The Big Question: Why has no clear favourite emerged in the 2008 presidential election?

Why are we asking this now?

On Thursday, voters across Iowa become the first in the nation to have their say about the Republican and Democratic candidates for the White House in 2008. By now, two likely winners should have emerged from the pack, but the Iowa race is still wide open.

The result is important because a strong finish here can catapult an overlooked candidate to the head of a crowded field. In 1975 Jimmy Carter became the first candidate to exploit the caucus selection process. In a low-key guerrilla campaign he rang doorbells saying: "Hi, I'm not a lawyer and I'm not from Washington." Thanks to Carter, the candidates have been criss-crossing the state in sub-zero temperatures doing much the same thing. Thinly populated, evenly balanced between liberals and conservatives, rural and overwhelmingly white, the state has a unique king-maker status in the election.

What's happening on the Democrat side?

The polls show the three top Democrats, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, are tied in a virtual dead heat. But the polls only tell part of the story. Under the Democrats' rules, a candidate needs at least 15 per cent of the vote at a local caucus to be considered "viable". The second-tier votes then get parcelled out among the other candidates, with highly unpredictable results. John Edwards, who moved his children and terminally ill wife to Iowa, is putting up a ferocious fight and banking on a last-minute surge of support. There are signs that he could win the caucus, leaving Clinton and Obama in a scrap for second place.

And on the Republican side?

The Republicans have yet to coalesce around a single candidate and there are no fewer than five viable scenarios that could be played out. For a while it looked as if the Christian fundamentalist Mike Huckabee would win the caucus. Running a bare-bones, archly conservative campaign, he swept into a five-point lead over Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and Mormon who spent tens of millions of dollars trying to win here. But over the past few days the focus of the race has changed from Romney's flip-flopping on abortion, gays and gun control to foreign policy. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has had voters focusing on America's foreign policy and breathed new life into the campaign of John McCain.

Where's Giuliani?

"America's Mayor" should be cleaning up now that attention has turned to terrorism and al-Qai'da. After all, as late-night TV comedians like to say, there are only three things in a Giuliani sentence: "a noun and a verb and 9/11". His carefully laid strategy was largely to ignore Iowa and New Hampshire (which votes on 8 January) and rely instead on a bedrock of support in large states like Florida, California and New York. As Iowa voters wonder how America will handle an unstable, nuclear-armed Pakistan, they have come to see a steady hand in John McCain who has been steadily gaining in the polls. A strong showing in Iowa followed by a win in New Hampshire could be a major boost for this likeable Republican candidate who opposes torture and wants to shut down Guantanamo.

How come Hillary has lost her way?

For a while, it seemed as if Hillary Clinton's lead in the polls was so overwhelming that she would crush her opponents in the early stages. But it has not turned out that way. Impressed as Americans are by her "historic" race to become the first woman president, her undoubted intelligence and her sure-footed career in the US Senate, they are also deeply worried about the direction the country is taking. They trusted George Bush, twice, and look at the mess he has created. Why, they seem to be asking, should they vote for Hillary and her backers in the Democratic establishment who behave like a government-in-exile waiting to take over?

For all her brilliance in debate and on the campaign trail, she fails the authenticity test for many and has "high negatives" in the polls. Many voters seem to want a fresh leader they can trust, rather than business as usual in what could become a 34-year Clinton-Bush dynastic cycle should she win in 2008 and be re-elected four years later.

So is it really all over for her?

Far from it. She is one of America's most ferocious and seasoned political battlers and, like John McCain, has made a big play in recent days of her foreign policy experience. She was quick to go on television telling voters how close she and Bill were to Benazir and how she has intimate knowledge of the politics of the sub-continent. She easily swatted away the Obama campaign's efforts to link her once-enthusiastic support for George Bush's war in Iraq to the continued threat from al-Qai'da in Pakistan.

What are the pollsters saying?

John Zogby, a dean among US pollsters, says: "It's about as close as you can get at the top in both races, but it's still very uncertain." Part of the problem in predicting the outcome is that about six per cent of likely caucus-goers in each party remain undecided. The latest Zogby/Reuters/C-SPAN poll of 899 likely Democratic caucus-goers and 902 likely Republican caucus-goers taken between Thursday and Saturday had Clinton with the slimmest lead over Obama and Edwards on the move. But with a margin of error of 3.3 percentage points and the unpredictability of the caucus process, turnout will be key.

What kind of tactics are coming in to play?

True to type, the top two Republicans have gone negative on each other. Romney has broadcast ads that question Huckabee's honesty. Huckabee has compared Romney to the Seinfeld character George Costanza, who supposedly said, "Just remember, it's not a lie if you believe it" implying that Romney lied as fluently as Bill Clinton.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has had hubby Bill and mom Dorothy out on the trail and has flown in volunteers to drive elderly Iowans to the caucuses. She will broadcast direct to voters across the state on caucus night. Meanwhile Obama is using an army of young volunteers as well as the internet to galvanise young voters, sending out Facebook reminders, text messages and emails. Edwards meanwhile has the backing of the trades union movement.

Could this situation let in an independent candidate?

With the field so unsettled, the likelihood of a wild-card "third party" candidate entering the fray grows increasingly likely. New York's billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg is reported to be increasingly enchanted with the idea of throwing his hat, (along with a hundred million dollars or so of his fortune) into the ring. Greybeards in both parties gathered in Oklahoma this week to encourage him to make a bi-partisan bid for the presidency.

Will Iowa prove decisive?


* Iowa is all about winnowing the wheat from the chaff and projecting a candidate into national prominence

* The momentum for the rest of the election is set by the long slog of Iowa's face-to-face style of retail politics. After the caucus, voters rarely get to see the candidates up close

* Bombarded by politics and polls over the holiday season, Americans are focused on Iowa and want a potential winner to emerge


* Iowa is followed so closely by New Hampshire and other primaries that the winners will not have time to generate momentum

* The electorate is hopelessly torn between making a clean break with the past and having an experienced hand on the tiller

* With 10 months before the presidential election, the parties are so focused on selecting their own nominee that it will not be until 5 February 'Super Tuesday' that the two main candidates emerge

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Systems Administrator - London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Systems Administra...

Recruitment Genius: .NET Web Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£14616 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading specialist in Electronic Ci...

Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003