Winning Isn’t Everything--or Anything--in Iowa Caucuses


Monday night, all across Iowa, tens of thousands of political activists and plain folks will stream to more than 2,100 small gatherings, or caucuses, to state their preferences in the first test of the 2000 presidential campaign.

When the ballots are tallied, the winners will emerge--but not the way you might expect. Sure, it helps to get the most votes. But the candidates who claim victory in Iowa will be those who manage an even trickier task: beating expectations.

Consider the results here in 1984. Democrat Walter Mondale won a handsome 49.5% of the caucus vote. Rival Gary Hart finished a distant second with 16.5%. So who was the big winner? Why, Hart, of course, because few expected him to finish in double digits.



“It’s illogical as hell,” admitted Bob Beckel, the Democratic consultant who managed Mondale’s 1984 campaign. “But it’s inevitable as hell.”

The Game of Expectations

Indeed, the candidates seem to have spent nearly as much time lately downplaying their expectations--the better to exceed them--as they have seeking actual support. To hear them poor-mouth their prospects, it’s almost a wonder any candidate sees himself fit for office. Bill Bradley claims he would be delighted to finish with 31% of the Democratic vote--meaning rejection by 7 in 10 caucus-goers. Republican George W. Bush says he would be thrilled to get 37% GOP support, about half what he receives in some national polls.

The political expectations game reflects several layered realities: the serial nature of the presidential nominating process, with each contest viewed as a portent of the next; the pervasiveness of opinion polling, which establishes a benchmark to compare actual results; and--not least--the media’s hunger for drama, conflict and a compelling plot line.

“There’s no question [reporters] are looking for the best story,” said Harry Wilson, a political and media expert at Virginia’s Roanoke College. In other words, a front-runner finishing first--just as expected--ranks somewhere on the newsworthiness order of a Doberman chomping the mailman.

But not everyone sees the expectations game as a media creation, or a conflation of the two things--polling and punditry--that so many profess to hate about politics.

William Kristol, publisher of the Weekly Standard and one of the purveyors of Washington’s conventional wisdom, says by running stronger than expected, Hart in 1984 and Patrick J. Buchanan in 1996 pointed up problems that later plagued Mondale and Republican Bob Dole, respectively, after they clinched their party nominations.


“Historically, it has been the case that if the front-runner under-performed in Iowa, it suggested a weakness that became evident later,” Kristol observed. Turning to a basketball analogy, he put it this way: “If the Lakers win but can’t defeat the Wizards by, say, at least 15 points, that suggests they may have some problems later with the Pacers.”

So how are expectations established? Mostly through infinite conversations among a relatively small but devoted band of political observers--journalists, pollsters, pundits, campaign strategists--who talk constantly and reach a rough, decidedly informal, consensus. “It’s like making a really complicated souffle or recipe,” said Mike Murphy, a strategist for Arizona Sen. John McCain and one of those incessant chatterers. “There’s a whole variety of ingredients that goes into deciding who wins and who loses.”

Among them: a candidate’s proven fund-raising capacity, his poll standing, a campaign’s commitment of resources, even a contestant’s perceived geographic advantage. For instance, part of the reason then-Vice President Mondale was seen as under-performing in Iowa was the fact that he hailed from Minnesota, making him a next-door neighbor. Dole’s 26% showing in 1996--against 23% for Buchanan--was seen as similarly weak for a senator from nearby Kansas, then stumping in his third bid for president.

In McCain’s case, the senator from Arizona has conspicuously opted out of this year’s Iowa competition, so no one expects him to perform particularly well, given the exhaustive organizational effort needed to coax out supporters for a caucus process that can be long and laborious.

Conversely, Texas Gov. Bush has the most at stake, given his colossal edge in money and commanding standing in the polls--a fact that rival camps point out at every opportunity. “If Bush gets less than half the Iowa vote, with 80% of the resources, that’s an underwhelming showing,” Murphy asserted, in a classic attempt at expectation inflation.

By setting 37% as his mark, Bush cites Dole’s 1988 showing, the strongest ever in a multi-candidate GOP field. But Dole at that time was running against a considerably stronger field, which included a sitting vice president (who happened to be Bush’s father).


Winners Can Still Be Losers

More neutral observers suggest that the spread is what counts most in the GOP contest. With Bush expected to come in first in the six-man Republican field, the question is how close Steve Forbes, the likely runner-up, finishes. At a minimum, most analysts say, Bush has to get at least 40% of the vote and best Forbes by high double digits--or he’s in trouble heading into New Hampshire eight days later, where McCain lies in wait.

“For McCain, there’s a strong interest in Forbes doing better than expected, so that it looks like he’s weakened Bush,” said Rich Galen, a neutral GOP strategist, explaining the potential of an Iowa-New Hampshire ricochet effect.

On the Democratic side, with a two-man race between Vice President Al Gore and ex-New Jersey Sen. Bradley, the mathematics is simpler. But the pre-caucus positioning is no less calculated.

Gore says “50.1 would be great” and paraphrases Gertrude Stein: “A win is a win is a win.” But the Bradley camp insists that anything short of 60% would be an abject humiliation for the vice president. (The measly 31% Bradley claims to covet would match what Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy got in 1980 against President Jimmy Carter. Carter went on to lose the general election to Ronald Reagan--which tends to support the sign-of-weakness theory.)

More impartial arbiters suggest that Gore can walk away unscathed if he at least breaks 50% and wins by double digits. “Clearly, Gore has to win by more than 10,” said Charles Cook, a Washington campaign handicapper. “Twelve to 15 points would be solid. Twenty is a huge win in any league.”


What It Will Take to Win in Iowa

The rules of the political expectations game are simple: Understate what you hope to accomplish, the better to surpass that lowly benchmark. Here’s a look at what’s at stake for some candidates in Iowa.