Tuesday, January 01, 2008

For the Obama candidacy, size matters

If the newly-released Des Moines Register poll is correct - and this survey is widely respected for its readings of the Iowa mood on the eve of the Iowa caucuses - we could soon be witnessing an historic moment in presidential politics.

The poll, posted last night, reports that an African-American candidate will top the Democratic field in this overwhelmingly white state, buoyed by an unprecedented wave of first-time caucus voters - many of them independents (and even some Republicans) who appear determined to re-register on the spot as Democrats, just for the opportunity to support Barack Obama. Which is why the final Register poll projects an eight-point Obama victory over Hillary Clinton (35 percent to 27 percent) in the Democratic caucuses Thursday night.

Other new surveys dispute this point spread, but the Register poll, with its home-field advantage, arguably has a better feel for the dynamics of the likely Democratic turnout. The numbers, if true, are provocative: Forty percent of the folks planning to attend the Democratic caucuses describe themselves as independents, and five percent say they are Republicans. And Obama is the clear favorite of these potential newcomers.

Could this actually happen, that 45 percent of the Democratic caucus-goers might be outsiders lured to the event by Obama? It remains to be seen, of course, whether these people will actually follow through on their vows to participate, but, at minimum, their strong interest in Obama is further evidence that he has potential crossover appeal - the kind that is crucial to winning a November election. So keep an eye on the turnout figures Thursday night; the larger (and more politically diverse) the turnout, the better it is for Obama. Size matters.

In 2004, when John Kerry finished on top, roughly 80 percent of the Democratic caucus participants described themselves as party regulars. If the final Des Moines Register poll is correct, and Obama tops the candidate field thanks to an expanded turnout, of which only 55 percent are party regulars, he can make the case to the people of New Hampshire (who vote in their primary next Tuesday) that he's the most electable Democratic candidate...thereby keeping the heat on Hillary.

No wonder the Hillary spinners are trying so hard to dismiss the Des Moines poll. Right on schedule this morning, my email box contained a missive from Mark Penn, Hillary's pollster/strategist, who naturally takes issue with the poll's turnout projections. Penn points out that only 15 percent of the 2000 caucus-goers were independents, and that only 19 percent were independents in 2004. He complains that the Register pollsters "are depicting an unprecedented departure from historically established turnout patterns," and that if we look at the '08 Iowa horserace through the prism of the established patterns, then Hillary is in darn good shape.

Yet here's what he is essentially arguing: the smaller the turnout, and the more it is dominated by Democratic regulars, the better it is for Hillary. Penn is not disputing the poll data showing Obama's popularity among independents; he's only arguing that the independents won't show up en masse to participate. (Or so he hopes, since he's basically signaling that she's at risk if the turnout is large and politically diverse.)

In other words, he implicitly acknowledged Obama's crossover appeal, which is hardly a ringing advertisement for his own candidate's electability.


Thursday night, it also will be worth comparing the Democratic and Republican turnout totals, just to see which camp is more enthused about its prospects in 2008. According to the latest Iowa State University poll, Democratic turnout could outpace GOP turnout by 60 percent; by contrast, in the 2000 Iowa caucuses (the last time both races were open), the GOP turnout outpaced the Democrats by 30 percent.

If the projections for Thursday are true, it would suggest that Republicans are far more dispirited than their counterparts. I can't imagine why.