Well, we made it. It’s officially caucus night in Iowa, which means that after months of speculative analysis and hot takes in abundance, we’re finally taking a real, measurable step toward selecting the next president of the United States. For both parties, tonight’s outcome is far from certain. But there’s going to be a massive amount of spin and rationalization coming from the candidates as they seek to capitalize on their victories or explain away their losses. Let’s take a moment to focus on the top three candidates from each party, according to the polls, and break down what victory or defeat in Iowa really means for them.
Will Trump win Iowa? Who the hell knows? Nothing about the Trump 2016 campaign experience makes much sense, so it seems possible that Trump could take down 75 percent of caucus-goers and it seems equally plausible that he could clock in at 6 percent. He’s leading in the polls, sure, but he doesn’t appear to have much in the way of organization on the ground, which is a liability in caucus states like Iowa. And, more than anything else, it’s difficult to game out how a twice-divorced, ideologically fluid, New York real estate mogul best known for fake-firing C-list celebrities will fare in a quirky electoral contest in a Midwestern state filled with conservative Christians.
So what happens if Trump does win? Pandemonium. The margin won’t matter – Donald Trump will have won a Republican presidential nominating contest, which is to say that a plurality of Republican voters in at least one state will have considered their options for whom they want to be in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal and affirmatively chosen this guy. It will be a grim validation of the idea that Republican politics has devolved to little more than nativist barking and raw displays of dominance. And Trump will ride that wave as far as it will take him, having demonstrated to the electorate that his message of winning and toughness isn’t just masturbatory bluster.
If Trump doesn’t win, then the situation becomes markedly different. Trump has made it abundantly clear that not winning is a symptom of unforgivable weakness, and he can’t afford to look weak. And while it’s a bit foolish to predict how Trump will react, it feels safe to assume that his reaction to an Iowa loss will be to lustily denigrate the entire state as being full of jokers and idiots.
If Ted Cruz wins Iowa, that also spells trouble for the GOP. He’s far better funded and far better organized than the anti-establishment candidates who’ve won Iowa the previous two cycles. He’s also currently running even with the clutch of establishment candidates in New Hampshire who are vying for a second-place finish behind Trump, and a win in Iowa would presumably help to bump him up over his competitors. More significantly, Cruz will argue, with strong justification, that the race for the GOP nomination is between him and Trump, to the exclusion of all the other more “electable” candidates the party establishment clearly prefers.
Should Cruz finish second, things start looking less good for ol’ Ted. If he runs close to even with Trump and outpaces Marco Rubio by a good distance, he can still argue with some credibility that the race boils down to Trump/Cruz, but he, like everyone else, will be drowned in the flood of “holy shit Donald Trump just won an election” coverage. If Trump clobbers him and Cruz ekes out a second-place finish over Rubio, there won’t be much that he can say to salvage the evening. And if, by some weird chance, Cruz ends up finishing behind Rubio, then that would be a full-on disaster, given how much effort he put into Iowa and how much importance he placed on winning the state.
Rubio’s people have been making the case for a while now that they expect to finish third. Third place isn’t just good for him, they argue, it’s precisely where he wants to be. Third place is terrific, better than second place even. Nothing would make them happier than being the second runner-up to Ted Cruz and the "Apprentice" guy. That will show that Rubio has momentum and is the only candidate who can [insert string of garbage talking points].
It’s a strategically clever move, because now even if they finish in third, people will say they won. If he finishes second, they’ll say he defied expectations (the expectations that he set). And it seems unlikely (though certainly possible) that he’ll finish fourth, given that the only candidate who’s even close to the third-place spot is the collapsing Ben Carson. They’ll claim a win no matter what happens, but if Rubio finishes a distant third to Trump/Cruz, it becomes tough for him to argue that he has any place in this race, especially since he’s cratering a bit in New Hampshire. If somehow he ends up outside the top three, say goodnight.
It’s a bit much to say that Bernie Sanders needs a win in Iowa, but winning the state would be precisely the sort of coup he needs to start convincing enough Democratic Party voters that he’s a viable alternative to Hillary Clinton. As of Friday, Bernie was trailing Hillary in Iowa in the polling averages, and she’s still the favorite to win the state. Her ground operation is apparently built specifically to avoid repeating the same errors of judgment and inattentiveness that doomed her in Iowa in 2008. If Bernie manages to overcome the polls and the Clinton machine, he’ll get the obvious boost from the win, and he’ll ride high as the second coming of the Democratic Clinton-slayer as he heads into the much more favorable territory of New Hampshire. Running the table in the first two states would be the best insulation possible heading into Nevada and South Carolina, where voter demographics favor Hillary.
If Bernie loses, then he’s in a bit of trouble. That sets up New Hampshire as the only early state he’s favored to win, and you could explain that away as home-field advantage. An insurgent campaign like Sanders’ needs to steal states and delegates from Clinton the way Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign purloined Iowa and South Carolina. If he can’t keep Clinton on her heels, then he’s steadily going to lose ground until Hillary wins by attrition.
Iowa is critical for Hillary Clinton. Winning there would tamp down Sanders, provide some much-needed redemption from her shambolic 2008 campaign, calm down some of her jittery supporters, and help quash the “Is Hillary Vulnerable” narrative that dogs her. There’s nothing better for changing a campaign narrative than victory, and she not only needs the win, she needs people to start talking about her candidacy in a more favorable light.
If Hillary loses, all hell breaks loose. Falling short in Iowa would virtually eliminate whatever chance she has at winning New Hampshire, and the press would – in accordance with the Clinton rules of media coverage – absolutely savage her. While she’s dealing with the bad press of two straight losses, she’d also be struggling against the “2008 all over again” stories that reporters and pundits are just itching to write. At that point she’d be stuck arguing that the later contests favor her and she’s “in it for the long haul,” and while that may be true, that’s an awful spot for her to be in.
If at some point tonight you see the words “Martin O’Malley wins Iowa” on your TV screen, immediately exit your house and phone a maintenance professional to check for any gas leaks. If, by some strange chance, those words weren’t the product of a hypoxic hallucination brought on by potentially lethal levels of carbon monoxide, then join the rest of us in celebrating the deaths of the polling and political journalism industries that somehow managed to not notice a massive, clandestine surge for the former governor of Maryland.
In the extremely likely event that O’Malley loses Iowa badly, his campaign will be officially over.