While I have no idea what the outcome of Iowa will be (and I doubt anyone else does either), I’ll venture a few predictions for tomorrow’s matchup in Iowa:
On the Republican side, Huckabee peaked too early. The attention he got caused people to take a look at his record, and it’s not good. Huckabee sailed in on homespun congeniality, but the more people look, the less substance he has, and where has has substantive positions they usually rub the Republican base the wrong way. I would cautiously predict that Huckabee will do worse than expected—mainly because he has nowhere to go but down. His support is soft, and he doesn’t seem to be moving in the right direction to take a convincing win.
It’s safe to predict a Romney win, since he’s poured so much into Iowa. However, to be viable, he has to pull off a convincing win. If Huckabee is sliding, that benefits Romney.
There’s not one, but two dark horses in Iowa. McCain and Thompson are fighting for third place, and both have been doing better than expected. Thompson needs a strong third-place finish in Iowa to remain viable. McCain hasn’t campaigned in Iowa, but does have a base of support there. Zogby is showing a late breakout towards Thompson. If Fred can get 15%+ that keeps him alive until South Carolina. If McCain does well (double digits) that keeps him alive until New Hampshire, where he has a chance at the top. It all depends on where those last undecided voters go—if Thompson were to pick up a lion’s share of undecided voters (which seems possible), that could give him the finish they need. If they go to McCain, that puts McCain a real edge given that New Hampshire will give him a boost as well.
The real story of the Republican side of Iowa is not who wins, but who gets out alive. I’m guessing that we’ll lose Rep. Hunter by the end of the week, since he has no traction nor any chance of gaining it.
Rudy’s out of Iowa—last year he was the front-runner, now he’s running a dangerous game that could easily put him out of the race before he really gets started. He won’t break single digits in Iowa, but what he needs is for Iowa and New Hampshire to be won by different people so that no front-runner emerges. If Romney wins both, Giuliani may be in trouble.
On the Democratic side, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama are all in play. I doubt Edwards will win, although he’ll come in a strong third. His brand of economic populism plays well with the Democratic base, but he’s not electable, and he’s been running for office longer than gaining experience. He couldn’t win his old Senate seat back, and he and Kerry lost ground against Bush. Kerry was smart enough to realize that he was damaged goods—Edwards is too vain to notice.
The Obama-Clinton race will be the one to watch. Obama’s run a campaign much like Howard Dean’s, except smarter. He also has the same problem that Dean has—his base of support is with people who don’t tend to vote. Still, I wouldn’t count him out. My sense is that he could very well win in Iowa, which would put Mrs. Inevitable in a very tight spot. Obama’s playing a dangerous game, however. The Clinton smear machine has him in their sights, and while their first shots were weak, sooner or later they’ll take him down.
If Clinton wins, it puts Obama in a tight spot. He has to perform, and he needs national momentum to do that. A Clinton victory puts the spotlight on her, and without an upset, Obama’s strength in Iowa will be put a roadblock to her path to the nomination.
If I had to guess, I’d say the former frontrunners will be the future frontrunners: which means narrow wins for Clinton and Romney. Huckabee leaves Iowa intact, but the pressure on him won’t go away, and he’ll do poorly in New Hampshire. Thompson needs a strong third place finish in Iowa and a win (or near win) in South Carolina to stay alive—which means that Thompson will need to campaign hard in South Carolina to keep Huckabee down.
Of course, all these predictions are going by the polls. The polls, as in 2004, could be entirely wrong. Thompson’s Iowa barnstorm could turn him into the John Kerry of the GOP, the single-digit candidate who suddenly became the frontrunner. Huckabee could collapse as Dean did, and for some of the same reasons. Clinton could sink and Obama could soar. Edwards’ populism could propel him to the top. McCain could surge in Iowa and then take down Romney in New Hampshire, putting him ahead.
Part of the fun of Iowa is watching expectations crash and burn, and there could be a lot of political wreckage strewn from Council Bluffs to Dubuque after tomorrow night.
UPDATE: Bob Novak predicts Hillary will come in third in Iowa. That would be a real blow to her campaign. However, I think the “Dean factor” is at play here—a candidate that excites younger voters doesn’t do so well in caucuses which are dominated by older voters who are deeply entrenched into politics. Then again, a narrow Clinton win doesn’t help her much, as it leaves two viable competitors who could present further challenges down the road.