Opinion - Politics

Op-Ed: The Iowa caucuses are Monday, and they're more crucial this time than ever

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) waves goodbye at the conclusion of a campaign event at La Poste, January 26, 2020 in Perry, Iowa.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images

The crucial Iowa caucuses are set for Monday, and the hype is justified.

In fact, the race in the Hawkeye State actually deserves a little more hype. That's because the state is telling us an important story not just about the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but it's also flashing important signs for how the general election will turn out in November.

Most of the polls in Iowa point to Sen. Bernie Sanders as the favorite to win. The Sanders surge in Iowa began a few weeks ago and have been true-to-form in serving as a key indicator of how the national polls would follow.

The latest NBC/WSJ poll of Democatic voters nationally now has Sanders in the lead. If Sanders can win Iowa, he should feel confident about his chances to win the nomination. In 2016, his narrow loss to Hillary Clinton presaged the similarly historic narrow loss he suffered to her in the race for the Democratic nod. Iowa Democrats also handed caucus victories to eventual Democratic nominees Barack Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000. Yes, Iowa is that important in this nomination race.

It's also crucial for former Vice President Joe Biden to at least have a good showing Monday night. Much of his cachet in Democratic circles is his purported strength in Midwestern swing states that went for Trump in 2016. But if Biden can't even make it very close against Sanders in Iowa, it will be more than fair to question Biden's supposed Midwestern allure.

But too many people get it wrong when it comes to where Iowa stands after Monday night. Once the caucus is over, everyone seems to move on and forget the state.

That's not wise, because Iowa is a true swing state in the general election. Over the last 12 presidential elections, Iowa has gone to the Republican nominee six times and six times to the Democrat. Iowa is also much more likely to be won by the overall presidential election winner than most other states. Iowa has gone to the general election winner in six out of the last seven presidential contests, just like the much more attention-getting state of Florida.

In other words, Iowa is a good indicator of how other key swing states are likely to vote. That's especially true in the Midwest.

That's where the news seems to be getting very good for President Trump.

A poll released last Saturday by the New York Times contains a number of ominous signs for the Democratic presidential candidates. The poll asked Iowa voters about their choice for president in a series of hypothetical general election matchups between Trump and five leading Democrats. Trump came out ahead in each case.

Looking back at similar surveys conducted since this time last year, Trump has either erased his polling deficits in Iowa or increased his leads against most of his Democratic challengers over the past year. Against Biden, Trump trailed by six points last March but now leads the former vice president by an average of three points in the Real Clear Politics average. Sanders led Trump in the Iowa polls as recently as October of last year. But unlike his surge against his fellow Democrats, he's fallen behind Trump in a series of polls taken over the last three months.

This is very likely the result of something many Democratic campaign experts and even rank-and-file voters have been fearing for some time. That is, that none of the Democrats running for president inspire much enduring support. Worse than that, remember that Iowa voters have had the most exposure to the Democratic candidates than voters in any other state in the U.S. since last year. What those highly-exposed voters seem to be saying is that the more they see of the Democratic candidates, the less they like them.

The idea of a "generic Democratic candidate" is still very popular when held up against Trump in any given poll. But the reality is, there is no such thing as a generic candidate. When matched up against real people with their own unique set of pros and cons, Iowa voters are likely to stick with the president. That could be the trend nationwide.

Democrats may brush off Iowa in November because it brings just six electoral votes to the table, and they want to focus on bigger prizes like Florida. But remember that in addition Iowa's great track record in choosing general election winners, it also borders battleground states with bigger electoral college totals like Wisconsin and Minnesota.

That's one reason why the Trump campaign has made Iowa such a priority lately, even though he's not facing any serious challenge for the GOP nomination. Iowa is also a key farm state, where Trump wants to shore up support in light of farmers bearing the brunt of the trade war with China. A strong turnout by Iowa's rural voters and evangelical Christian Republicans would be a good sign for Trump in the other farm states and the South in November. A weak turnout means his campaign has more work to do.

All of this adds up to the fact that Monday's Iowa results are very likely to prove that the state is more than a launching pad when it comes to elections. It's also a crystal ball that both parties would be foolish to ignore in the months ahead.

Jake Novak is a political and economic analyst at Jake Novak News and former CNBC TV producer. You can follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.