The race for the White House is in high gear now as we approach the first voting date of the year. Iowans will caucus on the evening of February 1st and make their preferences known for both the GOP and Democratic nominees. Twenty-one days out and what do we know? The short answer is 'not much.'
The Democratic Race
The polls are all over the board although some consistency is beginning to appear. On the Democratic side most polls show a tight race between Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Martin O'Malley polls a distant third in every poll. The question for longtime observers and political scientists like myself is whether the polls are valid indicators of preference at this point? Primary and caucus polling is generally less reliable than general election polling because voters are choosing between candidates within their own party rather than between parties. It is also much more difficult to know who will actually caucus or vote in a primary because many who indicate planning to vote actually do not.
Senator Sanders has shown a remarkable ability to raise money from small donations and has managed to keep pace with Hillary Clinton, though with a somewhat lower 'burn' rate (the rate at which the campaign spends its cash on hand). For the year, Sanders raised about $73 million compared to Clinton's $112 million. On the spending side, Sanders has spent about $45 million (61%) to Clinton's $74 million (66%). Though being outspent by nearly $29 million polls show Sanders in a virtual tie with Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire (which votes February 9th). What does it say about a front runner and presumptive nominee that has to spend a good portion of what she raises to stave off a challenge from America's only elected Democratic Socialist? A loss in Iowa would almost certainly lead to a loss in New Hampshire for Clinton, which would spell trouble for a candidate long presumed to be the Democratic standard bearer. Are we in for a repeat of 2008 with Sen. Sanders and Sec. Clinton trading wins in a long drawn out fight like the one she waged against then Sen. Barack Obama? If so, it will be fun to watch but probably a nightmare for the Democratic Party.
The Republican Race
One thing that can be said about the Republican race is that the polls have been remarkably consistent for quite some time. Unlike the previous two contests that featured outsider candidates rising to the top of the polls and then fading rapidly, Donald J. Trump has been first or second in nearly every poll since declaring his candidacy last June. No matter what outlandish statement he makes or who he insults his support remains constant. Sometimes it even grows stronger. Trump also has one advantage that no other candidate in the race has: he doesn't need to raise money and run ads. Trump is largely self-financing his campaign, which lends credibility to his statements about not being 'bought' by moneyed special interests. This appeals at a basic level to a significant portion of the GOP base that is fed up with candidates appealing to the elites in the party. In many ways, Trump's supporters see him as 'one of them' even though in reality they'll never own a private jet and bathe in a gold plated bathroom. Trump has done a good job appealing to the most base elements of his party. The question is whether they'll show up to vote in February?
Currently in second place in most of the polls of Iowa is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). Cruz has been consistently gaining on Trump for the last month and a few recent polls show him either a few points ahead or in a statistical tie with Trump. Cruz's strengths are that he also appeals to the very conservative wing of his party, is seen as a relative outsider due to his opposition to most everything party leadership has wanted in Washington, and his fundraising has been strong. The downside for Cruz is that there simply isn't room enough in an extended nomination fight for both he and Trump. Something will give after the first few contests, though Cruz is looking strong in the southern portion of the Super Tuesday primaries labeled as the SEC primary that takes place on March 1st. As long as he does well in Iowa and South Carolina it's a good bet Cruz is in it for the long haul.
Finally, the typical mainstream moderately conservative Republicans. You know, the ones closer to Reagan than either Trump or Cruz. There seem to be four candidates in this group now, three who have served as governors in states that have voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections (Kasich-OH, Bush-FL, Christie-NJ) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). All four are competing for the same spot, probably 3rd in Iowa and 2nd in New Hampshire. If one of the four can accomplish that he probably secures his position as the race moves to South Carolina and Nevada before the March primaries. The others, though Bush may be the exception due his large war chest, are likely to drop out shortly thereafter.
The fourth tier has no viable path to the nomination at this point. This includes Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee. Fiorina and Carson enjoyed some nice polling bumps last fall but have since fallen back to nothing more than an afterthought. Dropping out of the race would benefit their party and add clarity to the race. For that reason alone I don't anticipate them going anywhere before Iowans vote.
The Bottom Line
Donald Trump has every reason to feel good going into the caucuses and primaries over the next six weeks, as does Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton has good reason to be nervous and fear a repeat of 2008. Bernie Sanders has a shot if he wins both Iowa and New Hampshire. The establishment in the GOP has every reason to be terrified of either a Trump or Cruz nomination as either could tear the party apart in a way we haven't seen since Barry Goldwater secured the Republican nomination in 1964. The good news for the GOP is that it only took four years to emerge from the Goldwater debacle and it went on to win five of the next six presidential elections. On the flip side, a loss in 2016 will mean the party will have lost the popular vote for president in six of the last seven elections. That could be a harbinger of disaster given that the election is theirs to lose this year.