With Iowa only five days (!) away, it’s worth considering what the implications of each possible outcome would be. Here’s Noam Scheiber’s theory:
First, the three easy scenarios: 1.) Hillary wins by more than a point or two, in which case the race is basically over. 2.) Obama wins convincingly (five points or more), in which case it starts looking pretty good for him and Edwards is done. 3.) Edwards wins convincingly and Obama is third, in which case Obama is probably done and Hillary and Edwards duke it out (with Hillary enjoying a near-prohibitive financial advantage).
Short of one of these things happening, I think we’re looking at the muddle Mike was talking about last weekend. But here’s the thing: An inconclusive muddle actually benefits Obama. The reason is that a muddle kills Edwards, who needs the kind of fundraising and free-media boomlet that only a clean victory can provide. And without Edwards in the race, Obama consolidates the anti-Hillary vote, which nudges him over the top in what’s now a dead-even race in New Hampshire, makes things look pretty good for him in South Carolina (where he’s been closing but still has to convince some African-Americans he can win), and generally gives him the upper hand for the nomination.
So, somewhat counter-intuitively, Obama may have at least as many if not more “paths” to the nomination as Hillary, which is worth keeping in mind.
I hope this is true, and for the most part I think it is. One scenario he doesn’t account for is an Edwards win with Obama second, which I think would be spun as a defeat for Hillary, rather than an Edwards victory. Edwards is too far behind in New Hampshire to translate a win in Iowa into a win here, but I think that a Hillary third-place showing would drive people deciding between the two front-runners into Obama’s camp, leading him to win. Of course, I’m far from an objective observer, but Edwards just doesn’t have the base or organization (not to mention money) to go anywhere in NH.
More importantly, though, I think Noam, and Mike Crowley, overestimate the chance of an inconclusive result. Remember, the results out of Iowa are the percentages of delegates won by each candidate, not how many individual supporters they have. This means that, even as polls show a statistical tie, a strong winner comes out of the actual contest. The 2004 race is a good illustration of this. The last poll before those caucuses came out the day before them, January 21st, from the Des Moines Register. It showed Kerry in the lead, followed by Edwards, then Dean, then Gephardt. This is the order in which the candidates actually finished. However, while the Register showed all four candidates bunched close together – Kerry at 26%, Edwards at 23%, Dean at 20%, and Gephardt at 18% – the actual results were far more spread out. Kerry got 37.6%, Edwards 31.8%, Dean 18%, and Gephardt 10.6%. The point is that the caucus process amplifies even a small advantage for a candidates to give them a decisive victory. So while a “muddle” would certainly be an interesting outcome, I don’t think it’s all that likely.