Iowans will carry out their duty of making the first decision of the election cycle on Monday during their state's first-in-the-nation caucus. Anything can happen during the event in which Republican caucusgoers cast their ballots and Democratic participants go into their corners; some believe it is one of the most fascinating events in the American political system. And the 2016 caucuses may have their most significant effect on the race since 2004, if not 2008.
In the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll before the big day, released Saturday afternoon, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leads Vt. Sen. Bernie Sanders 45 percent to 42 percent, which is within the margin of error of 4 percentage points. Former Md. Gov. Martin O'Malley is in a distant third, or last, place with only 3 percent.
For the Republicans, according to the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, also released on Saturday afternoon, Donald Trump stands in first with 28 percent, followed by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with 23 percent. Fla. Sen. Marco Rubio is in third with 15 percent. Trump's lead is by more than the margin of error, which is 4 percentage points, but depending on the polling standard, his position is not solidified.
Both polls surveyed likely caucusgoers for the respective parties.
The final poll may have been a surprise to some, given how Sanders was ahead of Clinton in a Quinnipiac University Poll released on Jan. 27, which just adds to the point that the Democratic contest is extremely fluid.
If the former chief diplomat is able to win — which would be despite the most recent revelations about her personal email account — it would be a huge blow to Sanders because he has had an upward trajectory for weeks. On the other hand, the victory would give Clinton a much needed boost, and it would cement her lead in South Carolina and make Nevada at least little more competitive than it would have been otherwise. Sanders will still likely win New Hampshire because he is from a bordering state.
A victory in Iowa would prevent the campaign from starting to implode, and it would fend off questions about a potential repeat of 2008. It would also give Clinton and her team a morale boost, which could then be passed on to supporters.
The "W" in the kickoff contest would also allow Clinton to change her campaign messaging, which has transformed from being more about working for middle and lower class Americans to being more about convincing the electorate that she is the most electable candidate who has proven experience.
That would be the least of it, however, because it also has the potential to provide momentum to Clinton's campaign, and even though the Iowa momentum does not always help, it will certainly be a factor in 2016 because of the candidates.
That momentum, along with proving she can win, puts her on the 90 percent path to win the nomination because she has been the favorite of the Democratic establishment, whose operation some say has rigged the system for Hillary and whose voting bloc she is relying on. (It is only 90 percent because the government could go after her for using her own email server while she was Secretary of State.) She already had a sizable lead in national polls. The victory would only add to her case. The final poll indicates she is winning among 65-year-old and up caucusgoers, Catholics and people who identify as moderate.
Sanders should not be counted out, however. If that is not evident by his popularity and recent surge, it should be by the more than 3 million contributions received before caucus day and his haul of more than $20 million in the first month of the election year. The Vermont senator is running a grassroots campaign, heavily dependent on younger, first-time caucusgoers. (Reminiscent of 2008?) He is winning in those categories and in the independent vote, according to the poll.
The Vt. senator is counting on the young people — college students — to caucus, so his campaign is pulling out all the stops, including providing transportation to get them back to their home precincts. He and Trump, who is also counting on those who do not normally caucus, both need the good weather to continue because if there is a storm or extreme cold, new caucusgoers will likely not show up.
The global political climate is one in which the people in many countries are shifting away from traditional/establishment politicians and/or politicians who represent the status quo. That has happened in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada — just to name a few — so it was never out of the realm of possibility that Sanders, who is a democratic socialist, could do better than expected.
He has shown that he is a force to be reckoned with due to his poll numbers and his message, which has mobilized and engaged supporters, and that would be the case even more so if he wins Iowa, which is a must for his campaign to continue moving at the current pace. He is ahead in New Hampshire, which is a lead he would likely keep regardless of the Iowa result, but a victory would solidify it. He has 12 field offices in Nevada, and a victory would cement his footing in the Silver State, and give him a greater opportunity to come out victorious in the first caucus in the West. He has been consistently polling in second place.
If he can come out victorious, which is very possible if turnout is high, the momentum should solidify his lead in the first-in-the-nation primary state. Victories in the first two contests could give him what he needs to come out victorious in South Carolina, where he has consistently been polling second to Clinton. He does seem to be the favorite in Nevada, which is the first western state to hold its caucus. That would only be solidified if he wins.
If Sanders wins three out of the first four contests, which have been grandfathered out of the Democratic National Committee's primary window period, Clinton's campaign may start to come apart one block at a time. If Sanders can pull an upset in South Carolina, giving him the first four out of four selection contests, then the Clinton collapse will happen much more quickly.
Former Md. Governor Martin O'Malley is also in the race, but his campaign barely got off the ground, if it did at all. As he said during the CNN Democratic Town Hall on the Monday before caucus night, which is something Howard Dean would probably agree with, polling does not matter once the caucuses open, and anything can happen.
Even though his polling is insignificant, O'Malley will still have an affect on the outcome. If he does not meet the viability threshold in individual caucus locations, which the Democratic Party has set at 15 percent, then his supporters will need need to get behind one of the viable options. That is the likely outcome in most of the venues based on his performance in the final poll. Therefore, there is a small pool of voters who can help shape the results, and in a poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, released on Friday, more than half, 57 percent, of O'Malley's supporters would shift to Sanders. Only 27 percent would go to Clinton. That could be significant given how close the race between the top two candidates is.
The big question on the Republican side is: Will Trump win? The answer is: It depends on turnout. He, like Sanders, has the support of many people who would be attending their first caucus, according to a U.S. News and World Report survey. If his supporters come out, then he could tip the scales that lean Evangelical. (During the Fox News-Google Republican Debate, moderator Chris Wallace said about 60 percent of Republican caucusgoers are Evangelical. The Evangelical candidates won in 2008 and 2012.) Thus, like Sanders, he needs decent weather conditions. If the real estate mogul does win, he will likely run the gamut because he has been the national leader in all of the polls, which is probably explained by the global shift away from anti-establishment politicians.
SEE ALSO: Trump and the Road Never Traveled
On the other hand, if attendance is low, Cruz will win because of the Evangelical voting bloc, and if he wins, Trump will probably finish in second. The Texas senator would prefer for it to be cold and snowy on caucus night because his supporters would likely attend in any condition, while the harsh weather will probably keep Trump supporters at home because, generally, those with more extreme views are the ones who attend caucuses and primaries. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a first time caucusgoer would attend if conditions are mild, but not if conditions are harsh.
A lingering question for Cruz, if he were to win, is: Where does he go next? He has put many eggs in the Iowa basket, and his extreme and religious right views may hurt him in areas that are not the South. That should not be discounted, however, because he could win the Southern states on Super Tuesday, which could then give him enough momentum to make it through until the end. If Trump is out of the race by that point – March 1 – his main opponent or opponents would be the establishment candidates – Rubio, N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush and, depending on point of view, Ohio Gov. John Kasich – and he could beat them in the North. It would, however, depend on turnout.
The third place finisher — behind Trump and Cruz — will either be a member of the establishment or Kasich, and a third place finish would be like finishing in first for these candidates because they would be at the top of the establishment field. (Kasich is being identified separately because some do not view him as a member of the establishment.) Rubio is the establishment candidate likely to come in third because of where he was in the final poll – third place – and with some exceptions, has consistently been third in the first-in-the-nation state.
The problem for the establishment candidates is that there are three or four of them, depending on who is asked. Even though they are all trailing far behind Trump and Cruz, and Christie, Bush and Kasich are all polling at 3 percent or below, they are all still taking votes from one another, and a thought is that if all but one get out, that one would take the others' supporters.
For the sake of that faction of the Republican Party, all but one will need to get out, so one can proceed. That may even need to happen by Super Tuesday, so by then, establishment voters will have a clear candidate. Drop-outs by March 1 are possible if candidates under perform in the four early contests — Iowa (caucus), New Hampshire (primary), Nevada (caucus) and South Carolina (primary) — and they realize they cannot come back.
Bush could be the first to fall because of his poor and declining performance in polls, and because donors want to go to other candidates, and probably to Rubio because he is seen by many as energetic – something Bush lacks – and the future of the party. (For those reasons, the senator is unlikely to get out.) If donors leave before they get the proper permission to do so, he will probably get out of the race. It is a matter of leaving on his terms or leaving on the donors' terms. He could, however, re-appear the convention, if a deal needs to be brokered.
Kasich said, on Showtime's The Circus, that he is not leaving, and Christie is also unlikely to sacrifice his campaign.
Unless Carson can outdo Cruz for Evangelical supporters and come in first, which is extremely unlikely, he will likely be gone after Iowa because of how far he has fallen nationally, and his campaign has lost key staffers. The final poll has him in fourth place with 10 percent, making him the final candidate with double-digits. He could really come in fourth if enough Evangelicals caucus. If there are not enough, they could all go to Cruz, pushing Carson down even more.
If that were the case, it would give Ky. Sen. Rand Paul, who placed after Carson with 5 percent, or Christie, with 3 percent, an opening to come in fourth. That matchup also depends on turnout. The more libertarians who show up to caucus, the better Paul does. He will do better than Christie if there are more libertarians than establishment supporters of the governor.
Paul will likely jump out of the race at some point because he is also running for his Senate seat, but a poor performance in Iowa will allow him to make that decision sooner rather than later. It is unlikely he will finish ahead of any of the establishment candidates or Carson, so anything less than fifth – what the poll indicated – could be seen as a poor performance.
One unpredictable factor, for both parties – is that of super PACs. If candidates continue to have, or gain, super PAC support, they could continue until their respective national conventions.
Staff Reporter Ali Main co-reported this story.