Tonight, Iowans officially kick off the 2016 Presidential Election, giving citizens the first chance to make their selection for the nominees for the Republicans and Democrats during their caucus.
Despite the fact that Iowa is a relatively small state and its demographics hardly represent the diversity of the United States, it matters. It matters because being the first state to take part in the Presidential Primary process means it can generate enough media enthusiasm to help spur the winning candidates onto continued success in the election cycle towards receiving their party’s nomination.
Given the chaotic nature of the 2016 cycle thus far, the results in Iowa will give us the clearest picture about who is best posed to win the nomination.
The last poll conducted by the respected Des Moines Register gave us the closest insight of the candidates’ statuses going into the caucus:
Donald Trump – 28%
Ted Cruz – 23%
Marco Rubio – 15%
Ben Carson – 10%
Rand Paul – 5%
Chris Christie – 3%
(All others under 2% each)
Margin of Error : +/- 4%
Hillary Clinton – 45%
Bernie Sanders – 42%
Martin O’Malley – 3%
Margin of Error: +/- 4%
For the Republicans, Trump maintains a slight advantage, while for the Democrats, Clinton and Sanders are essentially in a virtual tie. So, what is at stake for each major candidate tonight?
A win in Iowa could arguably cause a steamroller effect for Trump to receive the Republican nomination. Trump is already likely to win the upcoming primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he has commanding leads, and if he sweeps the early primary states, the following media frenzy and firestorm could prove to be too much for other candidates.
It’s not game over for Trump either, if he loses Iowa. As much as Trump loves winning, he is more than likely still going to win New Hampshire and South Carolina, but a loss in Iowa will signify a much more competitive primary than Trump is hoping for. As long as Trump doesn’t implode in Iowa, he is still has a strong chance at the nomination.
It’s win Iowa or bust for Senator Cruz. His campaign has repeatedly stated that he will win Iowa, so anything less than a win will be devastating for the Cruz campaign. Considering that Iowa’s evangelical voter demographic is Cruz’s most tailored voting block, failing to court their vote would spell doom for his candidacy, as he is unlikely to win New Hampshire or South Carolina.
At best, a win over Trump would help spur momentum for Cruz to compete with Trump in the Super Tuesday primaries in the South and could tempt more backing from establishment candidates.
At worst, if Cruz finishes a distant second or third, his campaign will be over.
Unlike Trump and Cruz, the Florida Senator’s campaign has not put success in Iowa as the cornerstone of their campaign. Instead, the campaign has been gunning for a third place finish, which they are currently placing, in order to position Rubio as the premier establishment candidate, to persuade others to drop out and reshuffle support behind Rubio.
Therefore, anything above third is a win for Rubio, who is prepping for a long primary battle with Trump or Cruz. A second place finish or an upset first place result would solidify Rubio as the GOP establishment’s choice and as the preeminent front-runner in later results.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, is facing a much stronger opposition to her supposed coronation as the Democratic Party front-runner. With Sanders surging in the recent month, the state which many assumed would be a lock for Hillary is a toss-up.
During the past month, the Clinton campaign has pulled out all the stops to halt Sanders, bringing in notable Democratic politicians, like her husband, Bill Clinton, and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, along with celebrities like Demi Lovato and Katy Perry.
Hillary is unlikely to win New Hampshire, but considering her strong support in South Carolina and her “Southern Firewall,” looking forward to Super Tuesday, a win in Iowa would cement her place as the Democratic front-runner and essentially guarantee her nomination.
In a similar vain to Cruz, Iowa is a must win for the Vermont Senator, if he wants his “political revolution” to come to fruition. Sanders currently has a commanding lead in New Hampshire, but given his deficit in South Carolina and other Southern states with minority voters and moderates, Sanders needs in Iowa win to give him any chance at creating the momentum needed to carry him into the rest of the primary campaign and be competitive.
Sanders’ core demographic is young, white liberals, which luckily for Bernie makes up roughly 50% of Iowa Democratic caucus goers. In fact the top three states in which white liberals make up the largest constituency of Democratic primary voters is Vermont, New Hampshire, and Iowa, in that order.
As a result, if Sanders doesn’t win Iowa, it’s game-over. A Sanders win in Iowa would cause the Democratic establishment to enter crisis-mode and could generate the same type of momentum that allowed former President Jimmy Carter to upset the Democratic establishment in 1976 with his surprise Iowa win.
The Democratic race in Iowa is a coin-toss at the moment, with a Clinton win cementing her spot as the Democratic nominee and a Sanders upset signaling a long, brutal primary battle.
As Sanders courts the younger, college voters (who tend not to participate as often), any early signs that voter turnout is high should be good news for Sanders, and average or below-average turnout should be good news for Clinton.
Image Credit to Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press / Reuters / Brian C. Frank / Getty / Andrew Harnik