I’m a big fan of the Iowa caucuses. The process combines a lot of good American traditions: the popular vote, town meetings, horse-trading, peer pressure and pure populism. No one can tell Iowans how to vote — except for neighbors and friends. But what are neighbors and friends for? Definitely not special interests.
And I very much like the idea that if you want to be president of the United States, then you have to humble (perhaps humiliate!) yourself by running for “town council” in Iowa’s precincts, pancake breakfasts and barbecues, door-to-door, even jaywalking because there are five people across the street to meet.
True, Iowa does not reflect the diversity that is America in the 21st century. But it does reflect independence, independents, skepticism and the demand for candidate authenticity, likeability, as well as intellect. It is also freezing there — a real gantlet for one who would be president.
For the most part, the caucuses have been unpredictable. Rather than be accurate predictors of final outcomes (although most polls usually have, and mine have always been just fine), the Iowa pre-caucus polls set the standards and expectations for candidate performance.
For a candidate, exceeding expectations in Iowa can mean more than outright victory. In 1984, former Vice President Walter Mondale trounced Sen. Gary Hart but failed to score the expected 50% performance level. Hart emerged with 16%, just one point above the threshold for acceptance but 14 points higher than the polls expected. Hart went on to win New Hampshire and be a thorn in the side of Mondale until the Democratic National Convention.
In 2008, Sen. Barack Obama from Illinois proved he could outpoll the declared frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton. The two battle right up to the convention.
In 2020, there are a variety of scenarios that play out, and the outcomes of Iowa could be exhilarating or scary, depending on your point of view.
In Scenario 1, Sen.Bernie Sanders, who leads in most (but not all) Iowa polls, wins convincingly. (Watch for the numbers of young kids wearing AirPods going into the caucuses. A lot will be a sign that Sanders will have a good night.) Sanders is already leading in New Hampshire and has started to draw some attention from younger African-American voters who can dent Vice President Joe Biden’s South Carolina “firewall.”
If Biden does not finish a convincing second in Iowa, then party leaders will be frantically searching for the ABB (Anybody But Bernie) candidate. In this scenario, Sanders assures himself of a finalist position at the convention in Milwaukee as the progressive candidate.
If Sen. Amy Klobuchar keeps her trajectory in Iowa and comes in second or a respectable third — meaning she is nipping at the heels of Biden and knocks out former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — then she could be that ABB candidate.
Scenario 2 is if Biden wins Iowa, then scores a second place in New Hampshire and wins in South Carolina. It will then be tough to stop Biden; look for him and Sanders take the fight for the heart and soul of the party to Milwaukee and try to heal the wounds between their supporters.
Scenario 3 is if Sanders wins, but there is no clarity on the moderate challenging him — i.e., second place is a muddle of Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Warren. This is the Bloomberg Perfect Storm.
On the positive side, moderate Democrats, Republicans and independents get a candidate who is a proven winner with a solid record of good governance. The flip side is that Sanders then gets his dream of running against a real billionaire. Bloomberg becomes Sanders’ foil and now there is an authentic battle over the heart and soul of the Democratic Party: corporate vs. populist. This could produce a rift that might not be healed.
Scenario 4 is that Warren or Buttigieg wins, reversing their current polling fortunes. A Warren victory would suggest the need for much healing with Sanders’ people, which may prove difficult. A Buttigieg victory, while interesting, would require an immediate cessation of losing campaigns and a significant rallying around this young, fresh, appealing, but inexperienced candidate.
There are other scenarios as well, to be sure. But it all begins in Iowa on Monday.