mr. zilla goes to town

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Pollytick-tick-tickin'

No doubt you've all been obsessing over the minutiae of the race for the Democratic nomination the way I have. The first big stake in the ground -- the Iowa caucuses -- were held on Monday night, and media outlets throughout the nation are overjoyed to have some actual results to report apart from the he-said, she-said debating and bickering amongst the candidates.

The results came as a surprise to most, with frontrunner Howard Dean beaten soundly by both Senator John Kerry and Senator John Edwards, with the headline results as follows:

Kerry - 38%
Edwards - 34%
Dean - 18%

Looks bad for Dean, right? Many outlets are using this as a chance to write Dean off - something the Democratic establishment has been itching to do - but I'm not so sure. You have to take a look inside the way the caucuses run to get a handle on this:

"On caucus night, Iowans gather by party preference to elect delegates to the 99 county conventions. Presidential preference on the Republican side is done with a straw vote of those attending the caucus. This vote is predominately taken by a show of hands or by ballot. Democratic caucus-goers express their presidential preference through a short of hands, a sign-in sheet or by dividing themselves into groups according to candidate. Democratic candidates must receive at least 15 percent of the votes in that precinct to move on to the county convention. If a candidate receives less than 15 percent of the votes, the caucus cannot end until those voters change their vote to one of the predominant candidates."


So while there is a bit of instant-run-off voting at the margins, what's really going on is that each of the 1300-odd Democratic precincts is effectively a single member electorate, sending representatives (delegates) to a central conference on the basis of 50-percent-plus-one of each precinct. The figures of 38%, 34% and 18% are not the percentage of registered Democratic punters who put their hand in the air in the school gymnasium for any of the candidates. In that sense, Dean's 18% is like the Australian Democrats snagging about 10% of the house of reps.
I'd like to use this Washington Post exit poll to show that this is true to some degree, but really with a stated margin of error of 5% (at best!) it's a fairly wobbly piece of research.

Therefore watch for Dean's rebound in the first primary (ie, a simple wide-open vote tally, as opposed to the caucusing) next week in New Hampshire to a higher figure. I'll go out on a limb and say he'll nudge 25% up there, which may be enough in the crowded field of contenders to place first. I think Kerry will also suffer in NH, despite a refreshing tumble-dry over the next week as the 'electable candidate'. His most similar competitor, who did not have a tilt in Iowa is retired general Wesley Clark, and he has been putting many of his eggs in New Hampshire. Joe Lieberman has had his day, and Edwards I suspect will also disappear under the carpet in the next month.

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