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Iowa caucuses could determine new front-runners

After months and months of media coverage and debates, we've finally reached the primary season of the presidential election, and the Iowa caucus on Monday will likely set the tone and potentially establish new front-runners in both the Democratic and Republican presidential races.

Barack Obama's win in the Iowa caucuses in 2008 propelled his name up the polls so that he was truly considered competition to front-runner Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. We know how that turned out.

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The real interesting story coming out of the Iowa caucuses will be the same interesting story of the entire presidential race up until this point: Donald Trump.

The bombastic real estate mogul has dominated headlines and nearly every poll since he announced his candidacy. Frustrated Americans have rallied behind Trump's rhetoric, while the Republican Party's establishment has tried to distance themselves from the front-runner at every turn. But while Trump's ways seem to resonate enough to win the party's primary, questions remain if he could actually win in November's general election.

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Trump currently leads in the polls in Iowa, as well as in New Hampshire and South Carolina — three of the first four states to conduct primaries, along with Nevada, and among the most influential in determining the presidential nominees of both parties. If Trump takes Iowa, he'll likely carry that momentum into New Hampshire, where he's far and away the leader in the clubhouse. From that point, Trump would be a runaway locomotive almost assuredly securing the Republican nomination.

But if he doesn't take Iowa …

A potentially good comparison to Trump is Democratic candidate Howard Dean in 2004. Both won over a portion of the electorate by not only condemning the other party, but also their own party's establishment. He spent several months leading in the polls heading into Iowa before a funny thing happened: John Kerry won.

Kerry also won a short while later in New Hampshire, where Dean's lead evaporated, and Kerry eventually won the Democratic nomination.

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When push comes to shove and their votes actually count, will Republican voters in Iowa shy away from Trump and put their faith in someone they feel more confident could win the general election, such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Florida Sen. Marco Rubio? While Trump and Cruz continue to throw haymakers at each other, Rubio has spent the days leading up to the election talking about why he's the most electable of the Republican candidates in November.

Rubio came off well in the most recent debate — he and Jeb Bush likely benefited the most from Trump's absence — and the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll in Iowa shows Rubio, though still in third place behind Trump and Cruz, has taken a jump of 5 percentage points from the previous poll in early January.

That's not entirely unlike Kerry in 2004, who saw a last-minute surge in the polls. The difference, of course, is that Trump isn't losing momentum like Dean. In fact, the same polls show that he's gained a sizable percentage of voters since earlier this month, taking a 32-to-25 percent lead on Cruz, whom he'd formerly trailed 28 percent to 24 percent. Rubio sits at 18 percent.

It will likely be the remaining 30 percent of voters who will be the difference in the Iowa caucuses, as well as turnout. If the 30 percent who currently support fringe candidates instead put their votes behind one of the top three, the Republican race could turn on a dime.

In the grand scheme of things, Iowa won't send very many delegates to the national convention. But for the media and political insiders who have been following the presidential races so closely, Iowa presents the first real data of what the country is thinking after months and months of polling. The media and the pundits will likely overreact to the results, and that in turn can influence voters in other states.

As we can see just from asking our own elected officials, there are still plenty of people undecided about who they are going to vote for. And if there's one thing we know, it's that America loves to back a winner. If one candidate emerges from the first few states, you can be certain voters in other states with later primaries like Maryland will follow suit.

Iowa will be incredibly influential in determining the front-runner, who might not be the front-runner we're all expecting.

Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at wayne.carter@carrollcountytimes.com.

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