At Ten Mile Square our good friend Jonathan Bernstein makes a valiant if somewhat conflicted effort to lay out guidelines for responsible reporting of very early developments in the 2016 presidential contest:
[L]et’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s too early to game out Iowa, much less the events after that. It’s too early to declare a candidate (say, Marco Rubio) has already lost his chance. It’s not too early to say how policy positions are affecting the contest right now — but it’s still too early, for most issue areas, to have a real sense of how things play out in 2015 among party actors, and certainly too early in most cases to know how they play out among voters in 2016.
That’s all good advice. Making “horse race” predictions for 2016–aside from such no-brainers as acknowledging Hillary Clinton’s colossus status (far greater than she enjoyed going into the 2008 cycle) in the potential Democratic contest–is largely a waste of time. We really don’t know who’s running; remember all the excitement over 2012 candidacies like those of Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush that never happened?
What early successful activity in “early states” (e.g., Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and in some years Florida) can do is to lift potential candidates over the basic credibility threshold. Iowa has been serving this function for eons, dating all the way back to Jimmy Carter’s efforts there in 1976, and George H.W. Bush’s in 1980. It’s worth knowing that Ted Cruz is producing paroxysms of excitement in his initial Iowa appearances; he’s a first-term senator with no executive experience, and thus not the sort of person who would normally pass the presidential smell test (neither, initially, were Jimmy or Poppy).
But aside from candidate activity, those of us with responsibility for feeding Political Animals need to pay attention to the political dynamics in early states that may influence how the presidential campaign ultimately plays out. On more than one occasion New Hampshire’s intense focus on tax issues (a product of its tradition of having no broad-based state taxes) has been a stumbling or building block for GOP presidential candidates (again, you can see that going all the way back to 1976, when Gerald Ford managed to turn Ronald Reagan’s plan to “devolve” responsibility for welfare programs to the states into a threat to raise state taxes). And the war over judicial legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa has kept that state’s already powerful Christian Right in a condition of perpetual mobilization since 2009.
Right now I’d say responsible reporting on Iowa’s 2016 Republican caucuses should focus less on what the presidential candidates are doing than on the incredibly intense factional battle for control of the state GOP that pits nearly everyone against party chair A.J. Spiker and his gang of “Liberty activists” (veterans of the 2012 Ron Paul campaign) who took over the party last year. Republicans are viewing virtually everything–including the 2014 elections, in which they are struggling to find a viable U.S. Senate candidate, and the early skirmishing over 2016–through the prism of this battle, which has spilled over into an embarrassing incident for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
For example: when Iowans start talking about Ted Cruz being a potential “unity candidate” in 2016, it’s important to understand they probably mean a candidate who has appeal among both pro- and anti-Spiker factions, or to put it another way, someone who can undermine Rand Paul’s base in Libertyland.
In any event, paying attention to early-state dynamics is always a good idea, and a better idea than putting too much stock in very early polls (though as is the case with virtually all polls, looking at trends–like the collapse of GOP support for Marco Rubio just about everywhere after his championship of immigration reform–is often productive, even this early). But predictions? Not so smart unless you want to court later mockery when Candidate X turns out to drive a clown car or candidate Y hits the zeitgeist bullseye head-on.