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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How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.