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What Iowa Could Change

Dan Balz's analysis of key questions the caucus could answer:

1) Will Either Race End in Iowa?
The only race that could is in the Democratic Party and only if Hillary Clinton wins a big victory. Iowa has proved resistant to the Clinton brand, and she has struggled there throughout the year. But her final days of campaigning have been solid, and a victory, no matter how narrow, would be a big boost for her.

2) How Big Will the Iowa Bounce Be?
The big difference this year is the shortened time between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primaries. Normally eight days, it will be just five this time, thanks to the decision by New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. Gardner to schedule New Hampshire so soon after Iowa.

3) Is This Process Defensible?
Some political strategists found this question too hot to handle, not wanting to offend Iowans but not enamored of a process in which fewer than 200,000 Democrats and fewer than 100,000 Republicans will participate. Add to that the fact that the state is largely white and rural -- and the absence of one-person, one-vote rules on the Democratic side -- and the caucuses attract even more critics.

4) Which Candidate Will Turn Out the Most First-Time Caucus Participants?
Lots of candidates for this award, but the consensus among strategists in Iowa and elsewhere is that Obama will draw the most newcomers. "He has lit a fire among many younger voters and those on the fringes of political activism that is unprecedented in recent years," one GOP strategist said.

Bonus answer to one important question today: how the caucuses actually work. See details here.

See full answers below the jump.

1) Will Either Race End in Iowa?

The only race that could is in the Democratic Party and only if Hillary Clinton wins a big victory. Iowa has proved resistant to the Clinton brand, and she has struggled there throughout the year. But her final days of campaigning have been solid, and a victory, no matter how narrow, would be a big boost for her.

Barack Obama has plenty of money to keep going, whatever the outcome. If he wins or there is any kind of a muddled finish on the Democratic side, the battle goes to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. An Edwards victory here guarantees the race continues; he has been trailing in New Hampshire and lags both Clinton and Obama in money.

There is no way the Republican race ends in Iowa. If Mitt Romney comes back to win, he will get more credit than he might have before Mike Huckabee's dramatic surge into the pre-caucus poll lead. But Romney has now got a fight on his hands in New Hampshire against John McCain, and the GOP race is too fluid.

Huckabee has an even more difficult path, even if he wins here, because he has been lagging in New Hampshire. "If Huckabee wins, the results will confuse the Republican nomination, rather than clarify it," said GOP strategist Terry Nelson.

Both the Democratic and Republican races could go to Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states will hold contests. Some strategists believe the races could go beyond that, particularly the Republican campaign.

The campaign, however, will end for some after Iowa. Lower-tier candidates may try to hang on through New Hampshire, but single-digit finishes in Iowa will spell the end for a number of candidates. And as a Republican strategist observed, "Iowa will mark the beginning of the end for other major contenders in the field, but we just aren't smart enough to figure out which ones."

2) How Big Will the Iowa Bounce Be?
The big difference this year is the shortened time between Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primaries. Normally eight days, it will be just five this time, thanks to the decision by New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. Gardner to schedule New Hampshire so soon after Iowa.

The bounce, say experts, usually shows up a couple of days after Iowa and then begins to dissipate. A clean Obama victory over Clinton and Edwards would become a very big story and would dominate the news into the weekend debates. A Romney win could arrest McCain's growing strength in New Hampshire. But the altered calendar throws a monkey wrench into the predictions of the experts, who are in considerable disagreement on this question.

3) Is This Process Defensible?
Some political strategists found this question too hot to handle, not wanting to offend Iowans but not enamored of a process in which fewer than 200,000 Democrats and fewer than 100,000 Republicans will participate. Add to that the fact that the state is largely white and rural -- and the absence of one-person, one-vote rules on the Democratic side -- and the caucuses attract even more critics.

Some Democrats also believe the caucus electorate is too left-leaning for the party's good. As one strategist put it, "The only time Democrats have nominated a candidate who won the White House since 1976 was the year everyone skipped Iowa." That was in 1992, when all other candidates deferred to home-state Sen. Tom Harkin's presidential bid. Harkin won Iowa handily, and Clinton went on to become the party's nominee and president.

But Iowa voters have earned the respect of the candidates and their staffs, even those who feel the caucus process itself is flawed. Iowa's process forces candidates to look voters in the eye and answer their questions. The long exposure voters have to the candidates -- and in this election, it has been longer and more intense than ever -- gives them a unique opportunity to weigh strengths and weaknesses. "Somebody needs to do that and Iowans have been trained to do it," one Democrat wrote.

There is widespread agreement that what has happened this year requires major surgery for 2012. The compressed calendar and the early start to voting have left almost everyone involved in this campaign frustrated.
"The caucus process itself is defensible," said Democratic strategist Bill Carrick. "The calendar is not defensible."

4) Which Candidate Will Turn Out the Most First-Time Caucus Participants?
Lots of candidates for this award, but the consensus among strategists in Iowa and elsewhere is that Obama will draw the most newcomers. "He has lit a fire among many younger voters and those on the fringes of political activism that is unprecedented in recent years," one GOP strategist said.

Certainly the Des Moines Register's final poll suggested that was the case. More than 70 percent of Obama's supporters in the Register poll said they had not gone to a caucus in the past -- well above the percentages for Clinton and Edwards.

On the Republican side, there seems little doubt that Huckabee will find more support among newcomers to the caucuses. Ron Paul could attract newcomers, but the view of one strategist is that Paul's followers are more likely to show up for a primary -- which is why he could surprise people in New Hampshire -- but are less comfortable with party-establishment events such as the caucuses.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 3, 2008; 1:35 PM ET
 
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