The most recent polls out of Nevada are two weeks old, but it appears that Hillary's large lead is generally holding up. She's also got giant leads in Michigan and Florida, but those glorified straw polls will be heavily influenced by momentum.
With regard to Iowa, a few things to think about:
1) Clinton generally polls in first among "certain" caucus-goers. Edwards and Clinton are virtually tied among previous caucus-goers. Obama's strategy relies on "unlikely" caucus-goers. The higher the turnout, the better he'll likely do. Still, its possible that Obama is weak in rural areas, away from college towns and that Edwards is especially strong in rural areas. Since a candidate's total vote in the caucuses matters less than an even distribution of that vote, he could have the most support but finish third.
2) Edwards is voters' leading second choice. Here are some recent second choice numbers (with first choice numbers in parentheses):
Edwards 26% (26)
Obama 22% (28)
Clinton 21% (30)
Biden 7% (3)
Richardson 6% (7)
Dodd 4% (1)
Kucinich 1% (1)
Edwards 28% (22)
Obama 22% (27)
Clinton 15% (31)
Richardson 15% (9)
3) In a race this close and this top-heavy, I'd be shocked to hear that any of the campaigns are not trying to cut Edwards-Kucinich '04 style deals with other campaigns. For some reason, though, most of the deals I could realistically see happening involve Joe Biden. Biden-Clinton, Biden-Dodd, and Biden-Richardson are all plausible. Kucinich could also conceivably direct his supporters to Edwards or to Richardson.
With New Hampshire so close, an Iowa win for Clinton or Obama would sling-shot them to a win in the first-in-the-nation primary and the nomination, right? Maybe. That's what happened last time, after all. And this year, the space between Iowa and New Hampshire (just 5 days) is shorter than ever before. On the other hand, in 2004 the deck was stacked for a catapult effect because the race was split between five rather uninspiring candidates and a collapsing Howard Dean. With no strong preference for or against any candidate (other than Dean) and wanting nothing more than to start working to beat the president, Democrats rallied around Kerry. This year, we have two leading candidates that each evoke strong passions among large segments of the party. An Iowa win for one might just lead the supporters of the other to dig in even harder.
Besides that, New Hampshire has historically shown a predisposition for underdogs. Just ask Pat Buchanan, John McCain, Bill Clinton, and Gary Hart. They've also demonstrated that the Iowa results do not dictate the New Hampshire results. Since 1976, when Jimmy Carter made the Iowa Caucuses matter for the first time, the Iowa winner has won 4 of 6 New Hampshire primaries, two of those winners were incumbent president Jimmy Carter in 1980 and incumbent Vice President Al Gore in 2000).
In South Carolina, Obama has finally taken the lead among black voters. I've always thought that Obama's biggest problem among blacks in South Carolina (besides Hillary's gender) was that black voters are less likely than anyone else to believe that a black man can get elected president in racist America. As his poll numbers hold up, that pessimism starts to look unfounded.
If the race comes down to Hillary v. Obama, I think it the winner will be the one that wins 2 out of 3 in IA, NH, and SC. If its Hillary, she probably walks away from Feb. 5th with a commanding lead. If its Obama, he at least holds his own on Feb. 5th, anti-Hillary sentiment coalesces around him, and he wins a long delegate fight. To break in to real contention, Edwards needs to win Iowa, or at least come in second to Clinton. Then, the real task would be convincing Democrats that he has overnight assumed the anti-Hillary mantle. That would likely take another finish ahead of Obama in New Hampshire, and probably Nevada. If he could hold Obama to third in each of the first few states, Obama might fall apart, leaving Edwards as the anti-Hillary. Hillary would have all the momentum, and Edwards would have to convincingly rally the anti-Hillary forces to stop her momentum before it reached critical mass (if it hadn't already). Obviously, that's easier said than done. If you're Richardson or Biden, you need to make the top 3, or at least come very close. Then you hope to pass Edwards for third in New Hampshire and hope that either Obama or Hillary consistently under-performs in the early states. Even if all that happens, its a long-shot. If you're Dodd, well you're not above 2% any where that matters and you just failed to make it on the New York ballot, so you're pretty much done.
The Republicans will have twice as many real pre-Feb. 5th events as will the Democrats (IA, WY, NH, MI, NV, SC, FL, ME). Here's what we know:
Huckabee and Romney are leading in Iowa (Thompson and McCain are fighting for third)
Romney will probably win the Jan. 5 Wyoming convention
Romney and McCain are leading in New Hampshire (Giuliani looks like a safe bet for third)
Romney and Huckabee are tied in Michigan (McCain and Giuliani are fighting for third)
Romney, Giuliani, and Huckabee are tied in Nevada
Huckabee is leading in South Carolina (Romney, McCain, Thompson, and Giuliani are strong)
Giuliani, Romney, and Huckabee are tied in Florida
Romney and Giuliani are probably tied in Maine
I was going to write my own assessment of each of the top 5's paths to the GOP nomination, but then Marc Ambinder went and wrote his own:
" Mike Huckabee's pathway.... Huckabee wins Iowa convincingly, helping John McCain to beat Romney in NH narrowly, causing Romney to falter; Huckabee, skipping Michigan, wins South Carolina handily, having grabbed conservatives from Fred Thompson... he loses narrowly to Rudy Giuliani on Jan. 29, in Florida, but Huckabee has enough momentum, delegates and money to make a run at the southern states (Georgia Alabama) who hold contests on Feb. 5; Giuliani wins the northern states, and for the next few weeks, Huckabee and Giuliani battle for d decisive delegate edge. Giuliani's social positions prove too onerous; Huckabee cleans up in debates, and Huckabee slides to victory, narrowly.
John McCain could win the nomination if.... McCain comes in a surprise third in Iowa, or not; he wins New Hampshire, wins or ties in Michigan, which merits him a second look in South Carolina. Those big fundraisers recruited by John Weaver and co. finally are able to find donors willing to contribute the max to a candidate on the rise, and money swarms in via the Net. The press writes the McCain rising story. By this point, Huckabee and McCain are competing for the votes of conservatives and Giuliani is a non-factor, his support having dissipated. McCain edges Huckabee in South Carolina (or comes close) and puts himself in the catbird's seat for Jan 29. What would help: Thompson drops out and endorses McCain. Clinton beats Obama and independents vote for McCain in New Hampshire.
Rudy Giuliani could win the nomination if.... He finishes dismally in Iowa, but the press doesn't really cover it that much because they're covering the vanquishing of Hillary Clinton; Giuliani finishes a strong third in New Hampshire, a strong third in Michigan, fourth in South Carolina...by this point, he'll have not won a single contest (with the exception, perhaps, of Nevada) but won't be all that far behind in the delegate race. He'll have spent millions on television in Florida; he wins Florida; and suddenly the momentum swings back to him and he wins enough contests on Feb. 5 to turn the race into a two-man sprint ... Giuliani and a social conservative. And he beats the conservative.
Mitt Romney could win the nomination if.....Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire; wins or places second in Michigan; South Carolina becomes a firewall...either Huckabee re-emerges...Romney outpolls Giuliani in South Carolina and turns the contest, by Florida, into a two-man sprint with Giuliani; or, Giuliani's support crumbles without an early state victory...
Fred Thompson could win the nomination if..... Thompson hangs in there, benefits from a Huckabee fall in Iowa -- i.e., Huckabee CANNOT win Iowa in this scenario, which means that Romney wins Iowa which means that Romney probably wins New Hampshire; Thompson somehow wins South Carolina and wins Southern states on Feb. 5; Romney and Giuliani battle in some northern states (and Romney maybe even wins one), and Thompson lives to fight Giuliani or Romney as the conservative alternative."That's a more comprehensive version of what I was going to write. The great thing about comprehensiveness is that we can check off the list of viable candidates after each event. For example, if Huckabee wins Iowa, then that would pretty well eliminate Thompson and severely damage Romney. If Romney wins Iowa, that would severely damage McCain.
I'm curious how much polling we'll see now that Christmas is over. It will be tough to get a lot of polling done in the next eight days. Likely, we'll go into Iowa without a clear idea of how the race has changed (if at all) since the polls stopped a couple of days ago.
I hope that this post made some sense. I started it about a week ago and I just picked it back up right now.