Good, rational, sober bloggers should continue to have broad interests no matter how interesting a particular story is. I am not one of those bloggers: this week it's going to be impossible to focus on anything unrelated to the Hawkeye State. Giving way to this urge, I therefore offer the following analysis with no further apologies.
For those who don't follow Iowa closely, you may not be aware of how radically things shift in just the days before the Iowa Caucuses. In 2004, polls still weren't picking up the Kerry/Edwards movement even a month out--they still had Dean and Gephart 1-2. But in the week prior to the election, the polls did register the shift--of eight polls done in that week, six had Kerry beating Dean. Only the Des Moines Register had Edwards also beating Dean, but savvy insiders, looking at the trendlines, might have been able to see that Edwards would catch Dean by the Caucuses. So when looking at the polling, forget about everything that has come before--only those polls done in the last week or two have any real validity, and in this year's race that's especially true.
Fortunately for us, Pollster.com has put together handy charts that track not only current trends based on aggregate poll numbers, but also charts tracking recent trends. Normally pollsters like to lag aggregates somewhat since poll-by-poll variability means that outliers can create the false appearance of changing attitudes. However, since Iowa is so volitile, it makes sense to pay more attention to those early indicators. I have cobbled together the trendlines of the three major candidates from these data and created this comparative chart at right.
The red line indicates the sensitive trend, and both Hillary's and Edwards' show that the candidates may be getting some late-breaking interest. Obama's, however (say it ain't so!), is headed down, even while his standard trend continues upward. One caveat: no one has ever tried to poll people during the holidays, so it's unclear what effect this may have on polling.
With the caucus system, initial support isn't the final factor. The degree to which candidates are organized in the caucuses themselves can hurt or help them to the tune of +/- 5% or more. In 2004, for example, pollsters did what they call an "entrance poll"--they asked people who they supported. But a funny thing happened--the entrance polls, while being the most accurate of any poll in determining the places of the candidates, didn't line up with the final delegate count:
The results there further favored Kerry and Edwards. Kerry moved up to 38% of delegates, from 34.8% in the entrance poll and 25.9% in the pre-caucus poll trend. Edwards got 32% of delegates, up from his 26.2% in the entrance poll and 21.4% in the poll trend. Dean ended up with 18% of delegates, down a bit from the 20.5% in the entrance and 20.3% in the poll trend.
Lesson? Look at the polls for a general sense of things, but don't bet the farm on what they're showing.
Iowa Power Rankings
Sports sites love to do power rankings of various sports leagues. They normally revise it once a week, but maybe I'll revise this once or twice more based on the arrival of new polling data. Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong.
- Edwards. Although he's still trailing Clinton in the polling, two things suggest he may be able to pull it out in the end: the "anti-Hillary" forces may fracture in the caucuses, as Obama and Edwards supporters decide to back the candidate they think can beat the NY Senator; furthermore, those in the know say Edwards is strongest in rural Iowa and has the best organization.
- Clinton. She took it on the jaw and she's still leading the polls. If she pulls out Iowa, the rest of the states become a coronation.
- Obama. Unless he can make the case that he's the plausible alternative to Hillary, he's most vulnerable to a big slide on caucus night.
- Huckabee. This may change; his current numbers are all headed in the wrong direction (he's actually trailing Romney in the five-poll average). But he has a 20% floor of Christians who will not forsake him, and this gives him the edge.
- Romney. Everyone says attack ads kill you in Iowa, but Romney, who was already experiencing rigormortis, decided "what the hell." It worked. If he finishes a close second, he should stay around a little longer.
- McCain. Rudy's numbers are bottoming out, as are Thompson's. Only Ron Paul is edging up among the second tier candidates, and that's because he started at bupkis. Wouldn't it be interesting to see a strong McCain third-place heading to New Hampshire, especially if Romney finishes second?