Iowa winnows. We know this. Many candidates contest the caucus. A few survive. The coveted “tickets out of Iowa” always sell out quickly. This is usually extra true on the Democratic side. Where Republicans just add up the amount of supporters each candidate has, Democrats have a 15% viability test in each caucus precinct (Apologies if you’re tired of me mentioning this in every blog post this month.) This is how Joe Biden wound up with 0.9% there in 2008 and a direct pass to the vice presidential waiting room.
He’d polled higher in single digits, but failed the viability test at most precincts and lost his supporters to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or John (remember him?) Edwards. The top three finishers combined for 96.7% of the final score. This was a strong group. Edwards was the 2004 VP nominee, and the other two would combine for the next three nominations. But it’s not an outlier result.
In 2016, Hillary and Bernie Sanders combined for over 99%. Back in 2004, the top two garnered 69.4%, the top three 87.4%, and top four 98%. There were only two candidates in 2000. Bill Clinton ran unopposed in 1996, and Iowa wasn’t contested in 1992, with home state Senator Tom Harkin in the field. The trend continues in 1988 with the top three pulling 80.2%. Completing the investigation, here are the top three back to 1972 in years where there were more than three candidates:
There’s never been a fully contested Iowa caucus where the top three didn’t get at least three quarters of the vote. And there’s never been a nominee who wasn’t one of those three. Only one Democrat (Gary Hart, 1984, 16.5%) managed to win New Hampshire without breaking 20% in Iowa (again, not counting 1992 when nobody tried to win Iowa.)
By this standard, Biden and Bernie are probably safe. Elizabeth Warren may well be safe. Pete Buttigieg or Amy Klobuchar could be safe. But a couple of those mentioned, plus Andrew Yang will fade into oblivion when they fall short of 15% in most precincts, give up their supporters, and post a 2.4% score if they’re lucky. For the past several caucuses, that’s game, set, match.
The Iowa narrative is often crucial. Hillary Clinton leapt on stage Caucus Night in 2016 to declare victory before the results were final. She wound up winning 49.84% of state delegate equivalents to 49.59%. Pretty damn close, yes? We don’t even know if she had more supporters that day. Each caucus precinct divides support into delegate equivalents. If a large precinct allots 4 (there were 1405 delegate equivalents statewide), and one candidate has 540 supporters, while the other has 460, they each wind up with 2 delegate equivalents.
A bit opaque, eh? Either way, Hillary got to call this a win. Think about how the narrative would have changed if she’d lost both Iowa and New Hampshire. Her narrow win in Nevada could have turned into a loss. There’s reason to believe she still would have won the nomination, but the contest would have been in doubt for much longer.
Rick Santorum won the 2012 Republican caucus. Unfortunately for him, Mitt Romney was declared the winner on Caucus Night by 8 whole votes. It took three weeks for a recount to show Santorum actually won by 34. It’s a stretch to think immediate correct reporting would have cost Romney the nomination, but again, the fight would have dragged out longer. A swing of 42 votes among 120,000 plus voters, when 49 states and various territories haven’t weighed in, shouldn’t matter at all. But it did. The gap between Sanders and Clinton was 500 to 1000 voters at most. We probably shouldn’t have that few people choosing our nominees.
Perhaps as a reaction to this, the Democrats have decided to release the count of initial supporters. This is who the candidates had, before some had to release theirs back to the room. It’s also a raw head count, not filtered through the state delegate equivalent static. At the moment, Buttigieg is polling at 16.6%, Klobuchar at 8.8%, though the gap is narrowing, and one recent survey from Emerson has her at 13% and him only at 10%.
Let’s say current trends hold, with no major changes or reversals. We’ll figure Buttigieg is usually a little over the 15% line and Klobuchar is normally below it. You’d have Mayor Pete at 15.8% of initial voter support and Klobuchar at say 10.3% overall. But the final delegate equivalents, if polling that asks voters what they would do with only the top four choices is accurate, would leave Buttigieg in the low 20s, and Klobuchar closer to 2%.
Sanders is now clearly leading in New Hampshire. But once again, Buttigieg is still in contention and Klobuchar is making progress. If the media and most voters pay attention to the normal metric, Klobuchar would either need to exit the race or find herself taking on water in New Hampshire, with more moderate voters rallying around Buttigieg as the fourth lane alternative to Sanders/Biden/Warren, perhaps making it possible for him to get a crucial win.
But if the other number matters more. If people figure it’s stupid to worry about a quirky policy that will impact the awarding of 1% of the total delegates needed for nomination, rather than how many people showed up on a cold night to support each candidate, then Klobuchar getting real close to Buttigieg after being way behind in November would create a potential narrative that she’s the better horse going forward for the group of voters who are worried about Biden and think the Bernie & Liz show will get cancelled by Rust Belt voters in November.
I don’t have a prediction for how this will go. Who will be able to spin this. What the media will focus on. What small donors will be impressed with. But it will go a long way to determining how many candidates are contenders after Iowa, and which candidates those are.