Shuffling the pawns in Iowa

“You want to talk why Iowa is three-dimensional chess, it is the ultimate. I think it’s more five-dimensional chess, if there’s such a thing … ” — NBC political director Chuck Todd put it well on Meet the Press last Sunday.

Here’s what we think he means.

Iowa caucus strategy isn’t as simple as moving around a few pawns and trying to rook the fellow on the other side of the board.

There are multiple games on multiple tiers. “Winning” is not a simple as “winning.”

That’s because the biggest benefits — in terms of momentum’s going forward — don’t necessarily go to the person who wins the most votes.

It all depends.

Who beats whom? Who beats expectations? Who gets the biggest headlines — the biggest bounce? And who else gets so damaged that they’re a smaller threat later on?

Based on eight months of listening to the chattering classes on the campaign trail, below are some scenarios that could help various presidential candidates — whether they win the two-dimensional chess game or not.

They’re not the only scenarios.


Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton

If she doesn’t win Iowa, she’d still like to top her best-funded rival, Sen. Barack Obama. That could stifle his momentum in New Hampshire and give her a chance of swiping the “Comeback Kid” title that the Granite State gave her husband in 1992.

Sen. Barack Obama

If he doesn’t win Iowa, he’d still like to top Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. That would mean she’s in third place or lower — and looking something other than “inevitable.”

Former Sen. John Edwards

Conventional wisdom is that he must win Iowa – and by a significant margin — or else the benefits could be short-lived. If either Clinton or Obama is severely weakened (in a distant third place or worse), he hopes to become the alternative to go head-to-head with the caucus-night runner-up.

Gov. Bill Richardson

Sen. Joe Biden

Sen. Chris Dodd

They don’t have to win Iowa to become the big story on caucus night. They just have to shock the world by sneaking into the top three. To simple poll-watchers, that might seem unlikely. But imagine: What if the “anybody-but-Clinton” crowd, now somewhat divided between Obama and Edwards, suddenly shifted into only one camp on caucus night. Would that open the door for third place? (Note: Biden or Dodd also would claim victory by beating Richardson, who has been in fourth place all year.)

Rep. Dennis Kucinich

In Iowa and beyond, he doesn’t have to win to start racking up delegates. And, as in 2004, don’t bet on his releasing them until their voices are heard at the Democratic National Convention.


Former Gov. Mike Huckabee

After surging like a Wall Street IPO, will he keep surging like Google? Or could he crash like Now that the expectations are so high, he probably needs a caucus win to avoid a momentum slide — especially with New Hampshire’s standing between him and his native South.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney

If he loses Iowa but keeps it close, he has a better chance of recovering in New Hampshire (which borders the state where he was governor, Massachusetts). If he loses both states, conventional wisdom says he’s in big trouble.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani

Didn’t campaign much in Iowa and expectations are mighty low. He’d raise eyebrows if he finished as high as third. But he benefits most if his biggest national threat, Romney, is severely damaged. He’d worry about Huckabee later.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson

If he loses Iowa but reaches the top three, he gets back into the national discussion. Running as the alternative to, well, everyone, he benefits from anybody’s caucus misery. And if Huckabee disappoints, he’d remind South Carolina voters that there’s another southerner in the Jan. 19 contest.

Sen. John McCain

Expectations in Iowa are low. But he got a surprising endorsement from the Des Moines Register and he’d claim momentum by finishing as high as third — just in time for New Hampshire, where he hopes Romney is weakened. (And don’t forget the theory that McCain needs Obama to fizzle in Iowa so that in New Hampshire, independents come home to him.)

Rep. Ron Paul

The polls typically capture traditional Republican caucus-goers. So if he adds the independently minded, first-time participants he’s courting, he’s poised to beat expectations. Then what? Nobody really knows.

Rep. Duncan Hunter

Former Ambassador Alan Keyes

Businessman John Cox

If they somehow slip ahead of any of the top six candidates, they could become big stories — but most likely in the spoiler category.

M.E. Sprengelmeyer follows the drive toward the 2008 presidential election from the Rocky Mountain News bureau in Des Moines. He can be reached at Sprengelmeyerm(at)