US presidential candidate faces-on-a-stick

In Iowa caucuses, expectations trump votes

The 2016 Iowa caucuses will be held Monday, Feb. 1, pitting Democratic leader Hillary Clinton against Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley and Republican Donald Trump against Sen. Ted Cruz and a lineup of other opponents.

Political scientists at the University of Washington, who are closely watching this year’s presidential race, offer some context and commentary on the importance of these early contests and say the front-runners will be wise to watch their backs on a day when expectations will be nearly as important as votes.

“If Cruz and Sanders do better than expected—they don’t have to win.”

In the 1976 primary season, “Jimmy Carter put Iowa on the map, and Iowa put Jimmy Carter on the map,” says Margaret O’Mara, associate professor of history. The Georgia governor went “all in” on the Iowa caucuses to get a “first win” and the momentum to continue.

“It worked, brilliantly,” O’Mara says, in part because Carter was such a natural, easy campaigner. Iowa has been a battleground in most campaigns since then.

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In the Iowa caucuses, those who beat expectations get a boost in positive attention and those who don’t “get the opposite,” says John Wilkerson, professor of political science.

“So I would say Trump and Clinton have the most to lose because they are expected to win. If Cruz and Sanders do better than expected—they don’t have to win—they will benefit from more and more positive media coverage.”

The same is true of the field of other candidates, Wilkerson says. Any who rise above the group, “without even coming close to winning,” will likely see more press and voter attention.

Because of the interactive, hours-long caucus format, “passion counts for a lot in determining who wins,” adds Mark Smith, professor of political science.” And as a result, the outcome hinges more on depth of support than breadth.”

That passion, as measured by the Iowa caucuses, can also be important later in the campaign, Smith says, “since it predicts fundraising, volunteer support, and other forms of active participation in the race.”

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And while winning in Iowa can boost or wound a candidacy, it’s only one of many steps to the nomination. Few know that better than the last two Republican Iowa winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum—neither of whom came anywhere near winning their party’s nomination.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s strong showing in 2008 bumped Hillary Clinton to third place and “seemed to propel him into a good position,” Smith says, largely though the media coverage dynamic that Wilkerson describes.

The one time recently when the Iowa caucuses truly “turned the tide,” historian O’Mara says, was in 2004 when then-Sen. John Kerry “beat back the antiwar insurgent campaign of Howard Dean, who had expected to win, and established the momentum that took him to the nomination.”

“It’s also important to remember that a lot of the candidates already have substantial war chests” that could see them through early losses. “If they do well on Super Tuesday, Iowa and New Hampshire are forgotten.”

The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9. Super Tuesday, with 11 states voting, is on March 1, and then five more contests will be held on March 15.

Source: University of Washington