Hard to believe, but the Iowa caucuses are less than two weeks away. It's hard to believe in part because I just haven't gotten myself into the presidential race the way I did four years ago. I started blogging in 2003 because of Howard Dean (and have kept it up because of a lack of anything better to do), but this year I have not campaigned for a candidate, endorsed a candidate, given money to a candidate, or anything of the sort.
So it's kind of weird to think that, here we are, just moments away from the thing already. It seems to have snuck up on us, sprung up from behind a snow bank or something. And now we have to deal with it.
At any rate, I would like to offer my brief predictions and thoughts, for what they are worth.
Winners: If I had to bet--and I don't think I would, because there is no clear frontrunner in Iowa on either side right now, but if someone gave me two quarters and said, "Here, bet these"--if I had to bet, I would bet on Hillary Clinton and Willard "Mitt" Romney. I would bet on them just simply on the theory that, all else being equal, the candidate with the most money usually wins.
Democrats: There is tremendous pressure on the three leaders, all of whom have a real chance at winning. Clinton is a monolith: She has the money, a well-oiled machine, and deep support; she led in the polls for much of the fall, after all. Barack Obama will do well if the traditionally unreliable youth vote actually gets to the caucuses--but they traditionally don't, which will be his weakness. John Edwards is in year six of his campaign in Iowa, and has probably the best ground game.
The pressure comes from this: If Clinton wins, the game is pretty much over; she will run the rest of the table. Even if Clinton comes in second--I have a hard time seeing her third--the other two will have to work hard to stop her. Obama must come in first if he wants a chance at New Hampshire voters' confidence that he's a closer. A second-place finish won't kill him, but it will make his chances of winning anything before February 5 much slimmer. Obama in third, though, means the end of that campaign. Edwards must finish first or he will have to drop out--he's not got the support in any of the other early states and needs the momentum.
As I said, any of the three could win. And I will happily support any of those three in the general election come November. On February 19, when I actually get to vote, the nominee will probably be long since decided.
Republicans: The top two will be Romney and Mike Huckabee. Someone recently asked--I think it was the Recess Supervisor, though now I can't find the post--who could have predicted Huckabee's rise to frontrunner status. Well, not to brag or anything, but I did, a year ago. Huckabee's got a natural constituency among the religious conservatives who always, always go to the caucuses in Iowa. (They are the ones who stayed home in 2006 and allowed Democrats to make gains there--they were getting tired of faux-Christian Bush and the faux-Christian Republicans in Congress.) Romney is throwing around money in Iowa like Mardi Gras beads. John McCain will probably finish third, just because he's a better second choice for the Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani supporters; McCain lacks the constituency of Huckabee and the walking-around money of Romney, and so cannot win. Thompson's fizzled, Ron Paul's counting on even less predictable caucusers than Obama is, and no one else is even registering in the polls. (Did anyone even notice Tom Tancredo's exit?)
So, Romney-Huckabee-McCain (probably) or Huckabee-Romney-McCain. Either of which sets up an interesting run at the next few primaries: Huckabee cannot win New Hampshire, and Romney probably cannot win South Carolina. Huckabee is leading in Florida and Romney's got family history in Michigan. Republicans may well get to February 5 with two candidates having won three contests each. Pass the popcorn, I say, because the Democrats' primary will probably be over by then.
The most interesting thing that could happen: Hillary wins big in Iowa, convincing New Hampshire independents--currently about 3-2 planning to vote in the Democratic primary--to vote in the Republican primary instead. That could only help McCain. What Obama or Edwards voter would support Huckabee or Romney? If McCain can win New Hampshire, we might hit February 5 with three Republicans winning two contests each (McCain won Michigan in 2000). Mm, mm, juicy fightin' goodness. (Watch, though--the media story, even as the Republican fight gets nasty, will be that Democrats are divided over Hillary.)