eagerly rejoin the fray as they sweep up Christmas detritus on Boxing Day (Dec. 26)? Or will they tune out the cacophony of politics until they recover from their New Year's Eve hangovers? The answers to these questions will dictate whether there will be another turn of the wheel next week in Iowa or whether the contests in both parties are on freeze-frame until the eve of the caucuses.

4) Polling for the Iowa caucuses is a dicey business at best, since it is difficult to construct an accurate model of who will leave their homes on Jan. 3. Equally iffy is any kind of polling around Christmas and New Year's, since everything from holiday travel to religious sentiments complicates sampling. The denting collision of these two daunting factors will not, of course, deter dozens of news organizations from ballyhooing their "exclusive" Iowa polls. As a result, the polls will probably seem more volatile than the political allegiances of Iowans are in reality. These dizzying numbers (new Iowa favorites might be crowned hourly) could create more bandwagons than P.T. Barnum's circus with impossible-to-predict effects on caucusgoers.

5) Democratic Party rules require candidates to garner 15 percent support in a precinct to be "viable," a word which is Iowa lingo for having their votes counted. That is why the caucus-night strategies of the leading Democrats include plans to woo backers of candidates who fail to make this 15 percent threshold. The only numbers that will be reported to the press by the state party will be the final tallies after supporters of nonviable candidates are allowed to recaucus.

But the networks have announced that they will conduct entrance polls at 7 p.m. to survey sentiments as caucusgoers sign in. These entrance polls -- which will dominate TV coverage until the bulk of the Democratic returns come in after 9 p.m. -- will not count the second-choice movement once the precinct caucuses begin.

What this means, in theory, is that it is possible to have two Democratic candidates bragging that they won Iowa -- the victor in the entrance polls and the winner (aided by second-choice voting) anointed by the state party. How will the media play such a plausible Iowa split decision as the political road show immediately moves to New Hampshire for the Jan. 8 primary?

The unknown unknowns:

Enough already. The mind is still reeling from the "known unknowns." No wonder Rummy did such a rum job in Iraq.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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