There are 330 millionish Americans these days. About ten thousand of them will determine the trajectory of the Democratic nomination race. The all-time record for turnout is (approximately–exact voter count isn’t released) 240,000, set during the 2008 Obama-Hillary matchup. There’s a lot of interest this time, but I’d bet the under. Let’s say the weather is good, the populace is motivated, and somehow 300,000 Iowans make it to caucus.
That’s less than one thousandth of the national population. And based on higher turnout than reasonable to expect. But we’ll go with it. From what we’ve seen over the past several months, it’s gonna be close. At the moment, FiveThirtyEight has Buttigieg, Biden, and Sanders separated by less than two points.
Elizabeth Warren is trailing the lead pack by six or seven, and hasn’t had any good news in weeks. But she was once ahead, and has the best field organization/ground game in Iowa. If she can pick up a few points, this is a four pack. Amy Klobuchar is in contention too. Her numbers are in the same range as Rick Santorum in late 2011 and John Kerry in late 2003 before they won their respective caucuses.
Nobody else is a threat to win. Michael Bloomberg isn’t participating. John Delaney, Michael Bennet, Marianne Williamson, Deval Patrick and Julian Castro might as well not be. Their current support is 1%. Combined. They won’t register on caucus night, and they don’t have enough going for us to care where their supporters transfer.
Tom Steyer is already at his ceiling. He’s not going to reach the necessary 15% in individual caucus precincts to count. But he is at 3% in the poll average. That’s somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 voters, depending on turnout. They’ll need to pick a second choice, either prior to caucusing, or after they get there.
Many polls tell us who Warren voters like next. Who Biden voters are considering. Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Yang. Few, if any are checking on Steyer supporters. You can theorize, but it’s just a guess. And his share is more than the gap between the top three contestants.
What about Team Tulsi? In New Hampshire, she’s going to impact the results more directly. A larger share of Independents will participate, and she’s unusually strong with 2016 Trump voters. She’ll get 5% or more of the vote, and speculation about an third-party run will increase. That’s then. For Iowa, where does her 2% go?
Not only do we lack data, but the average poll has 500 respondents. That would mean 10 Tulsi voters. Don’t even want to speculate what the margin for error on 10 people is. in 2016, she backed Bernie. There was a not-insignificant group of Sanders Primary, Trump General voters in 2016. They tended to live in places like Iowa. This is another 4,000 to 6,000 supporters up for grabs.
Then there’s Cory Booker. He’s currently at 3%. We don’t know who his voters will go to. Though it’s reasonable to guess, they’ll divide up among the leaders, without that many going the same way. We know Booker is a second (or third, or fourth) choice for a lot of Iowans. Despite his weak polling, about a fifth of them are still considering him. But unless Buttigieg and Klobuchar both fall apart, this doesn’t matter.
Adding up Steyer, Gabbard, Booker, gets us 18,000 to 26,000 voters who need a final home. One more Wild Card. Andrew Yang. He’s around 3% himself. Barring some disturbance in the Force, he’s not a contender to win Iowa. There’s a key difference though. His support is disproportionately among voters under 30.
He may do even better than that with 18 to 24-year-olds, but that group usually isn’t broken out. In the most recent poll, he’s at 6% with 18-34. I’m going to adjust that to 10-12% among college voters. Many of whom are going to caucus at on-campus, or campus-adjacent precincts.
If you see Yang reach 5% in survey averages, that gets him very close to the necessary 15% in these precincts, on one side or the other. There could be very few Yang votes to redistribute, or he may have to send most of them back to the field. Sanders is the top beneficiary if this happens. Warren is the next most popular candidate among Yang voters. If you assume Sanders is leading her at college precincts, he’d likely benefit from some bandwagon effect.
If you were trying to figure out if Bernie is more likely to finish first or third, the two most important pieces of information are how often Yang gets to 15% in these precincts, and what the overall turnout of young and first-time caucusers is.
I’ll anxiously monitor each new Iowa survey to post. I’ll track whether Buttigieg is narrowly staying ahead, if Warren is joining the lead pack again, etc. But the winner is likely hidden in these 25,000ish voters who are going to need to find someone else to support after they can’t stick with their first choice.
We don’t have adequate data. Even if we had more numbers, part of the mystery, charm, or agony (depending on your view) of Iowa, is you never really know until all the voters get in a room and get lobbied by their peers. If Joe Biden wins Iowa, the nomination race is as good as over. If he finishes well behind the leader and/or in fourth or fifth place, it’s a mad scramble.
Fewer people than attend the average Major League Baseball game will decide.