DES MOINES ― If the seers at the Des Moines Register are correct ― and they are rarely wrong ― Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will win the Iowa caucuses on Monday.
If that happens, the message from Iowa will be more than confused.
Republicans will have picked the most out-of-the-box, radical ― not to say outrageous ― candidate in modern times; Democrats will have chosen the most traditional, inside-the-box politician.
If that is the shape of the race to come in 2016, then Americans will face a stark choice: between a strongman who invokes fear, resentment and outrage at the system and a woman who will offer herself as a steady inheritor of the Obama administration and traditional governance.
It’s hard to imagine a starker choice, if that indeed is what the country gets. But that is what Iowa will say, according to Des Moines Register Poll director Ann Selzer, who is revered for her meticulous accuracy in past polls.
The poll shows Trump winning 28 percent Monday night, compared with 23 percent for Ted Cruz, 15 percent for Marco Rubio and 10 percent for Ben Carson. Rand Paul polls 5 percent and all the rest of the GOP candidates below that.
Hillary Clinton polls 45 percent, Bernie Sanders 42 percent and Martin O’Malley 3.
If these numbers hold, here are the horserace consequences, candidate by candidate.
He is off to the races, and is a dominant frontrunner in a way that no one ― no one ― could have expected even a few months ago. He is in a strong position in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The phrase “run the table,” which comes from casinos, a world Trump knows, could be applicable.
If the numbers hold ― that is, if Ted Cruz loses by 5 points ― the results will be devastating. Like Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee before him, Cruz has placed his faith (literally) in evangelical voters and in the hardest of hardline approaches to social issues. It might not be enough, especially since Trump is cutting into that vote.
Third place matters in some races, and it matters in the GOP race. If Rubio can match or exceed that 25 percent, he gets into the conversation as an alternative to the two leaders. At a rally today in Ames he was the essence of cheery, upbeat and future-oriented ― a sunny contrast to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the other two.
Hillary Clinton was blindsided and out-organized by Barack Obama in 2008; she won’t be this time. Many older Obama voters are with her now and some who would otherwise support Bernie Sanders are worried about the cost of his many new government programs. If Hillary can win Iowa, she can at least plausibly dismiss a likely Sanders win in New Hampshire as a neighborly gesture to a Vermonter ― and focus on South Carolina, where she is in strong shape among black voters.
Sen. Sanders, at 74 years old, is the pied piper of young voters in Iowa, who support him overwhelmingly regardless of their sex. But the experts at the Register say that the turnout of first-time voters won’t be anywhere near as large as Obama generated in 2008. “I don’t think the poll is wrong ― as of last night,” said Tad Devine, who is running the Sanders campaign media. “But we still have time.”
The horse race aside, the poll contains important clues to the appeal ― or lack thereof ― of the candidates, especially Trump.
Asked who they thought had the best chance of wining the general election, Iowa republicans chose Trump over Cruz by 35 to 24 percent. Asked which candidate would generate the most fear among America’s enemies -- the poll presumed that was a good thing -- Trump won 50-21. Asked who would bring needed change to the country, Trump won 37-21.
Sanders' strengths are that he has convinced voters that he is on their side and understands the life of average people. He leads Hillary Clinton on that by a 51-37 percent margin.
"That is a margin that the Clintons aren’t going to like,” observed Mark Halperin, who was one of the hosts of a Bloomberg event in Des Moines at which the results were announced.
Democratic voters do not divide along gender lines, somewhat surprisingly, but by age. “It’s generational” said Selzer.
But Clinton has the lead because older voters turn out more reliably, and because the amount of first time voters is not likely to get anywhere near the wave that elected Obama.