Recent polls that show former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., bunched at the head of the pack.
On Friday the Des Moines Register called the race a “virtual tie.”
Kerry has enjoyed an especially strong surge in recent days according to the polls, daily gaining ground on his rivals and moving to first place in one poll and a near tie with Dean for first in another.
Whatever a candidate’s poll popularity, however, many experts say the key to winning in the Hawkeye state will be on-the-ground organization, considered crucial to score a victory in the caucuses, which require voters to gather in small groups, debate, and then vote by literally “standing” for a head count.
According to reports from Iowa, Gephardt and Dean have the best on-the-ground operations. Gephardt won the caucuses in 1988 and enjoys strong labor union support. Dean has raised more money than the other candidates and, until recent days, has led decisively in the polls.
Still, the meet-debate-vote system means that any candidate with enough popularity and enough caucus-attending supporters has an opportunity to do well.
An MSNBC/Zogby poll of 503 likely voters taken Jan. 13-15 showed Kerry in the lead for the first time with 24 percent, followed by Dean (19 percent), Gephardt (19 percent) and Edwards (17 percent). The Zogby poll’s margin of error is +/- 4.5 percent.
“Any one of the four can win this one,” pollster John Zogby told MSNBC.
The Zogby organization plans to poll voters and post the results each day until Monday’s election.
A KCCI-TV/Research 2000 poll of 607 likely voters taken Jan. 12-14 showed Dean leading with 22 percent followed closely by Kerry (21 percent), Gephardt (18 percent), and Edwards (18 percent). The KCCI poll’s margin of error is +/- 4 percent.
“We’re essentially in, as far as I can tell, a four-way tie here,” Dean, who had for weeks been the front-runner, told the Des Moines Register on Thursday. Dean seemed to remain confident, however, telling the Register, “Our base is strong.”
On Thursday, Dean picked up the endorsement of former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun who dropped out of the race.
Meanwhile, Kerry sounded cautious about his apparent surge in an interview with the Register. “What matters is Monday,” Kerry said, adding that he will “spend the next four days talking about what matters. I have the credentials to do it.”
However, The Washington Post reported that Kerry was attempting to use his poll momentum to rally supporters and attract more voters.
“Do you like the surge?” Kerry yelled to a crowd in Sioux City, Friday, according to the Post. “Do you like the surge? Are you ready to make more and more surge a surprise on Monday?”
If Kerry wins Iowa or makes a strong showing, it could help him in New Hampshire where he now trails Dean and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. A late entry into the race, Clark skipped Iowa in order to focus on the Granite State and other areas of the country.
Gephardt needs a win in Iowa in order to remain a viable candidate, according to political observers — and the candidate himself.
“I leave in your hands the future of my campaign and the fate of our Democratic Party,” Gephardt said to a crowd in Nevada, Iowa, on Wednesday, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Gephardt, who is barnstorming 18 Iowa counties in three days, has also stepped up his criticism of Dean, whom Gephardt accuses of waffling on trade issues important to American workers.
Edwards, who was endorsed by the Des Moines Register on Jan. 12, is looking for a strong showing in Iowa and elsewhere, especially the South.
Edwards has repeatedly said that the South is his “backyard,” and that he can defeat Bush in the region.
Despite the excitement generated by polls, Iowa political veterans like the state Democratic Party chairman Gordon Fischer say the nature of the caucuses make predictions very difficult.
Fischer told Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” on Jan. 9 that the contest could be decided by the reportedly large number of still-undecided voters, estimated at 15 percent to 20 percent.
“I know polls put it maybe at 20 percent. I think it’s quite a bit higher, maybe 30 percent,” Fischer said. “And I think the candidate who is going to win, who is going to do well on caucus night is the person who is going to be able to get those undecided voters, reach those undecided voters, and get them to caucus for him or her.”
Fischer further said that polling, even entrance polls conducted on the day of the election, can be misleading.
“I’m very mistrustful of the polls,” Fischer said. “We have a lot of undecided folks people can switch at the caucuses. There’s the viability issue. And so I think just about anything can happen.”
Diane Hamilton, a Democratic activist in Buena Vista County, Iowa, echoed Fischer’s statements about the large number of undecided voters in an interview with the New York Times on Jan. 12.
Hamilton said she and her husband are among those who have yet to make up their minds.
“Usually we know way ahead of time who we’re going to support,” Hamilton told the Times. “But this time it’s terrible. We waffle. We like Gephardt. We like Kerry. We like Edwards. A lot of people are like us this year. They can’t make up their mind.”