The 2020 Iowa Caucuses Won’t Decide Who Will Be President—But They Will Decide Who Won’t

On Feb. 3, 2020, voters will congregate at hundreds of different in-person events for the Iowa caucuses. Iowan Democrats and Republicans will be, as they have been for decades, the first Americans in the country to indicate their preferred candidate in their party’s presidential primary.

Last week, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg surged to first place in Iowa, ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), all of whom are in a statistical tie.

“We often have a pretty good idea of the top candidates in Iowa and the other early states before they vote,” University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle told Fortune. “A key is often whether a candidate over- or under-performs those expectations.”

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, warned against equating the February caucuses with delegates, and ultimately, victory. That’s because Iowa caucuses do not produce delegates—who choose their party’s nominees—to the national convention. Those delegates are chosen and awarded at the state party conventions in early June.

“Iowa doesn’t really pick who will become president, but rather who will not become president,” Goldford explained to Fortune. “It’s just revealing unexpected strengths and weaknesses in the campaigns and candidates.”

Since 1976, Iowa has picked three eventual Republican nominees and six of the past eight Democratic nominees. But while the Iowa caucuses can make a presidential campaign, experts say they are more likely to break them.

Perception is everything

Exceeding expectations in Iowa can drive a candidate’s campaign forward, but underperforming can do just the opposite.

“Every candidate coming to Iowa has the same opponent: Expected,” Goldford said. “Did you do better or worse than expected?”

That means that even a candidate who finishes second, but was not expected to perform that well, might get a bigger boost than one who finishes first but had long been leading the polls.

Perhaps the biggest thing that the Iowa caucuses do is allow candidates to test messaging and speak to real voters to get a sense of their priorities and preferences. With a less expensive media market because of Iowa’s relatively small size, lesser-known or less well-funded candidates have an opportunity to build name recognition, Hagle said.

“Some around here say that Iowa isn’t first because it’s important,” Hagle said, “but that it’s important because it’s first.”

Gayle Alberda, an assistant professor of politics and public administration at Fairfield University, said Iowa’s importance comes down to timing.

“Because it is first in the nation, it is the initial test for candidates’ viability,” she said. “Can they organize? Can they appeal to a variety of voters? Can they fundraise?” 

Goldford likens Iowa to a test track: “The candidate is the driver, the campaign is the car, and Iowa is the track. You can take the car out and see how it and the driver perform, but it’s not the real race yet.”

How Iowa was put on the (election) map

So why does Iowa, a state of just 3.1 million people (and fewer of voting age), have the distinction of being first in the nation? 

Up until the late 1960s, Democratic party leaders were largely in control of the nominating process. Protests broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention due in part to frustration with the Vietnam War, spurring party leaders to change the process in an effort to make it more inclusive. One element of these changes was a stipulation to space out the presidential nominating schedule.

In January 1972, Iowa was the first to take place. Presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern dedicated significant time to campaigning in the state, driving a mass grassroots movement.

“Edmund Muskie was considered to be the leading candidate and McGovern was looking for a place to make a splash without costing too much time or money,” Goldford explained.

By spending time in Iowa, McGovern managed to drive a reasonable amount of support for his candidacy.

“This decision to really campaign in Iowa did two things,” Alberda says. “It landed the McGovern team second place and gave him a bounce as they went to New Hampshire, which paid off as he ended up becoming the party nominee. It also put Iowa on the map regarding the nomination process.”

In 1976, Republicans followed suit, moving up their Iowa caucus. That year, Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter replicated McGovern’s approach and ultimately won the presidency. While Carter finished second in the caucuses in Iowa to no preference, that put him on the map, and solidified Iowa’s importance. Since then, a candidate’s performance in Iowa has largely become an indicator of their viability.

One of the ways parties pay for the caucuses is by selling their caucus-goer lists to presidential campaigns.

“Whether you go or not is not recorded in a public record of voting [as it is in a primary], so only the party knows who caucused—and that’s valuable information to campaigns,” David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at the University of Delaware and the author of several publications on the Iowa caucuses, told Fortune.

Hosting their caucuses first ensures that the Iowa Democrat and Republican parties will attract funding from the candidates who want access to their caucus-goer lists.

How caucuses work: Republicans vs Democrats

A caucus is effectively an in-person meeting where people of the same party come together to discuss their views on the candidates. Goldford called them “in effect kind of a straw poll—an inside business meeting of two private organizations, the Democrat and Republican parties, that meet every two years in the precinct caucuses.” No absentee voting is permitted.

During the Republican caucuses in Iowa, participants hear representatives speak for various candidates, and then they vote for their preferred candidate by secret ballot. Votes are tallied and then delegates are elected to attend county conventions. There are several hundred locations across the state, with 30 delegates at stake who will represent the voters at the party’s convention.

The Iowa Democratic caucuses, on the other hand, are historically a longer and more boisterous affair. The biggest difference is that Democratic caucus-goers are divided into groups based on their preferred candidate after they hear representatives make the case for their candidates. There is also a group for those who remain undecided.

The caucus chair then tallies how many supporters there are in each group. A candidate must have the support of at least 15% of the people in the room to be considered viable. The viability threshold differs depending on how many delegates are elected in a given caucus. Those in the groups of any candidate that does not meet the viability threshold must realign. They can either choose to support a different candidate or attempt to sway additional individuals from other groups to join them.

Once this is settled, the numbers are tallied and delegates for each group determined. More than 1,500 Democratic caucuses will be held, with 44 delegates at stake. Whether five people show up or 500, the number of delegates is fixed based on figures from the previous elections.

There are also eight additional unpledged delegates that don’t go through the selection process and are able to vote for whichever candidate they want at the national convention; they are known as “superdelegates.”

For both Republicans and Democrats, the precinct caucuses are just the first step. The delegates elected go on to county conventions, at which time they elect delegates to go on to the district and then the state conventions. At the state convention, delegates for the national convention are selected.

The Iowa caucus isn’t just about the presidency

Caucuses are held every two years, not just in the years when a presidential election is being held.

“At their core, caucuses have been about doing party business—the presidential piece was just grafted on top of it,” said Redlawsk. “Caucuses are ingrained in the party and the law, and they’re all about party-building and party organization.”

A caucus is also an opportunity for all candidates and the media to feel the pulse of real voters.

“It really is citizen politics,” Goldford said. “It is retail politics in the best sense of the term. Candidates have to look people in the eye, not through a camera.”

This gives an on-the-ground sense of voter sentiment, which might differ significantly from polling data or man on the street interviews.

Redlawsk said Iowa caucus-goers are “more involved, more engaged, and do in fact think carefully about their choices.”

“It takes a lot to go caucus,” Alberda said. Caucuses are held at a single time on a single day, and can last for hours.

Caucus turnout is often fairly limited in a state like Iowa. According to the Iowa Caucus Project, roughly 20% of eligible caucus-goers actually participate. But only members of the political party can attend, and with Independents or No Party voters comprising the largest portion of registered voters in Iowa at 36%, that means that the largest voting bloc in the state is technically not able to participate in the caucuses. 

Despite this, Redlawsk noted that at its high points, such as in 2008, nearly 40% of registered Democrats in the state turned out to the Iowa caucuses. To compare, the overall national turnout for the 2008 primary was 30% of the eligible electorate—a near-record high, but still nowhere near what was seen in Iowa.

But does Iowa represent American voters?

There have been arguments made that Iowa (and New Hampshire, where the first primary is held) is hardly representative of the country at large. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Iowa is 85.3% white, excluding the Latino population. The whole country’s population is 60.4% white.

“The particular objections vary (e.g., too old, too rural, too white) but I tend to classify them into three categories: jealousy (“they hate us because they ain’t us”), not wanting to come to “fly-over” country, and those coming from failing candidates,” said Hagle.

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro has argued that Iowa is “not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.” He also said that Democrats can’t “complain about Republicans suppressing the votes of people of color, and then begin our nominating contest in two states that hardly have people of color.” Former Vice President Joe Biden has also conceded that Iowa (and New Hampshire) are not “representative” of the country. 

Others have been more reluctant to speak up. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was asked whether the order of the primaries should change to better reflect the country’s racial makeup, Warren asked, “Are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?” She added: “I’m just a player in the game on this one.”

It’s not just candidates who have been critical of Iowa’s first in the nation status. Other states are, too. “Other states don’t like the position of Iowa,” Goldford said. “Whoever goes first in any serial nomination process will exercise oversized influence. But until other states agree what should replace this system, the status quo remains in effect.”

But Alberda thinks some of this criticism may be misguided. Not only are the demographics of Iowa similar to those of the rest of the U.S. in terms of education and income, she said, but the state is balanced with partisan representation.

“Currently, their Congressional delegation is split with three Republicans and three Democrats,” Alberda said. “Even registered voters are pretty evenly split. Currently, 31% of those registered identify as Republicans and 31% identify as Democrats. The remaining registered voters are either independent or other.” 

The caucus format certainly disenfranchises some, Redlawsk said, but when turnout is high, his research has shown that those who do vote are fairly representative of the rest of their party.

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