Your Iowa Caucus Primer: FAQs and Answers
With the official kickoff to the 2016 presidential race just days away now, here’s everything you need to know to get ready for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
What exactly is a caucus anyway?
A caucus is reminiscent of the way the founding generations of the country used to vote. In my home state of Iowa, voters will gather at one of the many precinct sites across the state. These are usually hosted in schools, churches, and other locales of note. Instead of a primary, which works like a general election with polls open all day for the convenience of the voter, a caucus is best described as appointment activism.
In Iowa they begin at 7 p.m. on a school night, and depending on how official business is conducted it could take a while. Many caucus sites decide to do their official party business before the vote takes place, so a significant investment of time is required.
How come far fewer people vote in the caucuses than in a primary?
Both the time commitment and the process—which may require you to either publicly vouch for who you’re voting for and why, or listen to a series of speeches by others doing the same—have a tendency to limit the turnout to those most committed to the cause. This is why the Iowa caucuses are primarily an activist-driven process for both parties.
Organization is king in Iowa…
Recently, both CNN and Fox have released polls showing Donald Trump with a double-digit lead in Iowa, but the polling model that finding draws from presumes a turnout of at least 300,000 Iowans. That’s never going to happen for several reasons:
- It’s about triple the all-time Republican turnout record set in 2008, which makes it an absurd projection.
- The most Republicans to take part in a primary (let alone caucus) in Iowa this century is only about 230,000. Our last statewide primary in 2014 only had about 165,000 voters.
- There are actually 11,000 fewer registered Republicans in Iowa this January than in January 2015.
How come the Iowa caucuses usually defy the public polls to some extent?
Organization is king in Iowa, because you’re mostly cultivating relationships with the same activists/demos that always take part in the caucuses. And Iowa is a state without a major television market, so the influence of massive media buys/exposure is limited.
That makes projecting eventual turnout difficult, because in a low-turnout event it doesn’t take much of an organizational advantage to dramatically alter the landscape. Check out these recent examples:
- In the final week of the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, there were eight public polls released that had Hillary Clinton winning, and one even had John Edwards winning. Barack Obama’s organizational advantage won by almost eight points, and it out-performed the Real Clear Politics polling average by almost seven points.
- In the final week of the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, there were four public polls released that had Mitt Romney winning, and he lost by nine points. Mike Huckabee‘s organizational advantage out-performed the Real Clear Politics polling average by six points.
- Back in 2004, the best John Kerry polled in any of the final Iowa Caucus polls was 23%. He won on caucus night with 37%.
- No final public poll of Iowa back in 2012 had Rick Santorum higher than 18 percent (and that was only two of them), but on caucus night his organizational advantage out-performed the Real Clear Politics polling average by almost 10 points.
There is a common denominator between the two Republican precedents just cited above, which leads us to our next question…
Is it true evangelicals dominate the Iowa caucuses?
Yes, evangelicals were slightly more than 60% of the total electorate in 2008, and slightly less than 60% of the electorate in 2012, making them by far the biggest voting bloc in Iowa. Furthermore, Iowa’s evangelical church network is the most formidable organization in the caucuses. By tapping into that network to become its primary proxy, Huckabee and Santorum were able to out-perform the polls. This go-around Ted Cruz is the candidate most connected to Iowa’s evangelical network, which is one of the biggest reasons he’s built the best GOP organization in the state.
But doesn’t Iowa have a terrible track record picking presidents?
The exact opposite is true, actually. Since 1992, no one who didn’t win a contested Iowa caucus has won the presidency. And that year native Senator Tom Harkin was running for president, so the Democrats barely had a competitive race in the state.
On the other hand, though the intelligentsia frequently fawns over New Hampshire’s alleged superiority to Iowa, the truth is no winner of a contested Granite State primary has gone on to win the presidency since 1988. Tsongas, McCain, Hillary, and Buchanan are among the graveyard of New Hampshire primary winners that didn’t win the White House.
Why does Iowa have a better track record than New Hampshire when it comes to picking presidents?
It comes down to the process for each. Iowa is an activist-driven caucus. Thus, a candidate is required to show he’s able to build a strong grassroots network of support. That’s the first building block of any viable national campaign. Therefore, Iowa provides a good test run for a candidate’s electability.
However, in New Hampshire’s wide open primary anyone can vote at any time on either side regardless of party affiliation. Democrat Party, Republican Party, Pajama Party, or Kid-in-Play House Party—it doesn’t matter. While that makes for some exciting and surprising results, it doesn’t necessarily tell us whether or not a candidate has a campaign built to last beyond one shining moment.
Wait a minute, didn’t Iowa get the last two GOP nominees wrong?
Actually, you could turn that around and say based on how McCain and Mitt Romney fared in their general elections that Iowa had it right. For both McCain and Romney were candidates who failed to excite grassroots activists and lost to Barack Obama, who was a favorite of the grassroots activists on the other side.
It is true you can’t win an election with just your base, but you can’t win one without exciting your base, either. A candidate who fails to energize the grassroots of loyalists most likely to vote for him is almost always foreshadowing a weakness that will take its toll come the general election.
Since 1992, no one who didn’t win a contested Iowa caucus has won the presidency.
Just look at the GOP’s presidential victories the past 35 years. Which candidate’s grassroots was most energized? Ronald Reagan had the advantage over Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. George H.W. Bush had the advantage over Michael Dukakis. George W. Bush had that advantage over Al Gore and (especially) John Kerry.
And on the flip side, Bill Clinton’s grassroots was more energized in 1992 and 1996, as were Democrat activists the past two cycles behind Obama.
So, yes, it is true Iowa didn’t pick the Republican nominee the past two cycles. But those nominees lost; therefore, it’s also true that Iowa provided a preview of their defeats to come.
Steve Deace has endorsed Ted Cruz for president.
First published at Conservative Review
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