Given the fact that winning Iowa doesn’t automatically produce a successful run a party’s nomination, the effects of the state’s caucuses on the overall nominations are not concrete. To be sure, winning the day outright is a good thing in and of itself, but sometimes a candidate’s objective may be something other than simply winning. For instance, with the heralded ground games of Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean arrayed against him, John Kerry would have been very happy coming in a close second to one them in 2004. His victory surpassed expectations and propelled him to front-runner status, which he never relinquished. On the other hand, second place was a clear disappointment for Hillary Clinton here back in 2008. Barack Obama’s victory stamped a seal of legitimacy on his campaign and produced enough momentum to eventually overwhelm Clinton, despite her victory in New Hampshire a short time later.
So, with the nebulous benefits of victory in Iowa in mind, I thought it would be interesting to define what victory and defeat look like for this year’s crop of presidential hopefuls. Since Republicans like Mike Huckabee, the 2008 GOP winner, Rick Santorum, who won in 2012, and Democrat Martin O’Malley really don’t have a chance to win their party’s nomination, I’m going to limit this discussion to Sanders and Clinton on the Democratic side and Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Carson and Bush from the red team.Donald Trump
Victory: If Trump wins Iowa by any margin, it will be a huge victory for his campaign. As Ted Cruz said earlier this week, a Trump triumph in Iowa paired with another in New Hampshire may just render him unstoppable.
Defeat: Trump doesn’t have to win outright for his campaign to proceed undamaged into New Hampshire. But if he were to come in third behind a Rubio or Carson, then doubts would surface about his campaign and suspicions of hype might deflate his current state atop the heap. Ted Cruz
Victory: Ted Cruz must win Iowa to avoid feeling defeated. Indeed a narrow victory here would be just holding serve for him. To emerge truly victorious, Cruz must win by a good amount. A double-digit margin would do the trick.
Defeat: As I just said, anything less than a win is absolutely a loss for Cruz. If he doesn’t win Iowa, it’s hard to see how he can get to the nomination. To put it bluntly, I believe if Cruz loses Iowa, his campaign, at least as a legitimate contender, will be effectively over. Marco Rubio
Victory: Rubio’s advantage going into Iowa is the fact that expectations for him are so low. Trump and Cruz have captured all the buzz, rightfully so, in the run up to caucus night. As a result, if Rubio can sneak into second place on Monday, it would be a huge win for him. Even a close third, something like 30-27-24, would be a strong showing and a victorious outcome for him.
Defeat: Somehow, Rubio has been labeled a full-fledged establishment candidate, unfit for the conservative mantle. Since he’s been relegated to that slot in the candidate ideology spectrum, he must stay ahead of Jeb Bush. Defeat for Rubio would result if Bush can get within a few points of him in Iowa. Such an outcome would signal his vulnerability to a late-stage charge by Bush as the establishment favorite. Ben Carson
Victory: It may be too late for the neurosurgeon to reclaim his brief climb to the top polls last November. A surprise second place finish would certainly help. Nothing short of that seems likely to produce any momentum for his fading campaign.
Defeat: If Carson ends up fourth in Iowa – which is where he currently sits in the Iowa Caucus EP Poll Average – it will be a defeat for him. If he falls to fifth or sixth, it could result in a quick exit from the race altogether. Jeb Bush
Victory: Bush remains barely relevant because of the more moderate winner-take-all states which begin on March 15. These states will favor the establishment candidate. For Bush to reap any benefits when they come around, he’ll have to vault past Rubio. A finish in Iowa that lands him within a couple points of Rubio will be a win for the Bush camp and a step in the right direction.
Defeat: Without a solid finish relative to Rubio, Bush is likely done. He probably won’t drop out right away, but if he ends up 10 or more points behind Rubio, consider it a defeat. And it’s important to note that, because of the conservative nature of Iowa and the moderate nature of the winner-take-all states coming later on, the gap between Rubio and Bush is meaningful regardless of what happens with the other candidates in the field.
Victory: Like Cruz, Clinton cannot claim victory in Iowa without winning outright. Unlike Cruz, her quest for the nomination does not ride on Iowa’s outcome. That said, to move the bar in her direction, she’ll need a solid victory. If she can emerge from Iowa a double-digit winner, talk of Sanders’ viability will seem more doubtful.
Defeat: Losing to Sanders in Iowa will signal a true two-person race is in store for the Democratic nomination. Sanders is all but assured to win New Hampshire, so it is important for Clinton’s campaign to limit the insurgent’s bid to a single victory in his own Northeast neighborhood. However, even a narrow win here will be a bit of a defeat, because it will enhance the perception that Bernie has a legitimate shot at the nomination. Bernie Sanders
Victory: Since Clinton and Sanders are the only two with any chance at the Democratic nomination, Sanders’ victory scenario is the mirror image of Clinton’s defeat scenario and vice-versa. If Sanders can end up one or two points behind Clinton in Iowa, it will be victory for his campaign. A win will be a big victory.
Defeat: Sanders’ campaign needs a shot of legitimacy in the early stages of the primary season to move forward with momentum. His presumed victory in New Hampshire won’t provide him that. Neither will a substantial defeat in Iowa. If Clinton wins by double-digits, it will be a serious blow to his chances overall. The bottom line for this year’s Iowa contestants is that losing can be acceptable, and winning isn’t always enough. Some candidates would be ecstatic to finish second; others would be discouraged. Will Marco Rubio be dancing because of his runner-up showing? Or will Ted Cruz be devastated by the same? Will Bernie Sanders be energized by finishing neck-and-neck with Clinton? Or will we see his campaign wilt under a blowout defeat? One thing’s for sure, we find out in just 5 days time.