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?

Yes

* 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

No

* 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

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam