Iowa Caucus: The Orange Bowl Effect

It’s a pollster’s worst nightmare. This year’s Republican and Democratic Iowa caucuses have been forced to take place so early that not only will the Jan. 3 caucuses conclude the Christmas/New Year’s holiday season, but they will also happen on the same day that one of the top Bowl Championship Series college football games airs on national TV.

Instead of the usual screening question of, “Are you likely to vote?” pollsters and politicians may be asking, “Are you likely to be in town?” or, “Given the choice, do you plan to go out in the freezing cold to the local community center and choose between candidates, or would you rather stay inside your warm house and watch the Orange Bowl on TV?”

Wow, what a mess.

This is why the polling of the Iowa caucuses is of little importance so far. Although it’s still relevant for serious discussion, even hardcore political observers like Iowa talk-radio pundit Republican Jamie Johnson see their state’s two caucuses as more of “a winnowing out” of weaker candidates than a crowning of a sure-thing nominee.

Of course, Iowa hasn’t always been the dead-on indicator of eventual presidential nominees anyway. In fact, until the years of the Bush-Clinton dynasties, Iowa often proved to be a poor predictor.

Many forget that Iowa rejected Ronald Reagan in 1980, and instead chose George H.W. Bush. In 1988, the state GOP chose Bob Dole over the very same Bush who went on the win the presidency. And in 1996, eventual nominee Bob Dole came close to being knocked off in Iowa by Pat Buchanan.

It hasn’t been much easier for past Democratic nominees in Iowa. Consider that Bill Clinton got just 3 percent of the vote in the 1992 Iowa caucus before going on to win the presidential election later that year. Four years before that, the Democrat’s eventual nominee, Mike Dukakis, came in third place in Iowa.

Much of the national media are trying to convince us that the Iowa caucuses, because they’re being held even earlier than usual this year, will be more important than ever in determining the nominees of the respective parties. That’s probably the exact reverse of the real situation.

Iowa has been marginalized by being forced into the position of being neither a make nor a break, but more likely a bit of a potential flake. Florida’s decision to move its huge primary up to Jan. 29 from March has inaugurated a march of other key states to move up their own primaries, too.

As a result, if you look at politics not as a Beltway groupie, but as just plain folks like us, this question suddenly looms: Who in their right mind will be around in the middle of the week after New Year’s, and be willing to brave the elements, plus skip watching on TV one of the nation’s top sporting events, all in order to vote in a caucus?

On the Republican side, conventional wisdom is that only the most devoted Iowans will be able to resist the comforts of home and a potentially great Bowl game. Among those devoted could be many “religious right” voters, as they’re commonly called; they might be the most inclined to play politics instead of watching pigskin. If so, Mike Huckabee, who is rising in the polls, could get enough of a bump to be a dark-horse challenger to Iowa frontrunner Mitt Romney.

But I’m not convinced the conventional wisdom is truly wise here. It could just as well be that the GOP’s rank-and-file establishment — fiscal and foreign policy conservatives, let’s say — might be the ones who just say no to the Orange Bowl.

The truth is that we just don’t know because there’s no exact precedent to this year’s situation.

On the Democratic side, things become even more complicated. Democratic candidates must receive at least 15 percent of the vote at an individual caucus to remain in contention. If they don’t, their supporters have to move physically to a different side of the room and then choose from one of the remaining candidates.

Insiders tell us that among those currently polling at less than 15 percent, Bill Richardson’s supporters are more likely to go to Hillary Clinton, while Joe Biden’s base leans more toward Barack Obama. To complicate things further, former Sen. John Edwards’ support comes in great part from union members, a heavily male — and football-loving — crowd.

In other words, thanks to the new timing of the Iowa caucuses and their collision with the Orange Bowl, both parties’ caucuses might experience a political Fruit-Basket-Turnover. And that means that some more populated states, especially South Carolina and Florida, will likely play a greater role in determining who will be the Republican and Democratic frontrunners heading into the closest thing America has to a national presidential primary, Feb. 5’s “Tsunami Tuesday.”