Demystifying Iowa

The longest pre-season in America will end one week from tonight when votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses, closing a year of campaigning that has seen 17 candidates drop out before the balloting began. I’m asked a lot of questions about Iowa — usually about how the caucus works and why it matters so much — because the process is opaque and elevated in importance by virtue of its first-in-the-nation status. So as we count down to the start of the active phase of the nomination process, here is a quick and simple guide to what’s going to transpire on February 2 and why it matters.

  • Caucusing requires commitment. In a typical election, you show up at your polling place, stand in line, vote and leave. If you’re not in a precinct where Republican officials have provided insufficient voting machines to discourage you from waiting, the process shouldn’t take a long time. Caucusing, in contrast, can take all evening. You have to sit through an introductory meeting with speeches from local elected officials and vote for the caucus chair before you get to the presidential preference part. And you have to be willing to confront a freezing cold Iowa night to do it. This means caucus participants tend to be more engaged and more representative of the activist base of the party than participants in an ordinary primary.
  • Your vote is public. Most elections have secret ballots, but caucuses are social events. They take place across Iowa’s 1,678 precincts in libraries, municipal buildings, church social halls — even in private homes. Participants have to declare their support for a candidate in front of their friends, neighbors, co-workers and supervisors by pairing off in groups with others supporting their candidate. This draws caucus participants who are more deeply and openly committed to their choice than the population in general. 
  • Second choices matter. If your preferred candidate does not attract at least 15% of the total number of participants at your caucus, your candidate is eliminated from contention at your site and you have to choose again. You can go home if you wish, or move over to one of the first-round survivors — while your friends, neighbors, co-workers and supervisors actively try to convince you to join their team. Then a second and final count is made, with delegates to the Iowa county conventions allocated at each caucus site in rough proportion to each candidate’s share of the vote at that site.
  • Delegates to the Iowa county conventions? That’s right. Delegates to the Democratic National Convention will not be determined next Monday. This is simply the first step in a selection process that winds through county and district conventions and a state convention in the months ahead.
  • Then how do we know who won? It’s complicated. State party officials will report raw figures from the first and second alignment of voters as well as an estimate of the number of state party convention delegates each viable candidate is likely to receive based on the second alignment figures. 
  •  So there could be more than one winner? Yes. Because candidate rankings can change when voters realign, it’s not difficult to imagine different candidates coming out on top in the first and second rounds — and both declaring victory. And because first round votes are being reported this year for the first time, we will be able to assess the strength of candidates who fell below the 15% threshold. 
  • Then how will Iowa shape the race going forward? Winning Iowa is about getting momentum, not delegates. Because of the outsized attention it generates as the first in a long string of contests, candidates have looked to Iowa to create a bandwagon effect ever since a long-shot peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter leaped to the top of the 1976 primary field by finishing first there (technically he finished second behind “uncommitted” — but “uncommitted” is hard to book on political talk shows). 
  • Does Iowa predict the nominee? Every Iowa winner this century has won the Democratic nomination. Prior to that it’s a mixed bag. But Iowa can give a candidate momentum going into the New Hampshire primary the following week, and since modern primary campaigning began in 1972, the few Democrats who have won both contests were all nominated. This is why there has been a protracted battle within the party over whether such a demographically unrepresentative state should have such early influence. 
  • Can you win even if you lose? Of course! The horserace is an expectations game, and with a crowded field of candidates the order of finish will be interpreted by political reporters relative to where they expected candidates to finish. A 14% showing for Amy Klobuchar can be spun as a victory of sorts, even if she ends up in fourth or fifth place without any delegates, whereas a 14% finish for Bernie Sanders would be devastating to his campaign. In addition to the possibility that different candidates will claim first place in the two rounds of voting, look to see how closely bunched together the candidates are. If there is a big gap between one and two or two and three it will take the wind out of the runner-up campaigns the way a close fourth or fifth place finish will not.
  • Doesn’t all this complexity make it difficult to poll Iowa? Yes. Caucuses are typically harder to poll than primaries, which are harder to poll than general elections. It’s extremely difficult to predict the composition of the electorate on caucus night, and second choices can loom large. Polling can give us a general sense of the contours of the race. It can tell us that there are five competitive candidates set apart from everyone else, and it can give us a sense of whose support is rising or falling relative to earlier polls, but candidate rank ordering is subject to change, especially with so many candidates likely to be non-viable after the first round and with a historically large share of voters still undecided or open to changing their minds.
  • Are there other intangibles? The one big intangible I would consider is organization. Campaign organizations can make a big difference in caucus states. Good campaigns know where their voters are and have a plan to get them to their caucus sites. Barack Obama owes his 2008 nomination in no small part to how well he organized caucus states where Hillary did not. 
  • So who’s going to win? Tune in the day after the Super Bowl to find out.