Well, we have almost reached a momentous event in the 2016 election. Somebody, somewhere is about to actually vote, giving us meaningful data instead of all the flap-trapping that’s been going on so far! In the midst of all the flap-trapping, I tend to hew to the numbers anyway, since empirical data is handy at cutting through bullshit, spin and partisan bias. So here’s my take on Iowa, with 6 days to go.
If you look at the poll trend-lines over the past fourteen days, you can see that we’re at more or less a dead heat, with a very slight indication of a an up-trend for Bernie and down-trend for Hillary:
There are three cautions that need to be kept in mind about this:
1) Not all polls are equally high-quality, so adding them together without weighting them can mislead.
2) Even shortly before Iowa, the polls don’t have a great track record– they’ll show who’s in range, but can still be pretty variable compared to final results.
3) A caucus is not a primary. In a primary, people show up, go in to a booth, vote, and leave. In a caucus they have to get to the caucus site, and stay and advocate for their candidate, sometimes hour after hour, until that site comes up with a winner. So caucus states tend to benefit those candidates who have highly motivated supporters, and a strong on-the-ground presence to do the logistics of getting those supporters to show up at the sites and stay.
Based on these additional factors (weighting polls according to reliability, and adding in factors like logistical strength, etc.), the folks at data-driven election site 538.com have produced a”polls only” and “polls plus” forecast for Iowa, both of which show Hillary as the favorite.
There’s one more thing we can look at, which is the betting markets. These aggregate the current bets of several thousand users who, extremely usefully to cutting down spin, have literally put their money where their mouth is. Those markets also have Hillary as a favorite to win:
My take? Bernie definitely has an enthusiasm edge over Hillary. His ground game, while quite strong, is not as strong as her’s, and nowhere near as strong as Obama’s when he pulled off an upset victory in Iowa in 2008. If you take the two as roughly cancelling each other out, it’s… more or less a toss-up. I know, way to waffle!
The thing that strikes me is that winning Iowa gives Bernie a shot at his best case- he wins Iowa, then New Hampshire, and does better than-expected in Nevada and South Carolina, and goes on to get a striking distance 40% or more of the states and delegates on Super Tuesday. A Sanders who does all that doesn’t have a lock, but he does have a competitive chance. A Sanders who doesn’t win Iowa probably still wins New Hampshire, but that’s discounted since it’s expected, and he then gets buried in South Carolina. He’s probably then mathematically finished on Super Tuesday by not winning any state except Vermont, and getting less than 40% of the delegates up for grabs. What he’d have to do to win the nomination from there would be prohibitive- it would have to be something like getting 65% of all the remaining delegates
Trump has actually had a bounce-back against Cruz over the past 14 days in a straight-poll setting:
Over at 538, their two models have actually diverged, with “polls-only” giving an edge to Trump, and “polls-plus” giving an edge to Cruz:
Meanwhile, the bettors are still picking Trump, but there’s some strong narrowing in the last few days:
I’d suspect Cruz will take it. While his perpetual-motion PR machine is second to none, Trump doesn’t have a good ground game most anywhere, and in Iowa that can really have an effect. Cruz also fits the profile of Republican caucus candidates who do well in Iowa- strong Evangelical backing is key there, and gave Huckabee a win in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. 538.com has a lively discussion on just how important winning Iowa is to Trump’s long game. You could make a case that it could be the beginning of the end for him, showing that his strong poll numbers don’t necessarily translate to real registered and showing-up-at-the-polls voters. On the other hand, you could also say that caucuses aren’t his thing, but the divided field of more moderate candidates in New Hampshire allows him to walk away with that state, and then the more straight-up vote primary in South Carolina. He would then be in a very strong position through Super Tuesday.
What’s your take? Tune in on Tuesday and we shall see!