How to read the Iowa caucus results

All eyes are on Iowa, where voters are still undecided. Here is what to look out for in the results.

The Iowa caucus, which sounds the starting pistol in the Republican nomination race, gets underway tonight. Yet as voting fast approaches, there is still no clear frontrunner. Polls show that some two out of five voters in Iowa are still undecided.

There is no clear consensus among the pundits either, who variously predict that either Mitt Romney -- currently topping most national polls -- Ron Paul, or Rick Santorum could win in the state. These three candidates are almost evenly tied.

Richard Cohen at the Washington Post (who predicts that Romney will be victorious) notes that none of the other candidates have emerged from Iowa with their campaign in-tact:

The Iowa caucus has turned out to be a demolition derby for Republicans. With the exception of Romney and Santorum, they all have been damaged. Perry showed he couldn't debate (or talk), Bachmann had trouble with the truth, Gingrich acts like R2-D2 with a short circuit and Paul has been soiled by the ugly newsletters his foundation published in the past. Santorum emerges undented, (al dente?) but that could be because until too late he was not considered worth denting. Aside from him, though, only Romney came out of Iowa as he came in -- boring, but inevitable. He wins because everyone else loses.

Romney is cultivating this sense of inevitability around his campaign, seeking to give the impression that the party is coalescing around him. A big win in Iowa would give this tactic a significant boost, given that it has thus far looked like a tight race. On the other hand, if he falls into third place, he may have to do some explaining, although this will not necessarily spell disaster for the rest of his campaign.

What happens in Iowa does not necessarily reflect the eventual national outcome -- it is an oft-quoted fact that Mick Huckabee won in Iowa in 2008, although the nomination eventually went to John McCain. Indeed, since 1972, only three non-incumbent candidates have won the Iowa caucuses and went on to win the presidency -- Carter, George W. Bush, and President Obama. It is easy to make arguments for why this largely agricultural state does not reflect the US as a whole; yet it does represent the first test of the voting public, and a reasonable indication of the viability of a candidate's campaign.

For this reason, it can be almost more important who does badly than who does well. All of the second-tier candidates have insisted they will continue with their campaigns regardless of what happens in Iowa, but it is not unheard of for low polling candidates to drop out of the race.

Paul, who has stood for presidency twice before, will be particularly affected by this. In the past, he has been held back by the perception that he simply does not have sufficiently wide appeal to take the fight to the Democrats. A more organised campaign this time has worked to broaden his support base outside libertarians and students, and a win in Iowa could provide a counter-argument to those who maintain he is not a viable candidate.

Quite apart from what Iowa means for individual candidates, the level of voter turnout in this swing state -- important in the general election -- should give some indication about the strength of partisan feeling. As Michael Shear notes at the New York Times Caucus blog:

Fourteen months after a tidal wave of Republican energy helped sweep many Democrats out of Congress, the Iowa results will provide a hint about whether that intensity of purpose remains.

If 140,000 or 150,000 voters show up to the caucuses, that would be a good sign for Republicans (who have said for months that they have succeeded in adding to the rolls of registered Republicans). If fewer people show up than last time, it may suggest that the excitement of 2010 has faded a bit.

In a race so far characterised by uncertainty and swift rises to the top of the polls, matched in speed only by falls from grace, Iowa will give the first reliable test of public opinion. All eyes on the results.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at