As of this writing, it’s about twenty-four hours before the Iowa Caucuses begin. This year there’s a good chance that we’ll know the results by the end of the night thanks to Microsoft. (Watch the video; it’s awesome.)
Just before the caucuses, the New York Times decided to endorse John Kasich, the solidly conservative governor of Ohio. And… well, let’s face it: The man’s got zero chance in Iowa. So who cares?
We ought to care, is the answer, but I’ll have to sketch in some background first or that’s not gonna make any sense at all. And this is deep background, so try and stay with me. We’ll start with
The most recent polls are out and both races are too close to call, but one thing we can be sure of is that Monday’s event is going to generate far more excitement than any race in recent memory. I’m fairly sure it’ll draw record numbers of Iowans, and there’s a good chance we’ll see some serious surprises. The latest (and last) poll from the best pollster in Iowa, Ann Selzer of the Des Moines Register, just came out and is showing a far closer race than any other numbers I’ve seen for both Democrats and Republicans.
And what’s got me excited… well, I just said it: We’re seeing an amazing amount of excitement about the elections this year. Lots of people are participating for once; many are optimistic, more are frustrated, and lots are plain angry — but tons of people care this time around, and that’s got me pumped. Because when we participate, we’re likely to get candidates that we actually choose rather than the ones that get chosen for us.
But sometimes no matter what we as voters decide, no matter how badly we try to make the decisions, the big money and the entrenched party powers will do a lot of the choosing for us. It’s not a great situation for a purported democracy to be in, but it’s not entirely a bad thing; demagoguery can be dangerous, and that’s the tactic of choice for both Sanders and Trump. Since the big interests have always been afraid of demagogues and their mobs (historically not known as the voice of wisdom), there are safeguards built into the system to prevent the charismatic leader-of-the-moment from going all the way on momentum alone — something that would be bad for everyone, not just for corporate donors and party hacks. I’d like to say a few words about this.
(First, though, I want to clarify: I’ve got no axe to grind against either Sanders or Trump. I think Bernie would make a fine President based on his experience and ability; I think Trump is a brilliant negotiator who’s responsible enough to let experts make policy for him. I also happen to think that the big interests deserve to feel some fear here — but these safeguards lend sanity to a process that’s otherwise mostly enthusiasm.)
No matter who wins in Iowa, the design of the caucus process is intended to spread out the delegates between different candidates. For the Democrats, it’s a safe bet that Clinton will get about half, Sanders will get about half, and O’Malley will get approximately one vote if he’s lucky. The Republicans, on the other hand, are spread out all over the place, with a dozen different reasonable candidates, none of whom will get more than a third. That means that, any way you look at it, about half of the Iowa Republican delegates will be pledged to vote for candidates that are probably going to drop long before the convention in July.
But Why Is That Important?
Nate Silver and the number-crunching whiz kids at FiveThirtyEight.com (probably the best election statistics site on the Web; check it out) seem to be missing a bet here. They’re usually right on the money predicting winners far in advance of the primaries, but in this case I think they’re waiting to see what will happen in Iowa.
But I’m not waiting, not so much.
See, when the Republican convention comes around, there’s going to be a couple thousand delegates that will decide who gets picked – 2,472, to be precise. And in order to win the nomination, a candidate will need more than 50% of the total. We already know Iowa’s 30 delegates will probably be pretty spread out, and that’s going to make getting a majority just that much harder for everyone.
Next up is New Hampshire with 23 delegates; that state also awards proportionally, and there’s 30 candidates on the primary ballot. You can probably see where I’m going already, but the next big one is the kicker: South Carolina.
See, South Carolina, unlike the first two, is a winner-take-all state. All 50 delegates will go to a single candidate, and again the field is likely to remain broad — and that means the delegates have a great chance of going to someone who’s not the leader at the convention.
Now, this article is about John Kasich, remember?
Yeah, John Kasich. He’s in the title of this article. And so far — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina — he’s got a near-zero chance of scoring anything at all. So why is he important?
See, the early races are about momentum. Traditionally, they determine which of the candidates get the big campaign contributions leading into the primaries in the bigger states, which would let these folks continue to compete. So Kasich, for example, is unlikely to do well in the first three states, which means that in a normal year he’d be very likely to drop out afterward. The same goes for the minor candidates like Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and tons of others. Except for two things:
(1) Home State Advantage — Candidates are very likely to carry their home state in a primary, as long as they’re still in the race.
(2) Money — Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, to name only two, already have campaigns with enough cash to carry them into their home states of Florida and Texas.
And with a front-page endorsement from the most widely-read daily paper in America, John Kasich may well pick up some serious campaign funds. Kasich is from Ohio.
We know Trump will stick around for a while, and he’s the front-runner right now so he’ll get some of the delegates. But Texas will go Cruz (155); Florida will go Bush (99); Ohio will go Kasich (66). Between those three states and the early proportional races, we’re talking almost a quarter of the delegates that will be widely dispersed among at least four candidates and maybe more (I haven’t even mentioned the popular Marco Rubio) — and there’s other proportional races later on in the process that will also split up.
All this taken together means that, in order to win outright at the convention, a candidate will need to sweep the winner-take-all primaries. And nobody’s that popular, not even The Donald.
What Happens Then?
Remember, this is all premature; we’re talking about predicting the results before even one caucus event is held, before we’ve had a single primary or a single delegate or a single vote. But I’m pretty confident about my prediction, which is that, after a long series of state primary campaigns (and a ton of free press for the candidates), the country is going to go into the July Republican convention undecided. And that means that the delegates themselves may well get to choose a candidate among themselves — no matter how much money each campaign spends. That’s amazing.
Thing is, remember what I said about free press? That’s huge. It means that whoever the Republican choice ends up being, there’s going to be a ton of free advertising by the end of July, especially if there’s a divided convention.
Everyone in the country will know the candidate’s name.
What Does That Mean For Democrats?
In a normal year, what that means to me is that the Democrats will flat-out lose the election. No contest, no hope, and no amount of money could change that.
But what could is the Iowa Caucuses (among other things).
On the off chance the Democrats also go in to July with a divided convention, they’ll earn the same level of free press. That’s not extremely likely; with two viable candidates, the chance that there’ll be a more or less even split is miniscule. But there is one outside chance; its name is Martin O’Malley. See, if a third candidate earns enough delegates to split the vote, Presto! Divided convention! Unfortunately for Democrats, that’s unlikely.
But all is not lost, because the race between Clinton and Sanders looks extremely close. That means we’re going to be hearing a lot from both of them right through to the end of the primary season — California, in early June. And that too is free press — not as much as the Republicans are likely to get, but still a lot.
Now, I hate to bring this up, but it would be irresponsible not to: Clinton is at the center of a scandal about potential technical improprieties during her tenure at State. They’re serious enough that there’s a chance someone somewhere will bring charges. If that happens — and I rate that at right around 10% — she’ll probably drop out of the race in favor of — guess who? — Martin O’Malley. And that too means a divided convention.
And What Does That Mean For November’s Election?
Mostly, this means we’re going to continue to have a ton of interest in the primary battles for a long long time. It’s going to be the big story of the year; lesser events will fade into the background. It’s likely to mean massive voter turnout and a huge chance for an upset or a landslide. It’s all tremendously exciting.
But that doesn’t tell you who’s going to win, or even who should.
Personally, I’ve got my share of likes and dislikes. As people, I respect Bernie Sanders, Dr. Carson, Rand Paul, and even (just a little) Martin O’Malley. As candidates, I’m confident that most of each field is qualified but one or two are either unelectable or unlikely to do the country any good if they do get in. And I haven’t even mentioned Bill & Opus.
But that’s just my opinion, and I’m a long way from endorsing anyone. Even if I did, it’s unlikely to carry as much weight as the New York Times does when they endorse John Kasich.
Potentially, that one headline could be the tiny weight that decides the election.
Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.