Hillary Clinton works the crowd at the Iowa State Fair.

Hillary Clinton works the crowd at the Iowa State Fair in August.

Credit: Phil Roeder

What The Iowa Caucuses Are Really About: An Insiders Guide

January 25, 2016

“Winning” the Iowa Caucuses isn’t entirely about finishing first—either in votes received or delegates won.

What it’s really about is getting positive attention after the caucuses—during the subsequent eight days leading to the New Hampshire Primary—from media, donors, and party bigwigs.

Winning, in the literal sense, usually brings those rewards. And, with big question marks in both parties, it should do so again this time, a week from now on February 1.

But reaping that positive mojo can also come from beating expectations, finishing ahead of similar candidates, or providing a good story.

All of which will be interpreted through the biases of what people expect from the odd slice of roughly one-fifth of the party members in a state unrepresentative of the country or either party’s base.

With that in mind, here are the keys to watch for, as a hefty field of candidates heads into a very important first contest.

Has Sanders Really Changed The Electorate?

A large percentage of Bernie Sanders’s supporters have never caucused before, polls show—in many cases because they are so young it’s never even been an option.

In 2004, Howard Dean declared a “revolution at the ballot box” before anyone had actually voted, helping create an expectation that crashed down around him on caucus day. In 2008, Barack Obama really did get thousands of first-timers to show up, stunning observers who didn’t really believe a black candidate could win lily-white Iowa.

Now it’s Sanders declaring an electoral “revolution,” and claiming to hold the lead and the momentum in Iowa. He needs to meet that expectation.

How Does The Media Treat A Sanders Victory Or Loss?

My observation of New Hampshire Democrats over the years suggests that many of them want to help save candidates viewed as facing trouble coming out of Iowa. They did it for Dean in 2004, reversing a downward polling trend to give him 26 percent of the vote and a solid second-place finish. They did it again for Hillary Clinton in 2008, giving her a surprise win after her third-place embarrassment in Iowa.

In both cases, the national media had spent the week between Iowa and New Hampshire asking whether the end had come for Dean and Clinton.

This time around, it would be silly to declare the two-person Democratic nomination battle significantly changed by a few thousand caucus votes in one direction or the other. But it will probably happen anyway.

If Sanders wins Iowa, the media will likely hyperventilate over her losing the presumed nomination, again. It might just be enough to give Clinton a “comeback” win in New Hampshire, where Sanders currently leads in the polls.

If Clinton wins, on the other hand, the media is likely to treat Sanders as a dead candidate walking. That could prompt easily prompt New Hampshire Democrats to rescue him with a big win.

Is Trump A True Juggernaut?

More and more observers have become convinced that Donald Trump is simply an unstoppable force in the Republican nomination process—that his unique combination of celebrity, money, personality, media skills, and calculated message have built a following among Republican voters that can’t be derailed.

If he wins Iowa solidly, that might turn out to be true. He already has a huge lead in New Hampshire, and his national polling numbers are, as he would say, yuuge.

But Iowa might instead put a mighty dent in his armor. His numbers refused to rise from the mid- to high-20s for months; he is relying heavily on people who don’t normally caucus; and his organization is not on par with other top-notch campaigns.

A loss in Iowa could indicate that GOP voters are merely flirting with Trump, before finding a more serious candidate to vote for. A big win there, however—and the latest polls suggest he has finally risen above 30 percent support—could accelerate the party’s acceptance that he really is their standard bearer, and they’d better get on board.

Does The Republican Who “Should” Win Iowa, Win?

Iowa’s Republican caucus voters are notoriously ultraconservative, predominantly evangelical, and skeptical of those from outside the Midwest.

Those mostly-true assumptions quickly and easily divide GOP presidential candidates into those who should do well in Iowa, and those who shouldn’t.

Expectations are so high for the “shoulds” they often get eliminated long before the caucuses even take place, if polls don’t show them surging in the state. That happened to Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, in 2012; Sam Brownback, senator from Kansas, in 2008; and Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, in this cycle.

The current “should” is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has an impressive slate of endorsements from evangelical leaders. Now, much like Sanders on the Democratic side, the burden is somewhat unfairly on Cruz to finish first or be seen as a failure.

Which Republican who “shouldn’t” do well in Iowa, does OK?

What Cruz clearly wants is to not only win Iowa, but to come out of it with the media, and party insiders, convinced that it’s a two-person race between him and Trump.

But New Hampshire might not play along with that scenario. Bear in mind, the winner of Iowa has been defeated in New Hampshire in all of the party’s last six contested primaries.

Four candidates who “shouldn’t” do well in Iowa—Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Marco Rubio—are currently neck-and-neck in New Hampshire polling, each with around 10 percent. They are all given very low expectations in Iowa; but if one stands out from the others there, he could break the logjam and start to consolidate the anti-Trump vote in New Hampshire.

There are enough Iowa Republicans who don’t fit the stereotype to give a boost to one of the “shouldn’t” candidates. John McCain’s 13 percent there helped him regain traction in 2008, while Rudy Giuliani’s 3 percent in Iowa left him sputtering in reverse.

Right now, it looks like Rubio could get that jolt of life. He is polling at around 12 percent in Iowa, while the other three are in the low single-digits.

But things can change quickly in the final week before the caucuses.


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