The Importance of Being Second (Choice)

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Everyone I’ve spoken with from both the Clinton and the Edwards campaign in the past two weeks readily concedes that Obama has been gaining support in Iowa and is the Democrat with momentum at the moment. “He’s ticking up, there’s no question,” says a senior staffer from a rival campaign. But while Clinton and Edwards aides are willing to admit that Obama is enjoying a moment in the sun, they quickly follow up by asserting that the race in Iowa remains “completely up for grabs”, a “three-way dead heat” that any of the three could end up winning on Jan. 3.

And they’re right about that, too. A new Rasmussen poll of “likely voters” in the Democratic caucus places Clinton at 27%, Obama at 25% and Edwards at 24% — a veritable three-way tie. This represents only a slight – and statistically meaningless — shift since the last Rasmussen Iowa poll, two weeks ago, which had Clinton at 29, Edwards at 25 and Obama at 24.

As the Edwards campaign is delightedly pointing out to reporters today, what might be most significant about the latest survey are the results of the “second-choice” question:

In terms of second-choices in Iowa, John Edwards tops the list of candidates. He is the second choice for 28% of likely caucus participants. Obama is the second choice for 18%, Clinton for 16%, and Richardson for 15%. Second choice preferences are especially important given the nature of the Iowa caucuses. In a particular caucus setting, if a candidate receives less than 15% of the vote, their supporters will be re-allocated to other candidates.

The biggest unknown about Iowa is who will make up the universe of voters. A big surge in participants from the 124,000 who attended in 2004 would likely benefit Obama and Clinton. The closer the universe mirrors 2004, the better for Edwards, who scored a suprising second place finish to John Kerry that year. Adding to the confusion: Will the fact that the Jan. 3 caucus follows so soon after New Year’s dampen or boost participation? Will families who travel for the holidays still be away from home and therefore unable to participate? How will the fact that colleges and universities are on winter break change things?

As the senior campaign official says, “We don’t know. No one does.”