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The Iowa Caucus Is a Frontrunners' Nightmare

AWalter Head
August 9, 2019

This week was the start of the Iowa State Fair. Besides being one of the few places in America where you can eat fried Oreos AND watch a baby pig being born, the Iowa State Fair is also the unofficial kick-off to campaign season in the state. Presidential candidates swarm around the Des Moines fairgrounds while being followed by thousands of reporters and camera crews.

But, while eating every major food group from a stick can be fun, Iowa hasn’t been all that kind to national frontrunners. Part of it is the composition of the electorate. On the GOP side, it’s heavily evangelical and rural. On the Democratic side, it’s overwhelmingly white and liberal. Iowans also pride themselves on putting the candidates through their paces. Candidates are expected to invest heavily on field programs and do lots of retail politicking. They aren’t ‘wowed’ by big names or fancy titles. Both Democratic and Republican caucus voters seem to enjoy sticking it to the establishment. Hillary Clinton came into Iowa in 2008 and 2016 as the frontrunner. She left battered and political bruised — losing it in 2008 and narrowly winning in 2016. The last time a so-called ‘establishment’ candidate won the Democratic caucus was 2004 when then Sen. John Kerry beat Gov. Howard Dean, the more liberal outsider. 

Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden currently leads in national polls by an average of 15 points (in the RealClear Politics average), but his lead in Iowa is a more modest 9 points. A Monmouth College poll released on Thursday found Biden leading his closest competitor, Elizabeth Warren, 28 to 19 percent. Kamala Harris was the only other candidate in double digits at 11 percent. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who came within a whisker of winning the state in 2016, was at just 9 percent. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn also observed this week that Iowa is “Biden’s biggest weakness,” in large part because Biden’s bigger lead in national polls is due to strong support from African Americans and more moderate, and older voters. In 2016, according to exit polls, just three percent of Iowa caucus-goers were African-American, and 68 percent defined themselves as either ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ liberal.

Warren looks like Biden’s greatest threat in the state. She is unabashedly liberal (she leads among ‘very liberal” Iowa voters with 37 percent in the most recent Monmouth poll). She assails the status quo and the establishment. She's a fresh face (in contrast with Sanders).  Her constituency is overwhelmingly white and college educated. She has been investing heavily in field offices.  Where she struggles is with non-college white voters. According to the 2016 caucus exit poll, voters in the state were evenly divided between those who had a college degree (45 percent), to those who didn't (46 percent).  

Biden also struggles with the ‘enthusiasm' factor. The Des Moines Register poll flagged Biden’s potential struggles in the state back in June. In that survey they found that “among those who list Biden as their first choice for president, 29% say they are “extremely enthusiastic” about their choice. Among all those who name another candidate as their first choice for president, that number is substantially higher (39%).” The poll also found that Biden “has more support among people who say they plan to use the new virtual caucus process than among those who say they will caucus in person.” The “virtual caucus process” allows Iowans to vote without showing up at a caucus location. “Though more support is never a bad thing,” writes Des Moines Register reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel, “those virtual attendees will count for only 10% of the delegate equivalent total on caucus night.” In other words, some of Biden’s strongest support comes from voters who are the least committed to showing up in person — and whose votes count for less than those who come out to caucus.  

What doomed Clinton in 2008 — and hurt her again in 2016 — was not only that younger voters made up a bigger proportion of the vote than they had historically, but that those young voters also voted overwhelmingly for Obama and Sanders. For example, in 2004 just 32 percent of the caucus electorate was under age 45. In 2008, that number rose by 8 points to 40 percent. In 2016, it dipped a bit 37 percent; still a five point jump from 2004.  Clinton lost these voters by HUGE margins. Obama carried the youngest cohort (17-29) by 43 points. Sanders won these younger voters by 70 points!

Biden isn’t struggling as much with younger voters as Clinton did. The Monmouth poll found the former vice president holding his own among younger voters, taking 19 percent to Warren’s 20 percent and Sanders’ 18 percent.

Another thing that I think is very important to remember is that the 2008/2016 presidential races were both open seat contests. In an open seat contest, the focus is much more on the individual characteristics of the Democratic candidates. When there is an incumbent in the White House, the party out of power tends to look at their potential nominees through the lens of how they match up with the current president.

For example, the 2008 Democratic caucus exit poll, found that just 8 percent of Democratic caucus-goers picked “has the best chance to win in November” as one of the four personal qualities that mattered most in their vote. The top choice, at a whopping 52 percent, was “can bring needed change.” In 2016, “can win in November” came in fourth place at 20 percent, behind “right experience” (28 percent), “cares about people like me,” (26 percent), and “honest and trustworthy” (24 percent).

In 2004, “can beat Bush” (26 percent) came in a close second to “takes a strong stand” (29 percent). This year, the desire to beat Trump is even more intense. When asked if they had to choose between a candidate they agree with on issues but would have a hard time beating Trump, or a Democrat they don’t agree with but who’d be stronger facing off against the president, 72 percent of Iowa Democrats picked the candidate who could beat Trump.

So, while the Iowa electorate isn’t necessarily a good fit for Biden, the political climate does benefit him. But, as we have written before if Biden starts to look wobbly, it gives other candidates a chance to grab the all-important 'electability' mantle. 

Image: John Olsen from Des Moines, Iowa wears a vest with Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden buttons as he speaks at the Iowa State Fair on Thursday August 8, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)