Iowa (Sorta) Matters Once Every Four Years

It’s easy to forget this guy won the 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus. He’s even running again this year! Whatever you do, do not do a Google search for “spreading Santorum,” especially if you’re at work. By [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Today the people of Iowa go out and caucus for presidential candidates. Here’s a good primer on how everything works. Some quick takeaways: The caucuses don’t start until 7 p.m. Central Time. They’re complicated, especially on the Democratic side. There’s a chance that results in both caucuses won’t be known for a few days or even weeks, as happened in 2012 on the Republican side when Mitt Romney was declared the winner on caucus night only to have Rick Santorum emerge as the official winner a few weeks later.

The title of this post may seem a little mean-spirited, but it’s a nod toward the absurdity of a presidential nominating system that privileges two small, lily-white states – Iowa and New Hampshire – right at the beginning. How the world’s foremost democratic political system continues to decide on whom its next leader will be in such an undemocratic way is outright scandalous, but it’s a topic for a different post. The fact in 2016 is that Iowa votes first, so what can we expect tonight?

First, Iowa Democrats have a good track record of choosing the candidate who ends up as eventual nominee. In a close contest, Iowa can boost the campaign of an underdog as it did when Iowa Democrats delivered a victory to Barack Obama in 2008. Obama and Hillary Clinton went on to fight a tight battle, but the feeling at the time was that an Obama loss in Iowa could quickly lead to Clinton wins almost everywhere else. Instead, Iowa turned Obama into the front-runner and he and his campaign excelled in the role.

Iowa Republicans fare worse at choosing candidates who prevail at their national party convention. For example, 2008 eventual nominee John McCain placed fourth in Iowa with 13% of the vote. Mike Huckabee, a 2016 also-ran along with the aforementioned 2012 Iowa Republican caucus winner Santorum, won the 2008 contest with 34.4% of the vote. Clearly, a loss in Iowa does not mean death to a Republican candidate. Nor does a victory in Iowa promise an easy path to the nomination for Democrats or Republicans.

So what’s going to happen tonight? Readers of this blog have known for more than five months now that Donald Trump ought to be considered the favorite to win the nomination. The latest polls suggest that Iowa Republicans are going to inflict their electoral curse on Trump and give him a victory. However, Ted Cruz is not far behind, and Marco Rubio has been running a stronger and stronger third.

As the night unfolds, here are some things to watch for: (1) Are there many new Republican caucus-goers? This would suggest that Trump is indeed motivating voters who usually don’t participate and Trump staffers should get the champagne ready. (2) Does the Trump campaign have a decent presence at the caucuses? This would indicate that Trump’s campaign does indeed understand how presidential elections work and would make it harder to use the election process itself to defeat Trump. (3) How do evangelicals vote? A surge in support from these voters could carry the night for Cruz, but Trump has won some high-profile endorsements from evangelical leaders and seems to be holding his own among this demographic. This seems weird until you remember that culturally, evangelicals are more reactionary than they are religious. This is not impugning their faith. It’s just to say that for conservatives in 2016, beating liberals and restoring white male dominance of the federal government trumps all other issues. See what I did there?

On the Democratic side, Clinton goes into the evening with a slight but consistent polling lead over Bernie Sanders. However, this race seems more like a coin flip and a lot is going to depend on how things unfold. That sounds obvious but bear with me: (1) Are there many new Democratic caucus-goers? Many new and younger voters would indicate a Sanders surge. As it did back in 2008 for Obama at the expense of Hillary Clinton, of course. (2) Where do Martin O’Malley voters go after his candidacy is deemed unviable? This is a quirk of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, but once a candidate does not meet a certain threshold of support, his or her voters must choose a different candidate. Backing for O’Malley is low but not insignificant, and if his supporters break hard for one candidate or the other that could be all the difference.

Hopefully we’ll know the answers to these questions by late tonight. Whatever happens, and for now I’ll stick with my most recent predictions here (Democrats) and here (Republicans), the start of actual voting means there will finally be certain facts on the ground. It’ll be interesting to see what those are and how the country deals with them.