We're down to the last week before voting begins in the 2008 campaign at the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. The candidates keep scrambling to make their last few appearances in the Hawkeye state, and their commercials cover the airwaves.
In the final stretch, the contest has tightened, but today, I give you my predictions for placing a trifecta bet on this horse race -- the top three finishers on the Democratic and Republican side -- with a couple of surprise finishers.
The Democratic caucus nominally comes down to the top three candidates.
RealClearPolitics.com keeps a running average of polls from Iowa. Presently, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) leads with 29.2; Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) stands second with 27.3; John Edwards trails in third with 23.5.
But the supporters of the minor candidates will play a major role in deciding who wins, because in the Democratic
caucus rules a candidate needs 15% to 25% (depending on the viability formula but assume 15%) of attendees in that voting location in order to caucus. Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.), Sen. Joe Biden (D., Del.), Gov. Bill Richardson (D., N.M.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D, Ohio) all poll below 10 percentage points in Iowa, so their supporters will have to make a decision when they have to switch.
In 2004, Kucinich made a deal with Edwards to caucus together. I would guess that Edwards again can count on the support of the more progressive wing of the Democratic party. But what about supporters of Biden, Dodd and Richardson? All of the polls show that Edwards becomes the second-place choice for many caucus goers. This would result in Edwards picking up several percentage points that fail to show up in the headline poll numbers.
Edwards has several other advantages. He has much of his organization from 2004 intact, and he remains a stronger force in rural Iowa. Furthermore, Iowa has also tended heavily to support white males in elections (see the state's entirely white male congressional delegation).
Edwards' history underscores a disadvantage both Clinton and Obama have to overcome. They will rely heavily on first-time caucus goers to show up and then vote for them. Will they come? This is a big question, but history tells us that you don't want to rely upon soft support.
Given these factors, I believe Edwards will rally from behind and barely nudge out Clinton to win the caucus. It will be close, and Clinton could garner enough women to come out on top. Obama will finish in third place. The rest of the Democratic field will be dropping out of the race after Iowa and New Hampshire.
The Republican side of the Iowa caucus remains less interesting at the top. The straw poll in August offered some very important revelations. Mitt Romney could buy his way to the top, but voters felt free to changes sides, and they most often moved to either Mike Huckabee or Rep. Ron Paul (R., Tex.).
The Huckabee surge has continued. The RealClearPolitics
average has him leading Romney 29.2 to 25.5. Four other candidates -- Ron Paul, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain -- remain in a statistical dead heat hovering around 10%. It bears noting that the Iowa GOP has no viability rule like the Democrats.
However, Huckabee's lead has been questioned after the bevy of negative attacks from Rush Limbaugh, the Republican elites such as the
Club for Growth and the other campaigns, most notably Romney's.
Still, I see Huckabee's lead holding. His strongest support comes from conservative evangelicals who will vote for him over the slicker candidates from the Northeast. Furthermore, Iowans frown on negative attacks, so Romney's efforts could hurt him and possibly allow others to move up from the pack.
So Huckabee will win Iowa, and Romney has a strong enough position in second place to hold off any contender catching him from the rear. But who do we place our bet on for third?
Fred Thompson has made a recent return to Iowa in an effort to boost his flailing campaign. Thompson's problem has been an inability to explain to voters why he's running, and we still don't know why.
Rudy Giuliani removed himself early on in Iowa. Pulling out of the caucus ensured a poor showing here, and subsequent visits never resulted in a pop in the polls. The big-city mayor got lost in the cornfields of Iowa.
Sen. McCain (R., Ariz.) presents an interesting third-place choice. Polls have shown him rising, and he has hung tough to his positions. But as I
wrote last week, McCain has too many unpopular positions.
The position hurting him the most in Iowa is immigration, because McCain supported the president's reform plan. Rep. Tommy Tancredo (R., Colo.) entered the race solely to get the focus on illegal immigration. Tancredo succeeded and managed to wreck McCain's campaign over the summer. After pulling out of the race last week, Tancredo endorsed Romney, so that puts McCain out of third place.
So that leaves me with a second surprise. I see Ron Paul coming in third place in the Iowa caucus, moving up from a fifth place finish in the straw poll. Paul picked up many defectors to do well in the trial run in August, and his position has only strengthened. His campaign has raised almost $19 million this quarter. His campaign has hit the airwaves in Iowa with a message of liberty and small government.
Say what you want about Paul, but one must pay attention to his supporters. They care. Paul's supporters have organized incredible fundraising that has other campaigns drooling with envy. Not only do Paul supporters show up with
cash, we also know that they turn out for events. He has shown superlative results in straw polls across the country.
We'll see how my surprise picks -- Edwards to win the Democratic race and Paul to show in the GOP derby -- come out next Thursday.