At long last, voting for the 2016 presidential nominations will begin tonight with the Iowa caucuses. The caucuses will begin at 7 pm Central time (8 pm Eastern), and separate Democratic and Republican events will take place in each of 1,681 precincts across the state. Democrats can find where to caucus here, and Republicans can check here. The Des Moines Register will be posting results throughout the night.
The caucuses' impact reaches far beyond Iowa — they have a tremendous amount of influence on the nominating contests. They've previously helped knock many candidates out of the race and have elevated other little-known contenders from obscurity. And nearly every major party presidential nominee in the past 40 years began by winning either Iowa, New Hampshire, or both.
Yet Iowa's tremendous influence has little to do with the delegates the state will eventually send to the parties' nominating conventions. Instead, the caucuses are important because of how they can change the political world's perceptions of who can win. The media, donors, activists, party officials, the candidates themselves, and even to a certain extent voters in other states all seem to be swayed by what happens in Iowa. So, as I argued in a recent feature, the Iowa caucuses are important because everyone believes they're important.
What to expect at the Iowa caucuses
In the GOP contest, everyone is anxiously awaiting the answer to one key question: "Can Donald Trump get people to actually vote for him?" Because despite Trump's months-long lead in national polls, there's still a great deal of skepticism from elites about him: Perhaps polls overstate his support, perhaps his campaign doesn't have a good ground game, perhaps his supporters who aren't regular GOP primary or caucus voters won't bother to show up, or perhaps the electorate will flock to a more seemingly electable candidate at the last minute.
Since caucus turnout is difficult for pollsters to model and since Ted Cruz is perceived as having a better organization than Trump, much of the political world has long expected Trump to finish second, behind Cruz. Yet Trump has taken the lead in all the most recent polls. That's a two-edged sword, because it raises the expectations for Trump. A second-place finish would now be viewed as a disappointment for him. And if Trump comes in third or worse, it will be a disaster for him because it will destroy a central theme of his campaign: that he's a winner.
But if he does manage to actually win the caucuses, he'll debunk much of the skepticism about him, prove he won't be vanishing from the contest anytime soon, and unleash a media frenzy like you've never seen before.
The Iowa results will have big implications for other GOP candidates too. Since Ted Cruz led polls there until recently, a loss there would be perceived as a serious blow to his candidacy. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, is currently polling in third place, so that's where people expect him to end up. If Rubio manages to surprise people by placing second or even first, he'll get a huge amount of positive buzz going into New Hampshire. Even a relatively strong third-place finish could help distance him from other establishment-friendly candidates such as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie.
But if Rubio falls further behind — especially if another establishment-friendly candidate passes him — whispered doubts about his campaign's competence will be vindicated, and whoever beats him will have the "momentum" of media coverage and buzz among elites in the week before the Granite State contest. And if some other candidate entirely manages to surge late in Iowa (as Rick Santorum did in 2012), expect him or her to be a major player in the next contests too.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has suddenly surged to be neck and neck with Clinton in Iowa polls after a full year where he was much further behind. Since he's long been ahead in New Hampshire, he's now positioned to seriously compete in both early states. But with this comes raised expectations. If Clinton wins both contests outright, Sanders's movement could well fizzle out, and she could wrap up the nomination quickly. If Sanders wins either, though, expect a pitched battle between the two that will last quite some time. (And unless Martin O'Malley vastly exceeds his current low-single-digit support in Iowa, expect him to drop out soon afterward.)
The nightmare scenario for Clinton at this point — which is not all that implausible — is that Sanders wins both Iowa and New Hampshire. If that happens, political elites and the press will mercilessly mock and second-guess the Clinton campaign for weeks. Yet insiders also understand that both states are heavily white and not representative of the more diverse Democratic electorate overall. So the big question is whether the positive coverage Sanders gets will help improve his performance among nonwhite Democrats who have seemed uninterested in his candidacy so far — and that will be put to the test in the next contests, Nevada and South Carolina.