The Road to the West Wing: The Iowa Democratic Caucus

Image Credit: flickr//Gage Skidmore

With the Iowa Democratic caucuses set to take place soon, Garrett Kennedy explores how the various candidates stack up against each other

It is finally here! The race for US president began eighteen months ago when John Delaney (no, not that one) announced that he was running. After months of infighting and fierce but largely inconsequential debate, we have made it to the first actual vote and the final ten-month stretch.

Many candidates have already fallen. The most significant ones were three of the four top-level non-white candidates (Harris, Booker, and Castro.) However, we also saw the end of less serious candidates such as Kirsten Gillibrand, the skater dude, the crystal lady, and nearly every white man ever to hold elected office.

The Iowa caucus takes place next week and should give us a much better idea of who is likely to face Donald Trump in November. The winner of the Iowa Democratic caucus has gone on to be the Democratic nominee in the general election seven out of ten times. If you want more evidence on the importance of Iowa, you only need to look at the primary model recently released by FiveThirtyEight. If Joe Biden wins Iowa, his odds of winning a majority of delegates are 80 per cent. If he does not, they are 20 per cent. For every other candidate, their odds of winning the nomination drop significantly if they fail to win Iowa.

So, who is likely to win Iowa and for whom does it matter the most? Well, there are but four candidates worthy of any importance, resulting in what is essentially a four-way tie for Iowa.

The first of these is Joe Biden, Obama’s vice-president and the weak frontrunner. Biden has a small lead in Iowa but one that is far from comfortable. A lot of Biden’s support comes from working-class voters and people of colour which makes Iowa a tricky state for him. However, although losing it would no doubt be damaging to Biden’s campaign, he is still the candidate who can most afford to lose it.

In second place, Bernie Sanders has a very small lead over the other two candidates. Having risen to prominence in the 2016 primary race, he entered this campaign with much more momentum. Sanders has shown remarkable consistency throughout the race so far, never dropping below 14 per cent in the polls. However, he has also struggled to reach out to voters outside his immediate base, never surpassing 22 per cent. This implies that he might struggle to reach a majority of delegates. A win in Iowa could be key to achieving this.

Tied for third are Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. Warren’s campaign has been a mixed bag so far, with a terrible launch and then a gradual rise to second place. Recently, her campaign has slumped somewhat but she remains close to Sanders and the rest of the pack. She could still do well in Iowa, and the success of her campaign hinges upon it.

Pete Buttigieg has been the dark horse of the campaign so far. Nobody expected the openly gay, 37-year-old former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana to do particularly well. Mayor Pete is a decent speaker and despite his inexperience and lack of policy specifics, he appeals to many white college-educated West Wing fans. This is a major demographic in Iowa. Indeed, the fact that Iowa is the first state to vote is perhaps the main reason he has any hope of winning the nomination. However, even if he were to win Iowa, he is only polling at 2 per cent among African-American voters, which means he is still likely to struggle in states with a large African-American population. 

As has already been stated, the candidates are effectively in a four-way tie: Biden and Bernie are doing relatively better, but their leads are not significant enough to give us much certainty over what the eventual vote counts will be.

An important caveat when making predictions for Iowa is that it is a caucus rather than a primary. What this means is that it does not follow the conventional structure of an election in which you simply visit a polling station, put an X in a box for a candidate and then the number of votes for each candidate are tallied.

In a caucus, the room is divided into areas for each candidate. They begin by representatives making a speech in favour of their particular candidate. Then everyone votes by standing in the area designated for their candidate. This is only the first step in this insane system. The second, and most crucial one, is that every candidate needs at least 15 per cent of the vote to be counted. Therefore, after the initial vote, people who voted for a candidate who received less than 15 per cent can then move to a different part of the room. This is where the madness truly begins, as it becomes a scrum between representatives of each candidate trying to persuade all of these voters to move to their part of the room.

This means that success in a caucus is much more reliant on a) being popular as a second choice, and b) having a campaign team that is effective at caucusing. It also means that the outcome of a caucus is far harder to predict than a conventional vote because so much simply depends on what happens on the night.

We only have two real pieces of evidence for who is likely to benefit from this system. The first is that in most polls of voters’ second choices, Warren does particularly well. The second is that Sanders did disproportionately well in caucuses compared to primaries in the 2016 race. He also has more volunteers experienced in caucusing, compared to the other campaigns, because of the 2016 race. Despite these two factors, the best of political pundits would have a hard time predicting what turn events may take on February 3, 2020.