Monday, April 13, 2015

The Soft Viability Of Low Expectations

There's a number and a construct I've seen twice now, and it clearly had some significance to the Clinton campaign:
It's very hard for a Democratic candidate to capture 50 percent or more of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, the Clinton aide pointed out.

In recent history, only sitting presidents or vice presidents have achieved a majority vote, the Clinton aide said. The exception is Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a favorite son who ran virtually unopposed in Iowa in 1992 and won 76 percent of the caucus vote.
Worded the same way both times. This is clearly where Team Hillary wants to set the bar: 50 percent.

The early states are about expectations more than we're about large numbers of national delegates. Exceeding expectations looks good, so it's in a frontrunner's interest to set the bar low.

In this case, 50 percent is objectively too low.  The construct "sitting presidents or vice presidents" is designed to exclude the one caucus cycle that is most similar to 2016.

In the modern, post-Carter era of the caucuses, only one Democratic incumbent vice president has run for president: Al Gore in 2000.  He was running against a sole opponent, who most observers would rate as low second tier or high third tier: former Senator Bill Bradley.

I expect a similar bipolar dynamic to emerge in 2016. Like it or not, this caucus is going to be about Hillary Clinton, and the die hard Anyone But Hillary folks (which I'm not) will gravitate to the strongest challenger. There's not room for two people to be Not Hillary.

Assume as I am that Elizabeth Warren means it when she says she will not run, and likely endorses Clinton in the near future. Assume also that Bernie Sanders, though he would like to run, will not be able to bring himself to formally join the Democratic Party to do so. UPDATE: Oops, but doesn't damage the basic argument here.

That makes the challengers O'Malley, Webb, and maybe Chaffee, and for my money the strongest of the three is O'Malley Sanders. This sets up a bipolar caucus like we saw in 2000.

Remember that phrase: "sitting presidents or vice presidents."  Hillary Clinton is a prohibitive enough favorite that she boxed the actual sitting vice president, Joe Biden, out of the race. (I hope she picks Joe for her running mate and he stays veep forever.)

So... what if we set the bar for Hillary Clinton at the incumbent vice president level?

Al Gore took 63.42% of the "state convention delegate equivalents" - national readers, we'll get back to that - to Bradley's 34.88%, with a tiny handful of uncommitteds.

One of those dark blue counties is my dear People's Republic of Johnson County, where us Bradley types won the county convention delegate count 147 to 122, with one guy uncommitted. Bill Bradley's best showing in the nation - still proud.

But before we really set the bar for Hillary Clinton, we need to know what the numbers mean.

Most political junkies know that at the Magic Moment on caucus night, Iowa Democrats walk to a corner of the room and count off. Each group has to have 15% of the room to be "viable." The non-viable folks have to go to another corner, and negotiating happens.

The Iowa Democratic Party does not release the numbers from when people first choose a corner.  Why... is a whole different post.  So on caucus night, the national media will get just a percentage, and that percentage will be based on 1) delegate counts and 2) is after the realignment.

Let's look at that other "exception" year, 1992. My precinct had ten county convention delegates. (I'm not going to even try to translate that to state delegate equivalents. Let's just say it all feeds in to math that's based on the state's vote the last two elections.)  In my precinct, on the initial alignment, Tom Harkin had one person over 50% of the room.  Five delegates and 50% of the "vote," right?

Nope. Negotiating happened. The Bill Clinton group was just short of the 15% viability mark. So the Harkin folks offered a deal: join us and we'll choose two of our Harkin delegates from the Clinton people.  So the Harkin group elected seven delegates, and the Tsongas group and Brown group got the other three.

So that result from my precinct got reported as 70% Harkin, even though only 50% of the people in the room were for Harkin. It didn't even matter that two of the "Harkin" delegates were really for Clinton. Who the delegates are doesn't matter on caucus night - The NUMBER is what matters.

Circling back at last to 2016, in a situation with a prohibitive frontrunner and either a lone opponent or a small number of unviable opponents, the math tends to favor the frontrunner.  Also, the negotiating tends to favor the insiders rather than the outsiders, because the insiders know that The Number matters more than who the delegates are.   So all these things, I see favoring Clinton in 2016.

All this makes that 50% bar Team Hillary is trying to set feel too low.  I'm willing to round Gore's 63.42% down to 60 rather than up to 2/3, but that's as low as I think is realistic for Hillary Clinton, unless something dramatic changes.

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