Politics & Policy

The Seconds Have It

Why Hillary really trails in Iowa.

Hillary Clinton leads in most late polls of Iowa, if only narrowly. Yet she will not place first. She may not even place second.

The reason lies buried in the Democratic caucus process, and it stems from the fact that Hillary Clinton is hardly anyone’s second choice for the Democratic nomination.

Clinton could conceivably win her party’s nomination without Iowa, but it would be difficult. A loss tomorrow night would obviously destroy her aura of inevitability and weaken her in other states. A bad enough loss would deprive her of a rebound in New Hampshire, where she currently leads Illinois senator Barack Obama by the narrowest of margins. Michigan’s Democratic primary one week later will be meaningless — Clinton and former Alaska senator Mike Gravel are the only candidates on the ballot there, as all other candidates withdrew in the face of party sanctions. Then comes Nevada, where Clinton’s large lead in the polls might not survive surprise defeats in the first two states, and South Carolina, where she and Obama are essentially tied.

In short, Iowa is very important for Hillary Clinton. A loss would be bad for her. The worst-possible outcome would be a third-place showing and an Obama victory. Yet as most polls give her a narrow lead in the final week, how can anyone predict her downfall with confidence? The answer lies in the same polls that show her leading.

Take this recent Insider Advantage poll. At 30 percent, Hillary leads both Obama (22 percent) and Edwards (29 percent). Many other polls show a closer race, with all three in a statistical tie.

So if this poll is correct, Hillary will win, right? Wrong. The most relevant feature of the Democratic caucus, as opposed to the Republican one, is that it allows supporters of losing candidates to make a second choice. This is where Hillary is on course to fall short.

To get some idea of how this works, let us examine the Johnson County Auditor’s website, which offers an easy example (it was written for 2004, but the rules remain essentially the same).

Imagine that 100 Democrats show up to caucus in an imaginary Iowa precinct. They watch speeches given by candidates’ local surrogates and, each then tries to persuade his undecided neighbors. Caucus-goers choose a corner of the room in which to stand — the Clintonites will stand together in one place, as will the Obama-backers, the Dodd-lovers and all the rest. Once each has chosen his place, a timeout is called. A tally is made of each candidate’s supporters. In the example, the count comes out thus:

John F. Kennedy: 44 supporters

Franklin D. Roosevelt: 30 supporters

Harry Truman: 14 supporters

Woodrow Wilson: 12 supporters

It doesn’t end here, though. In the Democratic caucus, candidates must receive 15 percent of the precinct’s vote in order to receive any delegates. And so once this initial tally is taken, everyone is given a chance to form up again. Kennedy and Roosevelt backers have no incentive to change sides — their candidates are all set to get delegates in this precinct. But backers of Truman and Wilson get to take a second crack at it (or else they can just leave). They could band together to give Truman a few delegates, or they could join one of the frontrunners to boost his numbers. Once the realignment takes place, precinct delegates are awarded proportionally (each precinct is entitled to a different number of them). The party then reports the number of delegates — not the number of votes — to the media.

What does this mean for Hillary? According to the Insider Advantage poll, she is the second choice of just 21 percent of likely caucus-goers who are backing Sen. Joe Biden (Del.), Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.), Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), and all other also-rans, who in most precincts will fail to reach the 15 percent threshold. John Edwards, by contrast, is the second choice of 62 percent (Obama is at 17 percent). This is significant because a full 20 percent of those surveyed said they were either undecided or backing a minor candidate in the first round.

In a close race between Clinton and Edwards, Edwards bests her after the realignment is done, thanks to those likely caucus goers who consider him their second choice. If the latest Des Moines Register poll is to be trusted, and Hillary is locked in a second-place tie with Edwards, then her worst-case scenario could be realized. This may explain why Clinton campaign officials are forbidden to say she will win Iowa.

Hillary may have a miracle up her sleeve, and if she does win Iowa then she is a safe bet for the Democratic nomination. But no strategic attempt to lower expectations could explain away a loss after she worked the state so hard. Her first choice in Iowa was always to win.

— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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