Why Iowa’s Caucuses Are So Unpredictable

Very few Iowans actually vote and the ones that do in small towns can have an outsized influence on the result.

Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Muscatine, Iowa, October 6, 2015
Former American secretary of state Hillary Clinton gives a speech in Muscatine, Iowa, October 6, 2015 (Hillary for America/Mike Davidson)

With four days to go before Iowa kicks off the presidential nominating contests in the United States, the polls suggest far-left senator Bernie Sanders could best party favorite Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side and property tycoon Donald Trump will prevail in the Republican caucuses.

We’ll believe it when we see it.

Be wary of the polls

Jonathan Bernstein explains at Bloomberg View why the surveys should be taken with a grain of salt.

Polling for caucuses is notoriously difficult. Especially when unconventional candidates like Sanders and Trump are counting on first-time voters to show up.

A caucus is not a primary where people vote like they do in a normal election. Caucusing takes the whole night. It requires voters to sit through hours of speeches and procedure and then allows neighbors to try and persuade one another to support their preferred candidate before heads are counted.

Many — perhaps understandably — don’t bother. In the Republican caucuses four years ago, just 120,000 Iowans showed up. And that was a record turnout.

Convoluted process

On the Democratic side, the process is even more convoluted.

First, candidates need the support of at least 15 percent of those present at a given caucus site to be “viable”. The few who might show up to support Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, could conceivably switch sides once their candidate — who is polling at 4.4 percent support in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics average — is out.

There is no secret ballot. Imagine you’re a Sanders supporter in a small town and all your neighbors are there asking you to join them on the Clinton side of the room. You have to be pretty confident to withstand that sort of pressure.

Such small towns matter, because delegates are awarded based on the results in each country rather than the results statewide.

Sanders may be neck and neck with Clinton in the state polls, but the former secretary of state’s support is more spread out.

NBC News reported earlier this week that more than a quarter of Sanders’ support comes from just three counties, each home to one of Iowa’s largest universities. Even if thousands of his supporters were to turn out there, he would win just 12 percent of the delegates.

Clinton, by contrast, is popular across the state and could win a vast majority of the delegates by making a few hundred supporters turn out in rural counties.

Ground game

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll puts Clinton ahead 12 points among past caucusgoers. Among new participants, Sander is up 15 points. It will come down to turnout.

And turnout owes a lot to organization. Clinton and Sanders appear evenly matched in that sense, but on the Republican side there are huge differences.

Ted Cruz, the far-right senator from Texas, has a much better ground game than his colleague from Florida, Marco Rubio, for example.

Indeed, as we reported in December, Rubio has invested so little in field operations in the state — offices, volunteers, get-out-the-vote efforts — that some activists were openly wondering if he cared about winning at all.

As for Trump, he is running a totally different campaign, staying away from the small-town diners and living rooms where votes are normally won one by one and making speeches at big rallies. It’s an untested method.

Given that Cruz is campaigning the old-fashioned way and temperamentally more in tune with Iowa’s conservative electorate, which is disproportionately evangelical, we would rather put our money on him.

Does it even matter?

Not since 2004, when George W. Bush ran unopposed for a second term, have Republican voters in Iowa thrown their support behind the party’s eventual nominee.

Assuming the winner is Cruz, a victory would help him stay competitive and probably do well in other states that are heavily religious.

After he narrowly beat Mitt Romney in Iowa in 2012, Rick Santorum, a fire-and-brimstone conservative from Pennsylvania, went on to win in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee. But he never came close to winning the nomination. Romney won all the big and more diverse states.

On the Democratic side, Iowa is a little more of a bellwether. The left-wing voting population is mostly white and working to middle class. Barack Obama’s ability to win over those type of voters in 2008 paved the way to his nomination.

Currently, Clinton is still strong with these voters whereas Sanders’ supporters tend to be affluent, young and upper middle class. Should he nevertheless do well in Iowa, one of the three reasons we’re extremely skeptical of the self-declared socialist’s chances would seem less convincing. But he would still face a Democratic Party machine that overwhelmingly favors Clinton and he would still need to prove that he can get the support of nonwhite voters.