Democrats Leaving Nothing and No One to Chance in Iowa
Like hamburgers and family rooms, the Iowa caucuses are a lot bigger than they used to be.
Let's look at the Democrats. Collectively this year, the six major 2008 candidates have opened more than 100 campaign offices and hired at least 800 aides, according to an unofficial tally by the Iowa Democratic Party. That's not counting volunteers. Airwaves are jammed with ads, mailboxes are full of fliers, and telephones are ringing off the hook. The big public events are nearing general-election scale. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) alone are expected to dump $15 million each into the state. "It's tremendous overkill -- let's just start with that," said John Norris, a veteran Iowa Democratic organizer who supports Obama.
A big chunk of the cash is aimed at expanding the pool of caucusgoers. Targets include independents, Republicans, women in Clinton's case, and for Obama, young voters. In late 2003, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) wooed veterans, who were crucial to his upset victory the following January. If the race continues as a tight, three-way contest between Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), a few thousand new voters could prove decisive. But Norris is not sure the targeting is necessary. "They're so tuned in that I don't know if the extra effort is going to make the difference," he said.
And where does that leave Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.)? He's still polling, within the margin of error, around zero, and yet has 11 offices in Iowa with two more about to open. Some are staffed by a few young aides who set up events, attend community functions and recruit supporters. All Dodd needs now are some converts to put him into the game.
"It's phenomenal," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said of the scale this year. "I've never seen anything like it."
The Numbers Game
It seems as though every day, there is a new Iowa poll. Clinton's up! No, she's down! Romney is running away with the state! No, it's Huckabee on the move!
In October, six public surveys were conducted in Iowa on the Republican side, while five were done testing the Democratic field. And yet questions linger about how much stock to put in any of the numbers. Pollsters and strategists always remind reporters of how difficult it is to poll Iowa -- usually right after the release of a poll that shows their candidate struggling.
Why is it so hard? The Fix talked to both prominent independent and party pollsters to look for answers.
Figuring out who is going to vote is always the most basic challenge for any pollster. Past results provide a guide but can never be taken as foolproof, because turnout dynamics change from election to election. This is especially true in Iowa's caucuses, where an extremely small number of registered voters turn out to participate, voters can register the day of the caucuses and turnout patterns fluctuate widely from caucus to caucus.
"In general elections in Iowa, about three in four registered voters turn up at the polls," said J. Ann Selzer, the director of the Des Moines Register's widely respected Iowa poll. "This makes polling much safer, as an additional 100,000 showing up unexpectedly will not affect the outcome all that much. But at a caucus, this would be tantamount to a tsunami."
In 2004, there was constant chatter that pollsters were missing vast numbers of new caucusgoers, especially young people, who were going to turn out for former governor Howard Dean of Vermont. That prediction wound up wrong, as Dean placed third in the caucuses.
But the possibility of a major turnout spike for a single candidate is again being floated, this time for Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), whose campaign has spent a lot of time in Iowa organizing young people. "He does well with young voters and first-time caucus attendees and independents," writes Selzer. "These are not the sort who show up most plentifully on caucus night."
The truth of the matter is that polling the Iowa caucuses, even more so than polling in other states, is at least equal parts art and science. Deciding who will vote and who they will vote for is a predictive exercise that forces a pollster to look backward (at past voting trends etc.) and forward (at the growth potential of the electorate) simultaneously.
Looking for a port in this storm of information? The Fix's informal survey of pollsters in Iowa and those who do considerable work in the state produced a consensus. Selzer's Iowa Poll is the gold standard; it was Selzer, and Selzer alone, who had the top four finishers in Iowa in the correct order in her final poll before the 2004 caucuses.
Not many people outside of Kentucky's political community know the name "Justin Brasell." That's about to change. Brasell has signed on as campaign manager for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) reelection race, which could be among the most expensive and contentious contests of the 2008 cycle. Democrats believe McConnell's position in Washington has made him vulnerable and are trying to persuade state Auditor Crit Luallen to run. The hard-charging Brasell has a record of success in the Bluegrass State; he served as 4th District Rep. Geoff Davis's (R) lead political adviser in 2004 and 2006.
Today: How cool is Dennis Kucinich? Less than 24 hours after appearing at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Kucinich will be in Asheville, N.C., to appear on stage with folk singer Ani DiFranco. DiFranco backed Kucinich in 2004, and in an interview with Spinner, an online music site, last month proclaimed: "He's still as cool as he ever was."
81 days: CNN and the Los Angeles Times host a Democratic presidential debate on the Left Coast. It's the final primary debate scheduled. Thank God.