WASHINGTON • Welcome to the caucus and primary expectations game, where third place can be as good as first, where a distant second can make you the “comeback kid,” and where Vince Lombardi would think he was in never-never land.
The football coach of the “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” credo would go crazy trying to understand the who’s-on-first calculations leading into Monday’s Iowa caucuses and, eight days later, New Hampshire’s primary.
But that is the history of the results in these twin states of expectation, a system that has produced axioms like “you need to have one of the three tickets out” to survive. Sometimes, finishing first is not always enough because, well, you are expected to.
After Thursday night’s debate, Republican consultant Steve Schmidt told MSNBC that Jeb Bush, his campaign declared defunct by much of the media, was poised to replicate “the Bill Clinton comeback-kid scenario” because he was inching up in polls in New Hampshire.
That’s a reference to the eventual president who, in the midst of the first public allegations of extramarital affairs, did just well enough in a second-place finish in New Hampshire in 1992 to survive, and go on and win the nomination, and then the presidency.
After that New Hampshire primary, Newsweek magazine printed a cartoon depicting Clinton and Pat Buchanan, who finished second to incumbent President George Bush in the Republican primary, standing jubilantly atop a winner’s platform. Bush and Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas, who beat Clinton by 9 percentage points, were drawn dejectedly holding their gold medals on the side, front-runners whose first places were not enough for a win.
There were many examples of the GOP candidates playing the expectations game in the Thursday night debate in Iowa.
For instance, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio began the debate by complimenting rival Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. He closed talking about his personal faith.
The former was an attempt to poach the followers of a candidate who is behind him in the polls. Horse-trading is encouraged in caucuses, and Rubio — who has been slowly rising to third in Iowa polling — was recognizing the possibility of poaching Paul followers to help solidify his finish while preventing a rival from surging past him in the expectations game.
The latter appeal, to evangelicals and those whose faith propels them in the political arena, was an attempt to cut into the evangelicals flocking to front-runners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in Iowa, solidify Rubio’s third-place perch and increase the chances that he could upset one or both of the men ahead of him. The expectations game of Rubio trailing but still contending is what matters in that calculus.
TRUMP STILL STRONG
Trump is the favorite in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the momentum that two decisive wins would provide the billionaire businessman’s insurgent, break-the-rules campaign would be, as Trump is fond of saying, “huge.”
But a second place in Iowa, while not derailing Trump, would strip the “winner” sheen that has coated his candidacy. More than any candidate of the modern era, maybe more than any candidate ever, Trump cites polls showing him in first place as the reason why he should stay in first place. A second-place Trump would be an alien creature in that bombastic, boasting construct.
For Cruz, beating Trump in Iowa would truly be huge because it would enhance his claim the race was getting down to him and Trump. A third-place finish in Iowa would be crippling, however, because the expectations — based on polls and Cruz’s own self-pronouncements — would dismantle his claim that he is one of the Big Two.
For those further down in the poll pecking order — Bush, Paul, Govs. Chris Christie and John Kasich, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — any finish that exceeds low expectations, that causes analysts to question what was behind a surprising result, would be a temporary win.
A third-place finish for Bush, Christie or Kasich in Iowa would particularly be viewed as game-changing, because all three have at times shown poll-surging appeal in New Hampshire, which votes on Feb. 9.
‘FEEL THE BERN’
On the Democratic side, the equation is more like checkers than the chess being played in Republican expectations.
Second-place in Iowa would not be fatal for Bernie Sanders, unless it is by a big enough margin to raise doubts about his “Feel the Bern” sustainability against what is universally recognized as an unmatched Hillary Clinton turnout machine.
Sanders leads in New Hampshire polls and has a fallback there, but a win in Iowa’s caucuses would greatly enhance that position and give him early momentum, crucial for an insurgency campaign.
A Clinton loss in Iowa, followed by a loss in New Hampshire, would inflict damage on Clinton because it would raise doubts about her inevitability as the Democrats’ nominee, rekindle comparisons to 2008 when she lost the expectations game and the nomination to Barack Obama, and focus press coverage on why she is not again able to meet the high expectations assigned to her.
A decisive win over Sanders in Iowa, however, would cripple the insurgent’s claim that he is the right candidate for the right time in 2016.
It’s hard to pin expectations calculations on Martin O’Malley because there are virtually no expectations that the former Maryland governor can seriously contend for the Democratic nomination.
In Iowa, all of these expectations lie in very small numbers.
Despite all the attention poured down on the caucuses, and the myriad media and political tourists who flock to the state, the contests Monday could be decided by fewer than 150,000 Iowans on either side. Barely 120,000 caucused in the 2008 Republican scrum, the last time there was an open presidency to strive for.
In a field as bifurcated as the Republicans’ or as clear-cut as the Democrats’, a shift or surge of a few thousand votes could change the early perceptions of the entire race for the White House.