What Matters in Iowa (Part 2–How to Make Predictions)

Before we get rolling here, you might want to check out Part 1. It’s not mandatory. It is helpful.

The reason we’re talking about the February 2020 Iowa Caucus in July 2019 is because I think we can already get an idea of who might win. The Hawkeye State is remarkably consistent. From year-to-year, and in most cases from Democrats to Republicans.

Some of the factors are baked in. Others are more controllable by the candidates. In the next post, we’ll discuss how they and their strategists can play their cards. Today is all about the pre-existing conditions.

Factor #1: Iowa v. National Poll Numbers

For evidence, we’ll refer to the following Iowa and National results:

2008 Iowa Democrats, National Democrats

2008 Iowa Republicans, National Republicans

2012 Iowa Republicans, National Republicans

2016 Iowa Democrats, National Democrats

2016 Iowa Republicans, National Republicans

This is a matter of expedience. The Real Clear Politics averages and full list of considered polls are readily available for those years. These trends have existed since the Iowa Caucus became a thing that matters in 1972. Polls were taken less frequently last century, and it’s harder to track down the results now. If you do some serious sleuthing, you’ll find the older evidence is consistent with the newer.

In July 2007, Hillary Clinton was safely ahead nationally, but Barack Obama and John Edwards were well closer to her in Iowa. Clinton wound up third. At the same time, Mike Huckabee wasn’t yet a factor on the GOP side. But he had more of a pulse in Iowa than overall. He wound up winning. The original front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, consistently polled worse in Iowa than overall. He collapsed to 3.5% in the caucus.

Same story for Rick Santorum four years later. He was seemingly even less viable than Huckabee. But he cleared 5% a couple of times in June 2011. That milestone wasn’t reached nationally until after Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, national front-runner Mitt Romney was polling a couple points worse in Iowa than overall.

On to 2016. Hillary lead Bernie Sanders by a lot overall. A bit less in Iowa. They wound up in a virtual tie. Ted Cruz wasn’t near the top of the polls in early summer 2015. But he was a little stronger in Iowa. Donald Trump was riding high. But not quite as high in Iowa. Cruz won.

Where are we for 2020? Joe Biden is running a couple points worse in Iowa. It’s not glaring. But there’s still a difference. Bernie is either even or a little bit worse. Elizabeth Warren is pretty even. So is Kamala Harris. Pete Buttigieg is a little ahead in Iowa. So is Amy Klobuchar. Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Julian Castro are even.

Advantage: Mayor Pete

Disadvantage: Uncle Joe

Factor #2: Big Name/Front-runner v. Underdog

Trump qualified as both in 2016. He faded at the finish. Hillary was both in 2008 and 2016. Though she snuck the narrowest possible win the second time, she faded and underperformed her final polling average both times.

Howard Dean led for months in 2004 before collapsing. Bob Dole narrowly survived in 1996. George H.W. Bush got embarrassed in 1988. But not as embarrassed as Gary Hart the same year. Ronald Reagan faded at the finish in 1980. Ed Muskie won, but not by as much as expected in 1972. There are a few exceptions. George W. Bush led the whole way and won easily in 2000. So did Al Gore. And Walter Mondale in 1984.

Eighty percent of the time, the front-runner underperforms in Iowa. And the exceptions tend to have very large leads. A Biden narrowly clinging to a small lead, with a voter share in the 20s is on super dangerous ground. Sanders back for a second turn and polling worse than the first time isn’t great either.

True underdogs have won frequently. Jimmy Carter, 1976. George H.W. Bush, 1980. They became president, so it doesn’t seem this way now, but both were polling in low single digits several months ahead of the caucus. Mike Huckabee, 2008 and Rick Santorum, 2012 were virtual impossibilities.

Ted Cruz, 2016 and John Kerry, 2004, had to make up a lot of ground in the final few months. If you’d asked pundits 12-18 months ahead, a victory wouldn’t have surprised them. But six months out, it didn’t look likely.

There are instances where a candidate appeared from nowhere to finish a meaningful second. George McGovern, 1972, won the nomination. Gary Hart, 1984, made the race very close. John Edwards, 2004 got the VP nomination.

Translated to 2020, this means either Warren or Harris could easily make up a large deficit in the final couple of months. Historically, Buttigieg is well positioned to win or finish a strong second or third. Klobuchar, Beto, Booker, and Castro need to make at least some progress in the next few weeks to put themselves in range for one of the regular Iowa miracles.

Advantage: Mayor Pete, Harris, Warren

Disadvantage: Uncle Joe, maybe Bernie

Factor #3 Endorsements

They don’t always matter. In a giant state like California, where state and local politics is often meaningless to most voters, meh. In a caucus state, where voters need to get dragged out on a cold winter night to spend a couple hours in a room of their peers listening to speeches, before publicly declaring their choice? Yeah, it matters.

FiveThirtyEight is kind enough to track this. On the whole, the field is light on endorsements. Biden leads, with Harris second. At this point four years ago, Hillary had more endorsements than all current candidates combined.

The overall haul is interesting and all, but we only care about Iowa endorsements. A single candidate has received the full amount. Any guesses who?

Steve Bullock

Not a typo. The Governor of Montana, a relatively recent entrant. Who didn’t make a June debate stage open to 20 contestants. He’s got both endorsements. Attorney General Tom Miller, and DNC member Jan Bauer.

Many endorsements are still available. Not a vote of confidence in the leaders though.

Advantage: Bullock

Disadvantage: all favorites

Factor #4 Caucus Candidate/Ground Game

As a rule, any state with a caucus favors the candidate(s) with the most enthusiastic voter base. It’s a much harder, more irritating process. There’s no early voting. No absentee voting. No polls open all day on Primary Day. And it takes longer.

Success is part passion, part ground game. Trump underperformed in 2016 due to lack of boots on the ground. But he still did pretty well because many of his voters were fired up and ready to go out in the cold. Cruz out-organized him and won.

Hillary invested more in field operations in 2016 and had a better result. In both 2008, and 2016 the greater passion of her main opponents’ supporters caused her problems. Looking at this helps predict who might win Iowa. Seeing what happens on Caucus Day will indicate who will outperform the polls in other caucus states.

At this point, we’re doing some guessing. Not all campaigns have fully staffed out their Iowa operations. The effectiveness of their ground game is more obvious when we see who they actually get out the door to vote.

So far, Team Biden looks sluggish. We know Team Sanders knows how to organize for caucuses. He won the majority of them in 2016. Team Warren has a huge amount of staffers. Her $19 million fundraising haul for the second quarter, without using any large donors or bundlers is a sign of motivated supporters. Team Harris is very aggressive.

Advantage: Warren, Sanders, Harris

Disadvantage: Biden. Again.

Factor #5 New Hampshire or Not

Iowans care if you spend time there. The more famous the candidate, the more insulted they get if they’re not a priority. Some candidates are better suited to Iowa. The big clue is Factor #1, where their polls are better there than nationally. Others are more New Hampshire-style. Comparing polling works the same way there.

Every so often, a candidate is stronger in both early states than overall. And sometimes weaker in both. That last outcome is a big problem. When Giuliani was faced with it in 2008, he tried avoiding both states. That doesn’t work.

John McCain was a heavy New Hampshire candidate in both 2000 and 2008. That wasn’t great for his Iowa results, but he won the Granite State both times, and got nominated the second time. For positioning, it still matters how they do in Iowa. McCain ran a close fourth in 2008, and that helped his momentum a bit. But no New Hampshire-centric candidate will win Iowa.

When a candidate is good for both, that provides a lot of upside. The next time someone wins both of the first two states and doesn’t get nominated will be the first time. However, it also means they need to split their time and attention, or flip a coin. So it’s not as much of a positive for winning Iowa as someone who has a clear Iowa lean.

We don’t have any post-debate New Hampshire polls. If we figure that they’ve moved in the same direction as national and Iowa numbers, which are showing similar changes, it brings up an interesting situation.

Biden is very similar in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Narrowly worse than his national numbers, but not to the point where he wouldn’t expect to do well if he remained the front-runner.

Sanders is very close to his national numbers in both. Warren is close to her national numbers in both. Harris is close to her national numbers in both.

Buttigieg is a little ahead of his national numbers in both. Perhaps marginally better in New Hampshire. But he’ll need to do well in Iowa for it to matter.

Among the trailers, Beto, Booker, and Castro are equally flaccid in both. Klobuchar has a slight pulse in Iowa, is flatlining in New Hampshire. At this point, it makes sense for her to focus heavily on Iowa and hope for the best.

She’s the only candidate that should clearly concentrate on one of the early states over the other. The bulk of the field will need to pay attention to Iowa, but not ignore New Hampshire. If this holds, it’s highly unusual. Normally, at least a couple candidates (example: John Kasich and Chris Christie, 2016 GOP) make it clear Iowa isn’t for them. That’s going to crowd Klobuchar’s chance at an upset.

Advantage: none yet

Disadvantage: Klobuchar, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Booker, Castro, unless a few people decide to punt on Iowa

Factor #6 Cascade

Just because one or two factors are running against a candidate doesn’t mean they’re automatically doomed. A loss in Iowa isn’t a problem if New Hampshire bails them out. Someone can underperform and still get a good enough result (Trump and Clinton, 2016. Romney, 2012, etc.)

A point or two in a candidate’s favor indicates they’ll exceed expectations, but not necessarily by enough to win, or finish close enough to catapult them forward. Sometimes, the factors pile up. When they do, it tells a conclusive story.

Biden better hope this year is the mother of all exceptions. You can normally deduct a few points from whoever is leading now. You can take another few from a big name. That would already push him from the mid-20s to the upper teens. Then there’s the lack of in-state endorsements for the national endorsement leader. The guy who got elected to the Senate the first year the Iowa Caucus was a thing.

1972 was also the last time Biden ran a truly strong campaign. He was unprepared for the debate. His team leaks like a sieve. He got overwhelmed in Iowa in 2008. It’s hard to imagine he has the strongest team. He definitely won’t have the most motivated supporters, though older voters do turn out more consistently.

He also can’t ignore New Hampshire to focus on trying to hit all the Iowa counties. And is showing less campaigning stamina than his opponents, especially his fellow geriatric, Sanders.

Unless Biden has a very strong rebound performance in the next couple debates and gets back into the 35-40% range nationally, with his Iowa numbers following at a close distance, he’s not going to win on February 3, 2020. I’d bet on him finishing third or worse before putting money on a victory. Fifth isn’t out of the question.

Nobody has as many positives as Uncle Joe’s negatives. Buttigieg is running better in Iowa than nationally. Midwesterners are more competitive there as long as they aren’t a lost cause. His $25 million haul for Q2 says he’s not.

He’s the right kind of underdog. Far enough behind that he can surge around Thanksgiving. Not so lost that traction is impossible. No endorsements yet. On the bright side, most are still open for bid. If you see him grab a few in the next couple months, it’s a sign the balance is tipping in his favor.

There’s a good chance he has a solid campaign squad, or at least will by the time we get closer to caucus time. It’s hard to imagine he’ll exceed the ground game of Sanders and Warren though.

While New Hampshire might be his absolute best state, there’s logic to Buttigieg concentrating more heavily on Iowa, relying on momentum from a strong finish there to push Granite State voters the following week. We’ll get to this in more detail in the strategy post.

For most of the others, there’s not much separation between their national and Iowa prospects yet. Emphasis on yet. The closeness of their positioning will put even more value on strategy, tactics, and execution than usual. If I had to pick a favorite today, based on Iowa predictive history, it’s Warren. I’d take the field over any one candidate. Probably any two.

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