Thursday, January 15, 2004

Hard Numbers Having a hundred thousand citizens of a small, unrepresentative state get together to deliver diatribes at each other is a screwy way to pick the leader of the free world. But like it or not, next week's results in Iowa will be hugely important.

They'll mean different things to different candidates. But perhaps the most interesting question on the table is whether the Dean camp's untested, web-powered organizational approach is capable of paying tangible dividends. We'll finally begin to learn if all those Meetups and handwritten letters to Iowans have meant something or if instead it's all just been an empty exercise.

The rules of the Iowa caucuses--not worth getting into--mean that it's likely for all of the top-tier candidates there (Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry) to do slightly better in delegate counts than they are polling with Iowa voters (at the expense of Clark, Kucinich, Lieberman and Sharpton).

But if Dean is truly bringing in as many new voters as his campaign would like us to think, he ought to get an additional bump up from how he's been polling. And that's because the preferences of such voters get screened out by pollsters using past caucus attendance to determine whether a poll interviewee ought to be considered a "likely voter."

What does this mean in terms of numbers? Hard to know. Dean has been polling all over the map--from 28% down to 21% in recent editions of the Zogby tracking poll.

My take, though, is that if Dean gets less than 25% of the delegates, the story will be that the power of his grassroots network has been overhyped. If he gets more than 33%, reporters will hype the Dean strategy like crazy. And if he gets somewhere in between...well, the hype vs. overhype debate will live on for another day.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.