By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 1/2/2008 8:07:30 PM ET 2008-01-03T01:07:30

In a matter of hours, following the results of the Iowa caucuses, a contest will begin. It will take place among the slew of national media trying to determine exactly what happened.

But why should all this punditry wait until after the caucuses?

With this handy guide, you can be your own caucus pundit.

I'll note the various scenarios and spins for each candidate, guiding you on the path to political punditry. 

Let's start with the Democrats.

John Edwards
No one HAS to win more than Edwards. The good news for him is that a win over two celebrity candidates will mean something. The three spins:

  • A solid win: Credit will be given to the fact that of the three candidates, no one's been more focused on domestic issues than Edwards. He's done a more credible job of "feeling the pain" of economically distressed Iowans than any other candidate, and as the economy becomes a bigger issue with local voters, Edwards' populist stance has looked prescient. The possibility of riding this wave to momentum in the very economically sensitive New Hampshire is very real.
  • A three-way tie: Edwards' populist appeal was effective in getting the voters he wooed for the last four years, but that appeal failed to bring in new voters and an influx of women, independents and Republicans looking for less polarizing candidates. This made Edwards' ability for a solid victory among Democratic activists very difficult.
  • A loss: As noted above, no one has more at stake in Iowa than Edwards. While a three-way tie might convince the Edwards campaign they can go on and compete, a loss will be extremely difficult to spin. That said, the Edwards camp wants the presidency badly. So, don't expect them to be forced out of this race easily even if the media ignores them after a less-than-impressive Iowa showing.

Hillary Clinton

  • A win: Strike up the inevitability pose. If Clinton squeaks out even a one-point win, it will have the effect of a landslide victory, particularly if she succeeds in a high-turnout scenario. She'll need to follow up a win in Iowa with a win in New Hampshire, of course, but success here could motivate both rank-and-file establishment Democrats (who had been on the fence) to climb aboard. And that will send a message, in particular to women voters, that there is a movement happening, one that the media has ignored until now.
  • A three-way tie: The Clinton camp will have two challenges in this scenario. One is to make sure the media doesn't somehow turn the tie into a "60-plus percent of Democrats rejected her" spin. While the Clinton campaign believes that they've gotten bad media coverage, they do have to worry about a certain segment of the press interpreting Clinton as the incumbent being rejected by majority margins. The second challenge is to make sure they declare victory in this case. With the polls indicating that Edwards and Obama had the juice to win, and Clinton seeming destined for no better than second, a tie may equal a win if her camp plays their cards right.
  • A loss: Obviously, the Clinton team would rather lose to Edwards than to Obama. Third place would be a near-disaster scenario; second is recoverable. There will be a lot of Friday morning quarterbacking about whether Clinton should have even played in Iowa. It was never a natural fit and because many in the national media know this, there's every chance she'll get a few more primaries to prove herself.

No chance anyone believes she's one or two and done. There's too much history with the Clintons and their ability to come back. Despite what they think of the media, they'll be looking for comeback hints at some point; maybe it's Nevada, maybe it's Feb. 5.

Here's another post-spin to expect from Clinton if Obama wins on the backs of independent and GOP support: Look for Clinton surrogates to feed the notion that the voice of rank-and-file Democrats is being drowned out by outside influences. The blogs have picked up on this, and despite not being big Clinton fans, one could envision how the campaign could pivot with "We've been in these fights with Democrats in the trenches; it's important for Democrats to have a greater voice" etc.

Something to watch for ...

Barack Obama

  • A win: I can't imagine a scenario where Obama wins the Democratic nomination and loses Iowa. If he's the nominee, it'll mean he won Iowa by a margin similar to what the Des Moines Register projected this week, allowing his "movement" candidacy to take off. Movements need victories, and no one may be better equipped to feed off a victory than Obama. That's why the Clinton campaign knows stopping Obama is essential. No campaign will have a greater bandwagon opportunity with a victory in Iowa than Obama, because a victory here will mean folks will start buying the idea that there is something going on out there. It would suggest that more folks are getting involved in the Democratic Party process (more indies, more GOPers, more youth, etc.). And that's a contagious thing with voters. But movement candidacies NEED victories; they die quick deaths if they lose — just ask Howard Dean.
  • A tie (either two-way or three-way): Obviously, Obama doesn't mind not winning as long as the person who is ahead of him is Edwards and not Clinton. The Obama folks are confident that they can marginalize Edwards post-Iowa if Clinton is the candidate in third, instead of Obama. A tie with Clinton puts more pressure on Obama to try to win New Hampshire and prove he can actually beat her. As I noted above, movements need victories, and a tie might hurt Obama more than people realize.
  • A loss: See above explanations about movement candidates. Obama has the money to run a national campaign, but the burden of expectations is with him right now, and negative "we told you so" narratives could take hold if Obama's plan to get indies, GOPers and young voters to the polls fails.

Everyone else:

Joe Biden
If he tops Richardson for fourth, look for Biden to stick around for a while (possibly through South Carolina) but if he fails to gain traction in Iowa, how long does he stay around, particularly if he's being left out of debates?

Chris Dodd
Connecticut's senior senator is not interested in embarrassing himself with multiple losses. Hard to imagine him sticking around longer if he indeed ends up in sixth (or even seventh).

Bill Richardson
If crowd sizes are any indication, then Richardson better watch his fourth-place back as Biden appears to be consistently drawing bigger crowds. But Richardson seems intent on sticking through the Nevada caucus since he's made such a big deal about having a Western Democratic presence in this race. But finishing fifth in both Iowa and New Hampshire is going to make it hard for him to keep going.

Mike Huckabee

  • A win: Spending as little as he has, a win will be seen as a tremendous upset, even if the victory is by a point or two. But for an Iowa victory to truly serve as a booster for him in New Hampshire and beyond, Huckabee needs a fairly substantial win (say 5-plus points); a  narrow victory will be seen as nothing more than Huckabee succeeding by rallying Christian conservatives. But a substantial victory could be seen as evidence that he can tap into both the Christian vote and the so-called Bubba/blue-collar Republican voters who respond to populist anti-Wall Street pitches.
  • Any other showing: Huckabee is like George Mason University in the NCAA tournament a couple of years ago; Huckabee is a great story until he loses, and then he disappears from the country's consciousness. For Huckabee, there's no Plan B ... well, other than securing a television talk show contract.

Mitt Romney

  • A win: The one gift Mike Huckabee has brought to Mitt Romney is making Iowa relevant on the GOP side. A few months ago, when it appeared McCain, Giuliani and Thompson were all going to skip Iowa in order to make Romney's victories (in both the straw poll and the caucuses) a hollow win. Now, with Huckabee in the perceived lead, a Romney victory will have meaning again. He can't afford to go 0-2 in Iowa and New Hampshire. The campaign swears they can still win in Michigan if they lose the first two, but that seems like a stretch right now. We'll see.
  • A loss: Romney could possibly survive a narrow loss to Huckabee if he spins it by saying Huckabee cobbled together a victory simply on the backs of Christian conservatives. But then the pressure would be on him to win in New Hampshire. Obviously, if Romney loses by five points or more, he could end up in a tailspin. That's the true nightmare scenario, and no amount of money could rescue him. Just ask Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm.

John McCain
Nobody plays the "national press expectations game" better than McCain, though Huckabee is giving the master a run for his money. Anything north of 15 percent Thursday will get played up big by the media and lead to front-runner coverage once he sets foot in New Hampshire again. The only bad news for McCain right now is that there is an expectation that he could finish third. If he doesn't, then maybe many in the media will question whether the comeback is real or Memorex, circa 2000 (only those over 35 will get this reference).

Rudy Giuliani
The good news for Hizzoner is that he only has to defeat one candidate. The bad news? He may not do it. Giuliani's camp is blowing off Iowa, I get that, but can he really afford to finish behind Ron Paul? Remember, Paul was the first candidate to get into a verbal exchange with Giuliani at an early debate, when Rudy was riding high and Paul was considered the GOP's mascot candidate. So finishing behind him would bring Giuliani negative symbolism that the national press could use to pummel Giuliani for his late-state strategy.

Fred Thompson
Heseems to be developing expectations for himself so that if he doesn't finish in, say, second or a close third, he can withdraw with dignity. If that's the case, the first question we'll have in the media is, how soon will it be before he endorses McCain?

So there's your caucus guide to the likely Friday morning spins, depending on the scenarios. What we can't wait for is the totally unexpected: a candidate surging from nowhere (McCain or Biden) or a turnout that shatters even the most optimistic outlooks or a concession speech gaffe that drowns out everything else (think "The Scream").

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