After nearly a year of what already feels like a very long campaign season, the 2016 presidential election is finally about to get on its way in the United States. As voters in Iowa and New Hampshire gear up for back-to-back primary contests, respectively on February 1st and 9th, two big questions hover over the vote: will Hillary Clinton manage to fend off Bernie Sanders’ offensive? And will Donald Trump emerge the winner in both places, possibly sealing the deal for the Republican nomination?
To be fair, Iowa and New Hampshire are not going to answer all the questions of this 2016 campaign. Voting will continue well beyond them and twists and turns should be expected. Nevertheless, the two “first in the nation” states should provide us with some more clarity as to the direction the country is taking.
“These states traditionally winnow the fields,” says Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an election analysis website of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “At least some candidates are certain to drop out after not doing well in one or the other.” Likely dropouts include, on the Republican side, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, but also Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. On the Democratic front, it is hard to imagine Martin O’Malley staying in the race much longer thereafter. The Boston Globe predicts that Iowa and New Hampshire combined may well “knock out” 15 of 23 presidential candidates, including six that have withdrawn recently. By the time Nevada and South Carolina come around later in February, the battle for the White House will probably look very different from now.
The state of play in the Democratic camp is the easiest to read, though it too has got harder to handicap in recent weeks. With only three candidates still in the run, and one of them – O’Malley – only nominally so, the Democratic primary is really a face-off between Clinton and Sanders. This is, in and of itself, quite remarkable. On the strength of her name recognition and financial prowess – and the fact that every major Democratic group and prominent lawmaker has given her their endorsement – Clinton was seen as a shoe-in for the nomination.
Yet, thanks to Sanders’ compelling populist message and unexpectedly strong fundraising, and to Clinton’s inability to rouse the excitement of her party’s base, this 74 years old self-avowed socialist is now credibly vying for the top spot on the Democratic ticket come November. The demographic make-up of Iowa and New Hampshire might even give him a leg up. “White liberals will be a key constituency for Sanders and that’s part of the reason why he’s leading in the New Hampshire polls and neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa,” says Skelley. “They are two of the whitest states in the country.” As a result, it is crucial for Sanders to do well there, while Clinton may reasonably expect to make up at least some of the gap in Nevada and South Carolina. These are more ethnically diverse states with more moderate Democratic voters.
All in all, Clinton remains the long-run favorite not only for the Democratic nomination but also on the road to the White House. Betting markets, with their history of predicting winners more accurately than polls, definitely think so, if only because both her Democratic and Republican opponents seem so implausible. But Sanders is certainly giving her a run for her money.
The Republican field remains more fluid, though Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz have managed to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the field. Nevertheless, a few more contenders, in particular Florida Senator Marco Rubio, still hope to turn the tables around.
“For Trump, winning both Iowa and New Hampshire would be a coup and would undoubtedly confirm his status as the undisputed frontrunner, except now with actual votes as evidence,” says Skelley. In fact, it would be a historical achievement on the part of Trump, as no non-incumbent Republican has done so since the 1970s. “For Cruz, winning Iowa is crucial,” continues Skelley, “not only to stunt Trump’s potential but also to set himself up to do well in South Carolina on February 20 and a number of southern states on March 1 [Super Tuesday].” Rubio instead is looking at a three-pronged strategy that builds up momentum gradually: he hopes to place third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire, and first in South Carolina.
To emerge from the pack, former Ohio Governor John Kasich and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie desperately need to shake-up the status quo and break through to voters before it’s too late. Considering that Iowa Republican caucus-goers are more conservative than average, these White House hopefuls are eyeing New Hampshire to make their comeback, each angling to emerge as the establishment’s favorite there. Then there’s former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whom Skelley considers “something of a wild card,” largely because of the deep pockets of his campaign and supporters. “No one anticipates him doing all that well, but he’ll likely have the resources to hang on much longer than Christie or Kasich,” says Skelley. “This might damage the chances of another establishment candidate building enough support to take on Cruz and Trump.”
Regardless of the outcome, what matters is that, after hearing the candidates’ pitches for months on end, American voters finally begin to have a say. Though at this point this election’s overarching themes appear reasonably clear, we should not discount the possibility that we might be surprised.