O’Malley could play spoiler in Iowa

Greg Nash

Presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley won’t win the Iowa caucuses, but his supporters could have final say for whether rivals Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton The Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief Biden spills beans: Sanders will endorse Clinton MORE or Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: 'I’m just flabbergasted’ by Clinton-Lynch meet AFL-CIO head: Trump’s ‘a fraud’ Sanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton MORE walks away with the victory. 

The former Maryland governor is polling in the low single digits. But if the race between Clinton and Sanders is tight, his supporters could decide the Feb. 1 contest if they move en masse to one of the other candidates.  

That’s because caucus rules require that in most precincts, candidates with less than 15 percent support are not considered “viable,” so their supporters have to abandon that candidate and choose their second-best option unless they want to vote “uncommitted.” 

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“O’Malley caucusgoers could determine the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders,” said Pat Rynard, a former Democratic campaign staffer for Clinton who now runs the Iowa Starting Line blog. 

“They are only 2 percentage points apart from each other in the latest Des Moines Register poll — just a handful of O’Malley supporters in this precinct or that precinct could make the difference.” 

Rynard noted that it’s almost impossible to predict how the move could actually shake out until that night thanks to the limited availability of polls as well as the uncertainty of the geographic breakdown of O’Malley supporters on caucus night.   

Only one recent poll, from Public Policy Polling, includes analysis of O’Malley supporters’ second choice. That poll shows Sanders holding a substantial lead over Clinton there, 43 percent to 20 percent.  

“I wish there were more polls out there,” he said, noting that the small number of O’Malley supporters likely makes the margin of error of any single poll higher. 

“There are definitely reasons for O’Malley supporters to see similarities in both Clinton and Sanders ... I could see it either way.” 

Sanders may appeal to O’Malley supporters, Iowa experts say, in large part as the representative of the anti-Clinton vote, or because the Vermont senator may be seen as more in line with O’Malley’s very progressive stances.  

“Hillary Clinton is not very well liked or well trusted,” Iowa State political science professor Steffen Schmidt told The Hill. 

“O’Malley is more progressive than Clinton, so O’Malley supporters [might] be more likely to think that Sanders is on the right track.” 

But Rynard predicts that O’Malley supporters could also be drawn to Clinton’s overwhelming experience in the Senate, State department and White House, as well as her electability and history as a longtime Democrat.  

The possibility of leveraging the O’Malley vote is almost assuredly on the minds of Sanders and Clinton staffers, as well as their precinct captains and local leaders in the state.  

Caucuses are more personal than the primaries that most Americans vote in. Instead of the privacy of the voting booth, Democratic caucusgoers will meet in more than 1,600 caucus locations to publicly support their candidate, often by physically standing in a group to denote support. That means there will likely be chances for Clinton and Sanders supporters to try to convince their neighbors to join them on their sides if O’Malley can’t become viable.  

Rania Batrice, Sanders’s Iowa spokeswoman, told The Hill she believes there is an “interest” among O’Malley supporters to “be prepared with a second choice if it goes down to that.”  

“Across the state, we have folks who are currently O’Malley supporters who come out to hear the senator speak,” she said. 

The PPP’s second choice result is “not so surprising because there is common ground,” she added, “but we are not going to take anything for granted. We are having conversations all across the state with our own supporters, with O’Malley supporters, with folks who are still undecided because a caucus is not just like walking in and casting a ballot.”   

Aides to the Clinton campaign declined multiple requests for comment. Michelle Kleppe, Clinton’s Iowa organizing director, emphasized to the Des Moines Register the campaign’s relationship building and said those relationships will be key come caucus night.  

But campaigns can only guess how important O’Malley’s support might be, as the composition of individual caucus sites is completely up in the air. If O’Malley supporters are largely concentrated, that could limit their relevancy to a fewprecincts.  

“There aren’t enough of them,” Iowa State professor Steffen Schmidt said.  

“O’Malley supporters are probably concentrated in a few counties and a few precincts and not evenly, so they may make somewhat of a difference in a couple of those…but there have to be sufficient numbers for that to be a factor.”

Depending on the support in individual caucuses, Clinton and Sanders precinct captains could also play a dangerous game with O’Malley supporters who miss that viability threshold: they could try to game the system and send their supporters into O’Malley’s camp to make him viable, shifting a delegate away from one candidate to another as long as it doesn’t cost their candidate any delegates.  

Similar strategies havebeen used in the past, such as in 2008 when Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards supporters made a pact that they would join forces at precincts where Kucinich lacked viability.  

Rynard told a story about when he worked for Clinton in the 2008 race, when a group of Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders skirts Biden's claim that he'll endorse Clinton The Trail 2016: Meet and greet and grief There is more to cancer than "the cure" MORE supporters flocked to Edwards when Biden missed viability — a move that flipped the precinct from Clinton to Edwards.  

“It’s risky,” he said.

“You have to be really good with the caucus math because if you are going to send people from your group over to them, you have to send just few enough to make them viable, but not so many that you drop down a peg and lose a delegate yourself.”

Ultimately, experts say, it may hinge on the fruits of a long spell of relationship building with O’Malley supporters who’ve seen the writing on the wall, combined with a little bit of luck.

“That’s the big problem with trying to predict this,” Rynard said. “It is all going to come down to who actually shows up on caucus night, who sees their neighbor over in that corner.”