Breaking Down Iowa: Your Guide to Tonight’s Presidential Caucuses

 

This is it folks. Today marks the kickoff of the glorious political playoffs that come around every four years, and I’m nerding out in a big way. But it’s not just because the primaries are starting; it’s because today’s results have so many important and fascinating dynamics that it’s impossible not to geek out over. Let’s break it down.

Setting the Scene

For starters, the political process unfolding in Iowa is distinctive. Iowans aren’t going to be filing in and out of polling stations across the state all day. Instead, declared party members will gather in precincts across Iowa at 7PM CST and talk about the candidates. Once supporters have made the case for their candidate of choice, participants will separate into groups based on which candidate they back. If one of the candidates fails to garner support from at least 15% of the participants, those who supported them will re-sort themselves into the other candidates’ groups. Once the dust settles, those caucusing will elect delegates to represent their selections. Those numbers are then tallied, and we get the results of the Iowa caucuses.

Caucus

Obviously, the main result we’re waiting for is who wins, but winning Iowa doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. Remember when Santorum won in 2012? Or Huckabee in 2008? Remember that time in 1992 when Bill Clinton only garnered 3% of the vote in Iowa? Today’s results will not be a crystal ball telling us who’s going to be crowned at the conventions this summer, nor who will be inaugurated next January. Don’t fool yourself into thinking they will.

But when you look at who wins, and by how much, and by whom, and relative to whom, Iowa matters in so many ways. The best way to understand this is by looking and what’s happening with each party.

State of the Republican Field

The GOP and Iowa are in an interesting position right now. With so many players vying for votes, many of the traditional election dynamics seen in past cycles are out the window. There’s more than one way to win and more than one way to lose this year.

The first person to look at is Trump. He’s held the lead for weeks and leads heavily among those who would be first time caucus goers. A win is expected, with Nate Silver saying he’s got a 46% chance of coming out on top — significant odds given the number of candidates competing.

Trump and Falwell

Right behind him is Cruz, who has tried desperately to paint himself as the religious, far right candidate of choice for Republicans in this cycle. That narrative took a hit when Jerry Falwell Jr. and Sarah Palin endorsed Trump, but Cruz has taken that disappointment and pumped it into an aggressive ground game. Though he trails behind prior Iowa champs Santorum and Huckabee in the number of events he’s done in the state, today he will be completing what’s known as the “Full Grassley” — an attempt to get up close and personal with voters in all 99 Iowa counties.

Senator Cruz and Senator Grassley

Cruz and Trump are within five points of each other, with Marco Rubio coming in ten points behind Cruz in the latest poll by the Des Moines Register — often regarded as a solid predictor of the caucuses’ outcome. Carson trails with only 10% and Rand Paul rounds out the top five with a mere 5%.  Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and John Kasich are all floundering below in single digits.

What happens if these polls accurately reflect the outcome at the end of the night? The answer is different for each side of the spectrum.

Though a huge loss in Iowa might have prompted candidates to drop out in past election cycles, those at the bottom of the list now are unlikely to do so. With so many candidates duking it out and money flying around wildly as influencers try to place their bets in what’s proven to be a very volatile electoral season, there’s just not a big incentive to pull out.

This is particularly true for five candidates. Santorum and Huckabee are well known for staying in races far past their expiration date. Paul is hoping that his ground game with younger voters will surprise people in a fashion similar to the Sanders surge. Kasich is hoping that all the candidates trying to out-conservative each other will leave him as the last reasonable (hah!) man standing. Bush has a war chest so big and backers with pockets so deep that Iowa won’t be enough to push him out.

In other words, a lot of the candidates are thinking that in a campaign this wild and unruly, you might as well stick around and see what happens. There are three candidates, however, who might consider dropping out if they crash in Iowa.

The first is Fiorina. Despite surging in popularity during early Republican debates, she has since plummeted in the polls to the point of near obscurity. If she’s really the shrewd business woman she says she is, she has to know the writing’s on the wall, especially if Iowa goes the way it’s looking like it will.

The second is Christie. He’s doing better than Fiorina in most polls, and has shown up in a big way in recent GOP debates, but no matter how many shining moments he accumulates, he can’t seem to pull ahead. Though his stated policies are extreme, his record is at least somewhat pragmatic. He makes decisions that make sense for his own survival. A poor showing in Iowa may cause those survival instincts to kick in, making him realize it’s time to bow out.

The last is Carson. Yes, he’s polling in the top 5 right now, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot. His fundraising momentum is dwindling. The supporters that do back him aren’t what you’d call enthusiastic. He’s had a rough couple months, being criticized by his own advisers for being clueless about foreign policy and faced a staff exodus in December. If he gets beaten by margins even wider than what the current polls show, he could be done for.

Speaking of margins, when you look at the top of the spectrum, that’s what may matter most. While Trump is predicted to win, the amount by which he wins could play a substantial role in the money given to Rubio or Cruz in the coming weeks and months. It could also significantly influence who gets endorsed by candidates exiting the field. Those margins will send a message, however flimsy the backing may be, about who is best positioned to beat Trump — one of the driving concerns of establishment Republicans. At this point, they’re just hoping it’s not Cruz. Rubio seems to be the trending pick, quite the upset for the prior heir apparent, Bush. Tonight will decide if that trend continues.

rubio

In interviews today, Rubio has come off as quietly stoic, as though he’s not expecting to win, and that’s probably pretty fair. Cruz, on the other hand, is fighting hard, and if his efforts are successful, he may deal one helluva blow to Trump. Though Trump has been really good at drumming up excitement, one of the concerns has been that he doesn’t understand the ground game or the mechanics of a solid campaign. If Cruz wins, it will be because he knows how to play and played well, which would add steam to the narrative that Trump is a caricature and not a candidate. In the end, this is about turnout for both Trump and Cruz, with the central question being what works better: hype or hoofing?

Turnout in general will be interesting to watch for Republicans, who have historically turned out in smaller numbers than Democrats to caucus in Iowa. The heat associated with this electoral season could bring out many more voters to caucus than ever before, which could have larger implications for the general election, where turnout will likely be a deciding factor in which party gets the presidency.

Even more interesting will be the demographics of those voters and the ways in which they align. The party is frequently seen as being what Rand Paul has referred to as, “lily white.” Will more minorities show up? What will the age split be? Who will these different segments of the population support? The answers to these questions may be extrapolated to implicate the size and scope of the base for upcoming primaries and the general, and shift electability conversations surrounding the candidates that stay in the game.

Perhaps the most important demographic for the GOP at this moment is the Religious Right. The conservative faithful have been a force to be reckoned with since the days of segregation, and in the past, they’ve backed the most religious candidates in the field; Santorum and Huckabee’s wins, for instance, are largely credited to the evangelical pull in Iowa. But in this election, Trump — despite having a religious message that can be described as discombobulated at best — is polling very well with religious conservatives. If they back him as substantially as the polls indicate, this may be a wake-up call for campaigns like Cruz’s who have been banging the Bible in hopes of waking voters.

State of the Democratic Field

The Democratic field, on the surface, may seem downright dull in comparison to the circus unfolding on the right. But it might be more accurate to say that the competition is more about depth than breadth. There are technically three candidates in the ring, but O’Malley is so, so, so far out of the realm of possibilities that I’m not even going to go there.

The Des Moines Register poll speaks to a two horse race between Clinton and Sanders, with Clinton holding a 3% lead over Sanders. Other polls, like the Quinnipiac poll, have Sanders in the lead, but there’s one thing that’s consistent across all of the polls: Sanders and Clinton are within the margin of error of each other. That’s how close this thing is.

On paper, the two candidates don’t have a lot of differences. Indeed, it’s unlikely that concrete issues will determine how the vote swings this evening. Instead, it’s likely to be sentiment regarding which candidate can be trusted to get things done.

Clinton may seem to have the advantage here. She fought ferociously on health care as First Lady, served in the Senate, and though she lost her presidential bid in 2008 to Barack Obama, she did end up as Secretary of State. It’s an accomplished resume, to be sure. Speaking last night in Iowa, her passion was the highest we’ve seen from her on the campaign trail yet.

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The Sanders resume isn’t light either, though. He was a civil rights activist in his youth, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and actually getting arrested in Chicago for opposing segregation. He served as Mayor of Burlington from 1981 to 1989, then in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1991 to 2007, and then headed to the Senate in 2007 where he’s been ever since.

Though the Clinton campaign has insisted experience is the central question in the election, that’s really not the case in fact or sentiment. What it comes down to are the impressions generated by their experience.

Clinton is dogged with questions regarding her trustworthiness. Most Democrats roll their eyes at the theatrics of the Benghazi investigations, but the subsequent email scandal may have teeth, not necessarily because she used a personal email address, but because she may have been giving favor to influencers who contributed to the Clinton Foundation. Others feel uneasy about her ties to Wall Street and the Washington elite. Still others have a bad taste in their mouth from her husband’s tenure; one of the more slimy comments passed around is that she stayed with her husband out of political convenience.

Sanders, on the other hand, is often derided for being too extreme. A self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, he is aggressively progressive, and has often alienated potential allies by being a vocal critic of both parties. His campaign has him looking a lot like Howard Beale in Network, with his supporters hanging out their social media windows to yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Sanders

The Clinton campaign has seized on this trend, saying this election comes down to evolution or revolution. Brass tacks? Clinton contends that a more centrist approach of building upon the successes we’ve already won is the only path forward in such a polarized political environment. Sanders argues that while those successes have been positive, they form an unsteady foundation, and the challenges we face today require a far bolder approach than the one Clinton is willing to embrace.

Sanders says he can change things, Hillary says he can’t. But that’s why Iowa matters so very much for the Democrats. The turnout demographics will help answer who’s right on this question.

While Sanders and Clinton are neck and neck among Democrats in general, Sanders is miles ahead among Millennial voters. Most recent Millennial polling with Reuters shows a gap that’s swung from a virtual tie at the beginning of 2016 to Sanders dominating Clinton at the end of January.

Millennial lead

Convention electoral wisdom would indicate this doesn’t matter, because younger voters tend not to vote, especially not in primaries and particularly not in a caucus setting. This assumption would appear to be validated by polls conducted in the past couple of years showing how “apathetic” Millennials are.

The Sanders campaign is premised on the the idea that it’s more complicated than all that. It’s not that Millennials don’t care about the issues; indeed, their social behavior demonstrates intense concern about issues like LGBT rights, abortion, healthcare, and the economy. The problem has been that there hasn’t been a candidate who they felt adequately reflected their values, so they haven’t been very excited about the political process. Sanders, with his intensely progressive campaign, is aiming to change that, and betting that if they can get Millennials to vote, they can help usher in a more progressive Congress to advance his more progressive agenda.

IF Millennials show up tonight in Iowa to give Sanders the win, it says a lot about what’s coming down the pike. It would demonstrate that Millennials are more engaged than conventional political wisdom would suggest, which weighs heavily in Sanders’ favor, not only in terms of primary results, but in terms of drumming up support among more establishment Democrats. It sends them the message that they don’t need to run from progressive ideals to win. Plus, if he can bring out Millennials, he’s not only suddenly electable; he also has the ability to bring some serious heat for down ticket election Democrats. To be fair, if Millennials show up in lower numbers but Sanders still wins, the news is less likely to spark that revolution he’s hoping for, but it will still speak to his competitiveness. Tonight is incredibly important for Sanders.

In either case, Clinton can’t afford to lose. Her trajectory up to now is already mirroring what happened in 2008. For her to be beat by another upstart of sorts right out of the gates despite the massive power of the Clinton machine behind her would be devastating, especially since it appears that New Hampshire is already out of reach for her. If Millennials pour in and show Sanders love, it would echo something made clear in Clinton’s loss to Obama: she’s not great at youth outreach, and never has been. It’s almost worse if Millennials don’t show up and she loses, though, because that shows she doesn’t even have a firm grip on a base that many assumed would be handing her a coronation.

And here’s the other thing: even if Clinton wins, she may still lose. If the margin of victory is as small as it’s likely to be if she wins, it’s still an embarrassment. She’s got better infrastructure and bottomless pockets behind her, and somehow the political equivalent of an old man yelling at people to get off of his financial lawn is within striking distance of her? The optics aren’t great. The best case scenario would be her coming away with a decisive win, but that’s incredibly unlikely, so she’s got to hope she at least eeks it out. If she can do that, slim the gap between her and Sanders in New Hampshire, and capture the minority vote in Nevada and South Carolina, she may just come out on top.

But taking a step back here, let’s be fair. While momentum out of Iowa could certainly change things, Sanders still faces an uphill battle. A victory would counter the narrative that he’s unelectable or would cost the Democrats if nominated, but Clinton still has a lot of support and is widely seen as the most likely nominee. For him to get the nomination, the reaction to Iowa has to be substantial.

The Third Party Voter: Weather

To caucus in Iowa, you have to declare a party, but Mother Nature doesn’t play by the rules. Snow is in the forecast for this evening, and though most think it shouldn’t hit until after the caucuses have wrapped up, fear of a storm may keep some voters away. It’s anyone’s guess who that impacts most. On one hand, you could say that inclement weather would keep people who are not dedicated participants in the system at home. On the other hand, you could say that first time participants are so fired up that they’ll show up come hell or high water.

So there’s that.

Personally, I’m not willing to make any calls about what’s going to happen tonight except to say it’s going to be interesting, which, for someone like me, is as good as it gets.

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