Is the Value of the Iowa Caucus Overstated?

By Victoria Venable

Elm Staff Writer

It’s the end of January 2016, and you’ve already heard a lot about the 2016 Presidential election. You’ve read your friends’ statuses about “Feeling the Bern,” and you’ve watched in amazement as Donald Trump muscled ahead in the Republican polls. Lately, you’ve been hearing a lot about the Iowa Caucus, which occurred Monday, February 1st, and you’re thinking, “What is so important about the Iowa Caucus?”

To start off, the Iowa Caucuses are the first presidential primaries in the nation and the first opportunity for candidates to see how they are fairing with the voters. As I’ve written in the past, political polls—while captivating and based in social science research—simply are not accurate. This makes the first primary that candidates, voters, and press alike anticipate heavily, but there is something else special about the Iowa Caucuses: the format.

At a caucus, it is not the state government managing the voting process. It is the individual parties and they are conducting business beyond the election. The parties use the caucus time to select delegates to move on to county or district conventions, prioritize issues as a party, and select party leaders. The event is a lengthy one and attracts only the most dedicated citizens and politically charged voters. Therefore, the typical Iowa caucus attendee is not reflective of the typical Iowan and, since Iowa is a small state with an overwhelmingly white population, the typical Iowan is not reflective of the typical American voter.

Above, we have a chart with the past Iowa and New Hampshire winners, compared to the nominee, provided by Huffpost Politics. While it is undeniable that the first two primaries are significant, keep in mind that this is directed heavily by media coverage.
Above, we have a chart with the past Iowa and New Hampshire winners, compared to the nominee, provided by Huffpost Politics. While it is undeniable that the first two primaries are significant, keep in mind that this is directed heavily by media coverage.

Still, for the last several decades, the Iowa Caucus has been used as a measuring stick for the success of each candidate and the indicator that guides the voters of the following primaries. According to Pew researchers following the 2008 election, Barack Obama’s support skyrocketed after his win in Iowa. As you’ve probably noticed, media coverage of the presidential race focuses largely on Iowa this time of year, and political commentators compete with each other all fall and winter to predict the outcome, as they truly believe this outcome could help predict the outcome of the race overall. Historically, this is not entirely true, particularly for the Republican caucus. Since 1976, Republican voters in Iowa have sided with their party’s eventual nominee only half of the time, according to “Time Magazine.”

The bottom line is that the Iowa Caucus, while framed by news sources as a politically relevant indicator of the status of the race, is the first stroke of a bigger painting. Iowa does not choose the party nominee. It chooses who will have the opportunity and media platform to gather support to become the nominee. This can be said for the New Hampshire primary as well. The first two weeks of February are like the first 10 minutes of a date. There is always the chance for a surprise, but you probably know how the night will end. This is partially because the first few primaries create the trajectory of the race, and people are more likely to support a candidate that has already proven popular and successful. Voters in states with summer primaries like California and Oregon might take voting cues from these primaries.

With this in mind, what will the Iowa results mean for each candidate? All eyes seem to be on Trump this season, particularly after his nearly unheard-of decision to skip the debate immediately preceding the Iowa Caucus. I say nearly because this has happened before; Ronald Reagan skipped the debate right before Iowa and then lost the caucus to follow. Trump has already boasted that he does not need Iowa to win the nomination, but is that true? Historically, yes. Iowa has not been an accurate GOP nomination predictor while New Hampshire has proven to be more significant and that polls show Trump fairing well with New Hampshire republicans.

On the Democratic side of the race, we look at the Iowa Caucus to give us an indication of the fate of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. If Sanders earns an Iowa win, he will gain serious momentum for the rest of the race, and we could start to hear a change of tune from those who call him an “unrealistic candidate.” If Clinton secures a win in this first primary, her entire staff will release a sigh of relief, and she might back off, ever so slightly, from her recent Sanders-attack ads. Will Clinton continue to claim, “Sanders has big ideas that aren’t based in political reality,” as she did in The Washington Post? Still, no one should feel confidant until we hear from the people of New Hampshire.

Though the Iowa Caucus is not an end-all-be-all, it is the closest thing we have to a crystal ball that can see November 2016. Since 1972, no candidate who has finished worse than fourth place in Iowa has won a party nomination, meaning the caucus could be better used as an indication of who will not win the nomination.

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