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It ain't over yet

After reading last week’s Washington Post poll story, a friend asked, “Is it really all over? Has Hillary Clinton already won the nomination?”

“No,” I replied. “While Clinton is in a very strong position, the race is really just beginning.” While the Post did not jump to the same conclusion my friend reached, its poll and other national surveys showing a consistent, indeed growing lead for the New York senator have led more than just one observer to suggest the end is near.

When I asserted here, five months ago, that if Clinton won Iowa she would be the nominee, many scoffed. Though a few doubters persist, that prediction has been transformed into conventional wisdom. In short, Clinton is strong enough elsewhere that a loss in Iowa is one of the few events with the potential to scramble the race enough to create an opening for others.

Five months ago I also wrote here that the Clinton campaign would be better off figuring out how to win Iowa than how to survive without it, and it has done exactly that.

However, despite the time, attention and money she has lavished on the state — and the lead in Sunday’s Des Moines Register poll — Sen. Clinton has not won Iowa yet, and the caucuses stand as a potential choke point on her march to the nomination.

Why the uncertainty?

First, while Ann Selzer’s Register poll is one of the best, all the public polls in Iowa suffer from a fatal flaw I described here many months ago — they survey the wrong people. Pollsters rely on notoriously inaccurate self-reports of voters’ likelihood of attending the caucuses, an extraordinarily low-turnout event. The inherent problems with these polls lend a continuing air of mystery to the real state of play in Iowa.

Second, with that critical caveat, the race appears to be much closer in Iowa than it is elsewhere — the three leaders seem to be within striking distance of each other, separated by only about six points. Trend lines suggest both Clinton and Barack Obama are gaining, apparently at John Edwards’s expense. None of the three is out of the hunt in Iowa, though, and victory for either Obama or Edwards would have a substantial impact on their standing in every contest that follows. John Kerry picked up about 20 points nationally from his Iowa victory in 2004. The lift would not be that dramatic this time — Obama and Edwards are better-known than Kerry was, and Hillary Clinton is a true front-runner, with the ability to absorb some real body blows and still emerge victorious. Nonetheless, a Clinton loss would significantly reshuffle the race.

Third, caucus attendees decide late. More than two-thirds of the Democrats who voted in the 2004 Iowa caucuses didn’t decide who to vote for until a month before the caucuses. Four in 10 decided in the last week. Kerry more than doubled his vote in Iowa (and nearly quadrupled it in New Hampshire) — in less than 20 days.

One consequence of this late decision-making is that what happens between November and January will be vastly more important than everything that has occurred until now. Put differently, that which we know about now could prove much less significant than those things we cannot know about yet. Of course, it’s possible that nothing much will happen over the next three months, but odds are something will.

Questionable polls, the possibility of a close race today, late-deciding voters and events yet to unfold combine to create real uncertainty about the Iowa outcome — and that means the race for the nomination is far from over.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.

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