Obama Leads in Iowa Poll Among Likely Caucus-Goers

Iowa determined the outcome of the nomination battle in 2004 and very well could do so again, making national polls meaningless. Even polls from Iowa have limited predictive value as caucus voters typically make up their minds in the final days. Today’s poll out of Iowa must be evaluated with that in mind. It provides a snap shot of where the race is, but doesn’t predict the outcome.

For quite a while Edwards led in Iowa. This was due to a combination of Edwards having practically lived in Iowa after the 2004 election and having adopted a populist platform which is attractive to many Iowa Democrats. Edwards also had the benefit of name recognition, much as Joe Lieberman had in the early 2003 polls. Like Lieberman, Edwards support has fallen as the other candidates have been campaigning.

This trend is also seen in the latest poll from Newsweek:

Among all Iowa Democrats surveyed, Clinton enjoys a 6-point lead over her nearest rival, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. But among likely Democratic caucus-goers, she is locked in a three-way race with Obama and former North Carolina senator John Edwards, with Obama enjoying a slight edge…

Among all Iowa Democratic voters, Clinton draws 31 percent, followed by Obama (25 percent) and Edwards (21 percent). But among likely caucus-goers, Obama enjoys a slim lead, polling 28 percent to best Clinton (24 percent) and Edwards (22 percent). Bill Richardson is the only other Democratic candidate to score in the double digits (10 percent).

To remain a viable candidate, Edwards must not only reverse his downward trajectory but come back to win decisively. Without a sizable win it is unlikely Edwards would get enough of a bounce to win in New Hampshire, where his populist agenda is not received well as favorably as it is in Iowa. Without an impressive victory, Edwards would also have a difficult time raising enough money to mount a national campaign for the multi-state February 5 primaries, and he is also at a disadvantage from the restrictions due to accepting federal matching funds.

Obama could benefit tremendously if his lead holds. Clinton’s strength comes from the perception of inevitability, and this could be shattered if Obama beats her in Iowa. It would still be a tough fight, but Obama might have the edge following a win. On the other hand, a Clinton victory in Iowa would make it very difficult for anyone else to challenge her.

John Kerry came back from fourth place in the Iowa polls to win, and an upset win by Bill Richardson cannot be ruled out. Richardson does much better on the stump than in the debates and he has an outside chance to win with a strong ground game. It is looking increasingly hopeless for the remainder of the candidates. Chris Dodd deserves more attention than he receives, but if he has not been able to move from single digits yet I doubt he will be able to do so unless he gets some major breaks such as more than one high profile endorsement. As we saw in 2004, even this wasn’t enough to give Howard Dean the victory despite a strong lead in the polls.

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