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What happens in Iowa . . . doesn’t matter

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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders debated in Charleston, S.C., on Jan. 17.Mic Smith

When I was a kid, one of my favorite movies was the Bill Murray comedy "Meatballs.'' The key moment in the film is a "motivational speech" delivered by Murray in which he repeats one line over and over, "It just doesn't matter."

Those words keep ringing in my head as I think about the Iowa caucus, which is only a few days away: It just doesn't matter.

It's not that what happens in Iowa won't affect the trajectory of the race; it very well might. But more likely than not, Iowa's caucus results will only hasten — or delay — outcomes that appear already baked into the race.


Let's start with the Democratic side. The latest polls have Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders deadlocked. If she wins next Monday in Iowa, it would likely represent the beginning of the end for Sanders' campaign. Emerging victorious in the caucus would give Clinton momentum going into New Hampshire, where she is narrowly trailing Sanders. But even if she loses in the Granite State, her campaign can write it off as the result of Sanders' regional appeal — and as the race moves to South Carolina and Nevada, Clinton's huge advantage with black and Hispanic voters would likely help to clinch the race in her favor.

But this advantage would also be true if Clinton loses in Iowa. As a recent analysis by Dave Wasserman in the The Cook Political Report makes clear, Sanders' strongest support comes from white liberals, and "whites who self-identify as liberals make up a higher share of the Democratic primary electorate" in three states — Iowa, New Hampshire, and Vermont, Sanders' home state.

As Wasserman notes, "98 percent of pledged Democratic delegates will come from states with lower shares of liberal whites than Iowa and New Hampshire. . . . In other words, if Sanders prevails narrowly in Iowa or New Hampshire, his support among liberal whites and in college towns . . . would be entirely consistent with a scenario in which he also gets clobbered by Clinton nationally."


Of course, it's possible that Sanders winning in Iowa and New Hampshire would bring new supporters to his campaign — and would fan fears that Clinton is a fatally flawed candidate. But the more likely scenario is one that played out in New Hampshire eight years ago. After winning in Iowa, Barack Obama took a large polling lead in New Hampshire . . . and ultimately lost to Clinton, whose voters rallied around her when she looked to be on her last legs. Quite simply, Clinton's advantages are likely too great for Sanders to surmount, no matter what happens in Iowa.

On the Republican side, there's a similar dynamic at play. For the past few weeks, the assumption has been that Ted Cruz, who enjoys strong support from evangelical and socially conservative voters, would prevail in Iowa. But since then, Trump has rallied, and establishment Republicans, including Iowa's governor, Terry Branstad, have come out against Cruz. The result is that Trump now appears to have a small but significant lead in the polls.

If Trump wins in Iowa, it would be, to quote the man himself, "huge." He'd take that momentum into New Hampshire, where the general assumption is that he will win handily, in large part because Rubio, Cruz, Bush, Christie, and Kasich are dividing up the anti-Trump vote. With those two primaries under his belt, Trump would go next to South Carolina and Nevada, where he's considered the odds-on favorite in both states. Of even greater potential benefit to Trump is that if a candidate such as Kasich or Christie finishes second in New Hampshire, it would do serious damage to the two candidates most likely to stop Trump — Rubio and Cruz.


But what if Trump loses in Iowa? To a large extent, the same dynamics will exist. Trump would still be favored to win in New Hampshire and would likely be favored in South Carolina and Nevada, too. The one wild card in Iowa is if Cruz takes momentum from a win into New Hampshire or Rubio finishes a strong third in Iowa and uses that to rally voters in New Hampshire. But even if that happens, the fundamental dynamics of the race will continue to favor Trump. An Iowa win would be "tremendous," but he can win the nomination without it; it's harder to make the same case for any other candidate.

It's not to say we shouldn't be paying attention to Iowa, but barring a major surprise, the results in Iowa probably will matter less than it appears today.

Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.