Friday, January 04, 2008

What Victory in the Iowa Caucuses Means

What do the victories of Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee in their respective parties' Iowa caucuses mean for each man's likelihood of becoming President? Certainly not nothing, but not all that much either. Let's look at elections since 1976, when both parties started paying serious attention to Iowa. And let's omit consideration of elections in which an incumbent won re-election, because incumbents win the Iowa caucuses easily. (Even Jimmy Carter, the last incumbent to face a serious primary challenge, defeated Ted Kennedy by a nearly 2-1 margin in 1980). That leaves us with five data points: 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, and 2000.

We find that the ultimate winner of the Presidency won his party's Iowa caucuses in a contested field in at most two of these five years: George W. Bush clearly won in 2000 and Jimmy Carter beat all of his opponents in 1976, although more people voted Uncommitted than for Carter. In each of the other three years, the ultimate winner lost the Iowa caucuses, in two cases badly: In 1988 George H. W. Bush came in third behind Bob Dole (okay, from neighboring Kansas) and Pat Robertson (Huckabee without gubernatorial experience?), and in 1992 Bill Clinton got just 3% of the vote (although the leading Dems basically took a powder in deference to favorite son Tom Harkin). So historically speaking, winning the Iowa caucuses is hardly a guarantee of ultimate success.

What do the particular results mean? On the Democratic side, we now have essentially a two-person race. Edwards, having spent nearly all of the last 4 years in Iowa, and out of money, gets no bounce from his tie for second with Clinton. Clinton had a slim lead over Obama in NH before the Iowa caucuses, and the Obama Iowa bounce, plus the ability of independents to vote in NH, means that race is probably a toss-up now (which isn't to say it couldn't break for one or the other in the coming days). All of this suggests that the Democratic nomination will likely be decided by actual voters in large states. Yes, they'll have only two choices but they're two serious choices. No more debates featuring Mike Gravel (though Dennis Kucinich is likely to stay to the bitter end).

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, all is chaos. Mike Huckabee is unlikely to appeal to New England Republicans, and with very little in the way of organization or money, it's hard to imagine him winning the nomination. Romney is the big loser, of course, and if he loses to McCain in New Hampshire, that will signal an almost categorical rejection. But McCain also is short on organization and money. This opens the door, in my humble and usually wrong opinion, for Rudy Giuliani's Florida strategy. So weirdly, I pick Giuliani as the big winner among the Republicans, despite garnering just 4% of the Iowa vote.

Posted by Mike Dorf


Sobek said...

"...and with very little in the way of organization or money, it's hard to imagine [Huckabee] winning the nomination."

That's what I keep trying to tell myself, but I thought the same thing about him winning Iowa a month and a half ago.

"Romney is the big loser, of course..."

Agreed. But I disagree that Giuliani is the winner. If Thompson's numbers had been lower, then maybe. But he got enough to stay competitive, which is exactly what his campaign needed, and with a possible Romney flameout, combined with Huck-stility (honestly, isn't the threat of four years of stupid Huck puns enough to make people vote against this guy?) and Giuliani's nationally-slipping numbers, Thompson can do well in SC. Not saying he will, just that he can.

I also disagree about Edwards. He surprised everyone by beating Hillary, the inevitable candidate. The worse things get for Hillary, the better they get for Edwards.

So Professor, who's your preferred candidate? Who are your acceptable candidates?

Benjam said...


i agree with part of your analysis on the republican side. iowa republicans are a very conservative lot. huckabee's win doesnt really enhance his viability. your reference to pat robertson's victory is right on point. however, huck's win does badly hurt romney who was already damaged goods due to his various conversions of convenience. the fact of the matter is that the republicans are further from winning the 2008 Whitehouse today than they were yesterday.

about rudy, you are just plan wrong. he was toast weeks ago. national polls and polls in states not actively contested are simply not meaningful. he may choose to continue his messianic, angry run, but there is an undeniable truth: the more voters get to know rudy, the less they want him to be president. if this were not such a strange year, with fox news actively pimping his candidacy, he would be off the radar screen. tonight, he got 3 percent and ron paul got 10 percent. enough said.

on the democratic side, this is a huge night for obama. if he wins NH, this baby is over. he wont lose SC where 50% of the voters are african-american. tonight, he got a bigger share of the women's vote than hillary did. victories in IA, NH and SC will sew it up, barring some major gaffe. in other words, this win puts obama one step away from the nomination.

in the end, super caucus day on Feb 5 will come too late to help either hillary or obama. the funny part is the role reversal that is taking place. for once, the democratic candidate will see a smooth path to victory and emerge unbruised. on the other hand, republican voters will end up with a candidate they really dont like.

a very good night for the libs, no doubt.

Sobek said...

" voters will end up with a candidate they really dont like."

You got that right.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Okay, since you asked, I'm enthusiastically supporting Obama, whom I knew and liked in law school (he was a year behind me, we were both research assistants for Larry Tribe, and we took a seminar together in which his comments were sufficiently helpful that I thanked him in the acknowledgments to my first book). Not that "Dorf on Law" endorses candidates. My donations to the Obama campaign are in my personal capacity!

Tam Ho said...

How do you feel about Kucinich, ideologically speaking?

Benjam said...


here's the way it turns out. obama wins in november, puts mike on the SCOTUS, and then you clerk for him. following your clerkship, you become the sixth former clerk (mike will be the fifth) to serve on SCOTUS. you cant argue with that, can you?


is kucinich still running for president? i thought he dropped his bid to devote himself full-time to the useless task of impeaching cheney. i hate kucinich because he promised everyone a magic pony and i still havent gotten mine.

Sobek said...

"you cant argue with that, can you?"

No I cannot. Mike, when you get confirmed, let me know where to send my application materials.

Heck, I'd even pull the lever for Obama for that. Actually, if Huck takes the nomination, I must just vote Obama anyway.

"...because he promised everyone a magic pony and i still havent gotten mine."

It takes about six weeks. I got mine last Monday.

Benjam said...


the only thing that can derail this plan is if we find out that ted olson has poisoned the rudy-koolade that mike's been drinking. aside from that, i think we're good to go.

sobek, i still think you should vote for huck because i wouldn't want him to lose the popular vote 150 million to zero.

mike and sobek, can i help write your memoirs when you retire from the scotus?

brit hume looked so sad tonight. sooooo sad.

Sobek said...

I think Mike would have to promise to admit in at least one published opinion that some of the research was done by an ancient Egyptian crocodile god.

egarber said...

I too like Obama very much. Dreams from my Father, written in 1995 before he started his political career, is an excellent read -- an open and honest story written without the kind of filtering and self-censorship that inevitably traps high-office seekers.

If he prevails in the primaries, the country will face a big test: will it elect a black president named Obama?

My sense is that he can win, but I also know that for all our progress in the area of racial tolerance, there are people out there who simply “can’t vote for a black man named Obama.” I’ve heard those exact words on several occasions, and I think it stems largely from a small town / rural emotional response – partly for racial reasons, and partly because (as ridiculous as it is) he has a Muslim-sounding name.

I think the empirical fundamentals flow in the right direction:

1. Most of the people I’m describing wouldn’t likely vote for a Democrat anyway. The big swing will be with independents.

2. Barack won handily in a state (Iowa) that’s 97% white.

3. The Iowa events drew out double the turnout from 2004, a strong indication that independents (not simply base Democrats) came out to support Obama.

4. The younger generation has largely moved past the racial intolerance still engrained within some older Americans.

5. The political climate itself – 70-75% of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction – is ripe for inspirational change.

7. Anecdotally, I have one Republican friend down here in GA -- an ardent Bush supporter on Iraq -- who told me he got goosebumps watching Obama's speech the other night. He says he may cross and vote for him.

But I also know that Barack will face a massive smear campaign**, some overt and some through code. The good thing is that anything tinged with race might backfire in a big way. My hope is that if he wins, he'll absorb the Hillary people to get ready for the ugliness – she is by far the most experienced in fighting back.

**Sobek, in no way am I trying to paint all or most conservatives with this comment. I’m just afraid we’ll see a whole bunch of super-distorted mailers like some that went out about Kerry – e.g., “Kerry wants to ban the bible”, etc. Neither side should partake in that crap, but it happens nonetheless, because unfortunately it works with many people.

Anyway, I’ll close this babble with my opening question: is the country ready for a black president named Obama? I know I am.

andy grewal said...

what type of justice do you suppose obama would nominate? more along the lines of ginsburg? or more along the lines of stevens/warren?

egarber said...

One thing the Iowa Caucuses mean is that the debates are winnowed down to fewer players. It'll just be the top four tonight. Look for Richardson (my guy going into this thing) to make a play at looking like a VICE president.

Come to think of it, an Obama / Richardson ticket seems pretty good to me. Bill's gun credentials and ability to govern a red state might help Obama even more with independents. Could tip New Mexico and Colorado.

Benjam said...


i like the idea of mike using the egyptian crocodile god's work. however i think the more like scenario is that in an homage to harry blackmun, mike begins one of his opinions with a list of the greatest NY knickerbockers of all times but comes under fire for including campy russell while failing to include marvin webster.


i remember the same discussion when dinkins ran for mayor. people who think america is not ready for a black leader are simply not ready themselves. i agree with you that people who wouldnt vote for obama based on race wouldnt be voting for ANY democrat. the southern realignment took care of that. almost all of the white supremacists are now repubs and that was not true in the 1960's and even later.


great question. impossible to answer. presidents tend to be more moderate in their initial nominations, but i think obama would take a true jurist along the lines of ginsburg. warren was more of a political operator and stevens was unknown and often unpredictable. i think he would choose a fifty-something distinguished jurist (or scholar) who will be a knee-jerk liberal vote. hence my support of mike (and sobek, if he "evolves"). i do not think it will be a politician or someone with extensive executive branch experience. obama would know who is on the Team.

Benjam said...


good analysis. richardson provides balance to the ticket with his foreign policy credentials. his western appeal (and spanish fluency) will give the dems a great shot at new mexico, colorado, nevada, and (to a lesser degree) florida.

biden would also be a good choice but he has no geographic appeal and dems dont want to open up his senate seat. besides, he might not even take it. the job he has is WAY better. same goes for dodd.

my only difference in opinion is that richardson will not BEGIN to look vice presidential tonight. that has been the entire purpose of his run all along, to get a spot on hillary's ticket. funny the way things work out.

egarber said...

i remember the same discussion when dinkins ran for mayor.

yeah, but NY city is hardly the wider electorate of the country. A better example is probably Obama himself winning state-wide in Illinois.

I hear you overall. Obviously, it's way overdue -- but I think it's a valid question to ask in assessing the state of things. And don't misread me -- in no way am I suggesting that primary voters should avoid voting for him because of this challenge. If he's the best candidate (as he appears to be now), let's go.

egarber said...

richardson provides balance to the ticket with his foreign policy credentials. his western appeal (and spanish fluency) will give the dems a great shot at new mexico, colorado, nevada, and (to a lesser degree) florida.

Here are some 2004 numbers -- lots of close finishes. AND, there has been demographic shift out west in the last four years.

Bush over Kerry:

Nevada: 51-48
Colorado: 52-47
New Mexico: 50-49
Arizona: 55-44
Florida: 52-47

egarber said...

Ok, I'll stop blog-hogging after this comment.

To Mike's opening question about what Iowa might mean, I just saw this headline:

Rasmussen Poll: Obama Takes Big Lead In New Hampshire
By Eric Kleefeld - January 5, 2008, 2:36PM

Barack Obama has taken a huge lead in the first pure post-Iowa poll of New Hampshire. Rasmussen gives Obama 37%, Hillary Clinton 27%, John Edwards 19%, and Bill Richardson 8%. Rasmussen's last poll from two weeks ago had Clinton at 31%, Obama 28%, Edwards 18%, and Richardson 6%.

full story:

Benjam said...


you arent a blog-hog. i've suggested a weekend open thread for Dorf on Law simply to allow a free flow, back and forth and to give mike a day of rest. for example, i'd love to hear some perspectives on the capital punishment cases now before the court.

anyway, another poll has obama up by 12. time for hillary to stop, drop and roll. she's getting torched. now i dont need to give money to obama. i just need to decide if i should give it to Huck or Ron Paul.

Sobek said...

"i just need to decide if i should give it to Huck or Ron Paul."

Dirty rat bastard!

Sobek said...

"But I also know that Barack will face a massive smear campaign**, some overt and some through code."

Conspiracy theory question: any chance that Hillary will run the smear campaign after she drops out, to keep herself in the running for 2012?

Unknown said...

any chance that Hillary will run the smear campaign after she drops out

Or after she loses again tomorrow?

Benjam said...

i think hillary will play it the same way she played it in 2004. she gave kerry very little support. she will give obama none, but he wont need it.

the clintons have already started the smear campaign through mark penn, billy shaheen and bob kerry. they stopped only because it backfired.

too bad, but i dont see clinton or edwards dropping out soon. the only question is whether or not they can stop obama from getting the necessary delegates locked up.

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