When news broke this week that a major poll put Sen. Barack Obama four points ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in Iowa, the political world stopped and took notice.
Here was confirmation that the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest in the 2008 presidential elections, are indeed up for grabs – and that the clear Democratic front-runner in national polls, Senator Clinton, is far from a sure thing in the crucial first race. The Washington Post/ABC News poll of 500 likely Iowa caucusgoers also put former Sen. John Edwards within striking distance, four points behind Clinton. In short, factoring in the 4.5-point margin of error, Iowa is a three-way statistical dead heat.
Other data in the poll provided warning signs to Clinton. Iowa voters are demonstrating growing interest in a candidate who provides a "new direction and new ideas" over strength and experience, and Senator Obama wins handily among those voters.
But for Clinton, there's a bit of a silver lining in the news: Because she is not the clear favorite in Iowa, she does not face an expectation that she will win. And if she pulls out a victory, that's big news.
On the Republican side, former Gov. Mitt Romney has led the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first primary state, for months – and thus he is expected to win both. If he does, it's important but not earth-shattering. If he loses one or both, the earth shakes.
"That's the key: Whatever expectations are, you always want to do better than expected," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.
Every campaign, from the highflying front-runners to the lowliest long shots, faces the same calculations. And each, in its own way, is playing off those expectations. Sen. John McCain – the early GOP front-runner, now averaging fourth place in national polls – has pulled back his efforts in Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, which he won big in 2000.
So if Senator McCain does poorly in Iowa on Jan. 3, it will not be big news. But it would raise the stakes for him in New Hampshire. Conservative pundit William Kristol argues that McCain should run TV ads in Iowa anyway and try for at least a third-place showing there, which could give him a bounce heading into the New Hampshire primary (probably five days later, on Jan. 8). Polls show McCain averaging 6.6 percent in Iowa, currently fifth place. Typically, only three candidates from each major party come out of Iowa viable.
In a way, the biggest maverick in the race is former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He has a healthy lead in national polls for the Republican nomination, but he trails in Iowa and New Hampshire. His stated strategy is to hold his campaign firepower for the big-delegate primaries where he expects to do well, such as Florida (Jan. 29) and California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois (all Feb. 5).
While playing down his effort in Iowa and New Hampshire, Mr. Giuliani has nevertheless campaigned in both places, though not much until recently. Through Nov. 21, he spent 19 days in Iowa this year, versus 60 days for Mr. Romney, according to the Iowa Democratic Party. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has surged into second place among Republicans in Iowa in the past month, has visited 58 times.) Romney has also spent big in the early states, building an organization and airing television ads early and often. Giuliani, in contrast, has husbanded his big war chest, airing his first TV ad of the campaign just this week – in New Hampshire.
The Giuliani campaign insists it can lose the first several contests and still win the nomination.
"What we see is there's the possibility of two paths" to the nomination, campaign director Mike DuHaime told reporters last week. He acknowledges that the early states can help a candidate build momentum, which is why Giuliani has made some effort in those states. "But we also recognize that with so many large delegate-rich states moving up so early in the process, that it's impossible to think that it [will] be over after only three states vote," he says.
By dampening expectations for the early states, Giuliani is holding open the possibility of a "surprise" victory in an early state – perhaps Michigan or South Carolina, where he and Romney are neck and neck. Still, by not making the concerted, long-term effort that the early states have come to expect, Giuliani may indeed be shut out there. Yet if he still goes on to win the nomination, he will have broken the mold: Since the advent of the modern primary system in 1972, no candidate has lost the first three contests and still won the nomination.
As for Romney, the only way he can beat expectations in the early going is not just to win, but to win convincingly.
In 2000, George W. Bush won the Iowa caucuses in a multicandidate field with 41 percent of the vote. "If Romney were to hit one-third or more, that looks pretty good," says Mr. Goldford, the political scientist. "But if he stays around 27 or so, then you have to ask, has he peaked?"