Third-place in Iowa: Curse for a Democrat, Blessing for a Republican

A contrast between the GOP and the Democratic race is that third-place finish is the prize almost all Republican candidates are running after, while it is the curse that could doom a Democratic campaign.

On the Republican side, there are four candidates with a decent shot at third place. With Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney battling at the top, McCain, Thompson, Giuliani and Ron Paul could all come in third. Polls have the group within 6-7% of each other, which basically means that they are all within the margin of error and swapping places. Of the four, McCain and Giuliani had given up Iowa months ago -- and it is a testament to Thompson's steady drop that he has been unable to secure an advantage over them in a state he has campaigned in aggressively.

John McCain, of course, came back to the state a few days this week, boosted by some polls that showed him suddenly competitive and a lot of buzz that he is everyone's second choice. And today, it was Rudy's turn to go back to Iowa. And get this: It was only Giuliani's 19th day in Iowa -- versus 40 for McCain. In striking distance of a decent showing, Giuliani is looking to get some votes in places he was not expecting to go back to. A difference of only 4% could make the difference between sixth place and third -- and a major shift in the media narrative.

As for Ron Paul, he is the big question mark of the race. He has a ton of money and he could saturate the airwaves with as much advertisements as Huckabee (probably not of Romney, but at least try and get close); and while Paul is up on air, he is spending significantly less than his rivals (the same is true in New Hampshire). The reason seems to obviously be that Paul wants to save some money for an independent run later in the year -- but he could literally insure that he would get a solid showing if he was more committed to getting the job done.

Among Democrats, of course, the dynamic is very different. Though there can always be a major unexpected shift in any race, it would be quite shocking if one of the big three collapsed behind Biden or Richardson. And the race right now is as tied as could be between John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. That means that the race is not only to determine who will win the caucuses -- but also to avoid coming in third.

Adding to the likely agony of the third Democrat are the caucus rules. I am not going to explain the whole process again here (check out my explanation here if you are not up to date), but the problem of viability and of realignment means that margins can artificially expand very quickly, so that a margin of a few raw individual votes can become a wider one when delegate allocation is taken up into account. Look at the 2004 results: Kerry got 38% and Gephardt only 11%, but it is very unlikely that there was such a gap among caucus-goers when they entered the caucus-place.

In other words, even if Iowa Democrats enter their caucus place on Thursday night divided something like 30-29-28, the final results that will be reported at the end of the night can very well have a 10% or more margin between the first and the third place finisher. And it seems to me at least that with her weak second-choice preferences, Clinton could be most at risk of sinking far behind once realignment kicks in -- whereas if Clinton is in a position of winning the caucuses, Obama and Edwards would probably be able to better keep the margins close. Though it will also all depend on whether each campaign (especially Edwards's) issues directives to precincts captains about helping/hurting another candidate (more on that to come sometime this week).

Whoever comes in third will be in big trouble and start bleeding support in the later contests. This is an especially large risk for either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (Edwards would probably be fatally harmed even with a second place showing given that he needs a win here to be able to really continue his campaign). With New Hampshire looming 5 days later, third-place for either of these candidates could very well cost them a victory in the Granite State. Whereas a third-place showing for McCain could mean a big boost on January 8th.

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