Iowa Results: Will We Know When We Know?

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, the three-way race for the Democratic presidential nomination has continued to tighten over the past 24 hours. The latest Reuters/C-SPAN Zogby poll taken from Dec. 29 through Jan. 1, shows Illinois Sen. Barack Obama stands at 28.3%, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton 27.5%, and fellow Democrat John Edwards in a statistical dead heat just two points behind at 25.7%. As we await the results of the final round of daily polling in Iowa, everything I have been observing about a three-way tie, with no defined winner or loser, still holds true as a real possibility.

This most recent poll finds Clinton's lead among self-identified Democrats slipping a little, but she maintains her leads with women and liberals. Obama is back in the lead among Independents, with Edwards in second place. Obama still leads among 18- to 29-year-olds, while he and Edwards vie for support among Moderates and Very Liberal voters.

You have seen and will continue to see lots of polls with shifting leads and different methodologies. Nearly all are saying the same thing: this remains close, too close.

I've been on the record for a while now suggesting that any one of the top three Democrats can come in first -- and any one of them can come in third. That is still very true. But my comments have been normally followed with the argument that a third place for any of them would be devastating. I am amending that second part. This race could stay very close and we may emerge with all three as viable candidates going into New Hampshire. An Edwards third place is probably rough for him but if his third place is so close that he is in the mix with the party's two superstars, then he deserves extra credit. It will also mean that he can run a strong campaign, should be able to still raise some serious campaign money, and be seen as an alternative to the "experience vs. change" dichotomy facing Democratic voters. But he still can win this.

Obama can survive a close third, too, because he will have proven that he can compete with the vaunted Clinton team and magic, as well as the party's Vice Presidential nominee of 2004. He is running even in New Hampshire and he will signal to African Americans who have doubts about him in South Carolina and beyond that an African American can run and do well. While Edwards is counting on previous caucus voters and is building from there, Obama is relying a lot on new people. Can his energy and charisma motivate new people to caucus?

A Clinton third place bursts the aura of inevitability which her own people established, but she's been up and down, bullied and done some bullying, changed her message and her tone -- she's been a survivor.

So if all this continues, we may be in for a replay in New Hampshire. Edwards still leads as the second choice (30%), but Obama is holding his own (22%). While Clinton was the second choice of 12% in our first round of polling, she has improved -- 15% in our latest round said she was their second choice. But Biden's and Richardson's voters are telling us that Edwards and Obama are their second choices. Edwards has widened his lead among men, as Clinton begins to pull away among women. Edwards is now leading among 'Very Liberal' voters, but Obama is closing in on Clintons' lead among 'liberals.' Moderates are evenly split. So are Independents, while Clinton continues her lead among Democrats and Kerry supporters from 2004. Obama has a huge lead among self-described 'atheists' (about 5% of the total), but he will also need prayers. Those who have made up their minds within the last week are selecting Edwards.

As the leading Democrats face off in a three-way statistical dead heat, there is a two-way race developing among the leading Republicans, along with a real fight in the works for third-place. Only two points separate Huckabee and Romney: 27.7% for Huckabee and 25.7% for Romney. Neither candidate, interestingly, is growing. Instead, as I have been pointing out, the more interesting race is between McCain and Thompson for third. McCain is at 11.7% and Thompson at 11.5%. Huckabee and Romney are now tied among Republicans, while Romney has lost ground with Independents - Huckabee 28%, Romney 18%, McCain 16%, Thompson 14%, and Paul 12%.

McCain is now in second place among voters over 70. Romney and Huckabee are very close with Conservatives, while Thompson has now pulled up to 20% of those who say they are Very Conservative.

There is fluidity here and much of it continues to be about the second tier's impact on the top tier, as I have noted before, and because no candidate among Republicans has really caught fire with likely caucus goers.

Both Romney and Huckabee have declined since our tracking began. This is also too close to call and there is a fascinating sub-plot playing out: McCain is impacting Romney, while Thompson is hurting Huckabee. McCain has gained among Moderates and Independents, as well as with voters over 65 -- all groups that have been supporting Romney. Meanwhile, Huckabee has dropped a few points among Born Again voters as Thompson has climbed into double digits with this group. The same is true with self-described 'very conservative' voters, where Huckabee leads (though he is declining) but Thompson is now getting one in five of their support.


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