Iowa Caucuses: 2020 Predictions in Dark Times for a Process that Should Be Abolished

New York Post Illustration/Getty

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981) February 3, 2020 NOTE: I will be adding links throughout the night, but for now I wanted to get my Iowa analysis out before the caucuses began in Iowa (5 minutes late, but oh well; Iowa analysis posted 8:05)

WASHINGTON—As the world of Western democracy may very be crumbling with the U.S. Senate all but endorsing election cheating and excusing tyrannical behavior, coupled with the concurrent formal withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (not to mention a host of crises in democracies ranging from India to Israel to Italy), we get to celebrate the very best of democracy with the Iowa Caucuses, the first official voting process that will allocate crucial delegates in the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest.

Of course, that last part is fully sarcastic.

Caucuses: An Abomination

Caucuses are strange and foreign to most of us, as only a relatively small number of states hold caucuses in their party nomination contests, as opposed to primaries, which are for all intents and purposes what one would call normal elections and are the method of nominee selection in all non-caucus states.

Let’s be clear about one thing from the start: Iowa’s caucuses, and all caucuses, are abhorrent abominations of democracy.  As the dearly missed Christopher Hitchens wrote all the way back in 2007, a month before the 2008 Iowa caucuses:

I was in Des Moines and Ames in the early fall, and I must say that, as small and landlocked and white and rural as Iowa is, I would be happy to give an opening bid in our electoral process to its warm and generous and serious people. But this is not what the caucus racket actually does. What it does is give the whip hand to the moneyed political professionals, to the full-time party hacks and manipulators, to the shady pollsters and the cynical media boosters, and to the supporters of fringe and crackpot candidates. It is impossible that the Republican Party could be saddled with a clown like Huckabee if there were a serious primary in Iowa, let alone if the process were kicked off in Chicago or Los Angeles or Atlanta. (Remember that not Iowa but its “caucuses” put Pat Robertson ahead of George H.W. Bush in the race for the GOP nomination in 1988.) The process might be a good way for Iowa to pick its party convention delegates, though I frankly doubt even that. It is an absolutely terrible way in which to select candidates for the presidency, and it makes the United States look and feel like a banana republic both at home and overseas.

Hitchens also quite rightly pointed out that much of the problem is also in how caucuses are covered by the media, generally uncritically, respectful of the “tradition” they supposedly represent: “It is quite astonishing to see with what deadpan and neutral a tone our press and television report the open corruption—and the flagrantly anti-democratic character—of the Iowa caucuses.“

As opposed to primaries, where people vote in privacy and secrecy, often waiting briefly in a line to quickly cast a vote, free from any distractions or organized pressures or lobbying—at polling sites, campaigns, their surrogates, and campaigning are all legally required to be a certain distance away from the voting site—caucuses are open to all sorts of mischief.  The chief among these is that, in locations such as high school gyms all across the state, caucusers go to various spots to physically and visibly form blocs for their various candidates.  Members of each group go around to the other groups to try to convince them to switch groups for some time, throughout two rounds of voting, a process that last hours and in which there is virtually no privacy.

That’s right, your neighbors, girlfriends, wives, ex-husbands, teachers, mistresses, bosses, secretaries, your drug dealer, off-duty police officers, you name it, everyone in your community who participates sees what every other participant does, who they choose, who they are persuaded by, and the myriad of possibilities of small-town relationships and drama can all easily play out—(“Do I vote for so and so to impress my boss/girlfriend?  Do I want to be the only one in my union, office, or firefighter’s crew to vote for a particular candidate?  Especially in our extremely divisive times, what social (online or in person) wrath and consequences will I face for everyone seeing my vote?  What if two people with leverage over me are each lobbying me to switch to different candidate’s groups?).

The following excerpt from a recent article questioning Iowa’s “mythic” political status and emphasizing the reality of its ailing, fading qualities, is quite telling:

A couple of weeks ago, John Delaney was at a family restaurant in Muscatine, on the eastern edge of Iowa, because John Delaney was still running for president. He has been traipsing around the state longer than any other candidate, because he believes in Iowa’s magic: connecting with people here means plugging into the national oversoul.

Except it hadn’t been working.

“Your philosophy, your approach to the campaign — you’ve convinced me, and yet I don’t see the results in the polls,” said Davenport resident Charles Van Fossen, who’d driven down along the gray, slushy Mississippi River to eat with eight other Iowans and a bottom-tier presidential candidate.

“I don’t want to be in the corner alone” at the caucus, Van Fossen said. “I’m not afraid to do it, but I don’t want to be alone.”

Additionally, the most energetic or enthusiastic may sway opinion or exert a form of pressure disproportionate to their numbers.  Scandalously, Bernie Sanders won the 2016 Nebraska and Washington State caucuses—whose effects were binding for the state delegates—by moderate and huge margins, respectively, but Clinton won both state’s primaries—symbolic votes that did not allocate delegates but both which had far larger (over double the) turnout—by a moderate margins.

In other words, when people could more easily vote at any hour during the day instead of taking part in a far-lengthier, more time-restrictive process, far more people came out to vote in a process more representative of the will of the states’ overall Democratic voters and the results were the reverse of the caucuses.  When Bernie Sanders and his fans ignorantly complain of a “rigged” nomination process, it’s not hard to figure out why they are so blatantly hypocritical in ignoring the extremely unfair process of caucuses since caucuses favor his more passionate and privileged supporters (e.g., college students with free evenings and no jobs or kids). 

This gets to another point: the Iowa and many caucuses must take place in the evening and in lengthy sessions, preventing many people working night-shifts or that can’t afford babysitters or other child-care from participating at all; it discourages participation from the shy, sick, elderly, or disabled.  It is classist and discriminatory, then, in many obvious ways, and allows undue social and other forms of pressure to potentially influence or even change votes.  Participating in a caucuses is itself, then, a form or privilege, a large time commitment outside of working hours that effectively disbars many with serious commitments at the time of caucusing.

Again, all this this results in lower-turnout compared to primaries and, effectively, a far less representative and far more discriminatory process than primaries.

In many countries, voting for particular candidates and having such votes known can cost one jobs, opportunities, relationships, or even their lives; there are solid reasons our federal elections and most state nomination contests do not utilize the caucus approach, and for good reason.

Here in America, they should be abolished.

Another problem with the Iowa caucuses is Iowa itself.  While Hitchens was generous in his assessment of the character of the people of Iowa in 2007, in 2020’s more diverse America, it is clearly time for the party that is not the party of exclusivist white ethno-nationalism in America to finally discard Iowa from its automatic first chronological spot in the party nomination process.  By key combined metrics of race, ethnicity, and education, out of fifty states and the District of Columbia, Iowa is 42nd out of 51 and New Hampshire—the second contest—is only 34th (they are two of the whitest states in the nation) in terms of how much their states’ Democratic electorates are like America’s Democratic electorate.

One important thing to keep in mind is the 15% rule: candidates must get at least 15% of the vote to get any state pledges delegates.  In terms of pledged delegates—those earned by voting contests, the vast majority of the delegates awarded—there are a mix of state-wide delegates and delegates awarded in each congressional district.  So a candidate might not hit the 15% level statewide, denying them any state-level delegates, but still pass the threshold in one or more congressional districts, while a candidate passing 15% state-wide may miss that mark in one or more districts.  Furthermore, within each district are various precincts—the nearly 1,700 locations that are the caucus sites—each of which have the same 15% rule, that make up the district-wide totals.

So when caucuses-goers start caucusing and separate into their initial camps at gyms, churches, town halls, etc., after that and any shifts that happen after a period where they can lobby each other, their positions will then determine what is known as the first alignment, when the totals in the room are counted and any candidates meeting the 15% threshold are declared “viable.”  This is one of three-vote numbers that will be released tonight.  Before, for the second “vote”—the final alignmentanyone could change their grouping, but new rules for 2020 now force those viable candidates’s supporters to have their support locked-in, and if 15+% were undecided, they must also stay that way, discouraging fence-sitters from sitting on the fence in the first round.  Now, only those groupings that are under 15% can change their grouping in the second round, or they can also try to win over members of other smaller grouping or even back out of the process if they don’t like where things are headed.  These final alignment numbers after the second lobbying period will also be released, effectively giving two separate vote totals for the evening.  In addition, much like with the national Electoral College, each precinct has a weight based on Democratic turnout in both the 2018 governor’s and 2016 presidential general elections (not on turnout at this year’s caucuses), and these weighted numbers result in a determination of state delegate equivalents for each candidate, and those weights will determine how much of a say each precinct has at separate congressional district conventions in April and a statewide convention in June to formalize the assignment of district and state-wide delegates, respectively, but those numbers will be pretty clear from the initial state delegate equivalents totals determined on the night of the caucuses.

If this sounds like both a mess and nightmare, you are more discerning than many of Iowa’s state political leaders.  And, yes, it is quite possible that a different candidate will win each of the three metrics: two separate candidates claiming victories from the two separate vote totals, and a third different candidate claiming victory from the numbers of delegates projected from the state delegates equivalent numbers.  Let’s stay away from the possibility of a tie with any of these individual metrics and let it sink in that it’s quite possible that three different candidates will claim victory when the counting stops in Iowa.  Previously only state delegate equivalents were released, but now, we will have three numbers to wrestle with on caucus night.

Enough on the man-made catastrophe-quality of Iowa caucuses and caucuses in general; now, let’s look at what’s likely to happen.

What’s Likely to Happen Tonight

These may very well be the most competitive Iowa caucuses ever.  There are four candidates that are essentially tied or fairly close first based on the average weighted polling aggregates.  The media and campaigns are often disgraceful in their coverage of polling: one poll will be a headline or a talking point, and claims that those one poll’s numbers are the state of the race will be made.  Polling is, of course, imperfect; however, overall and taken together, they are usually very accurate, especially in American politics. 

Yes, not all polls are equal and even the best pollsters can make mistakes here and there, and all polls are not an exact measurement but a measure of probability.  This is where the factor of margin of error is critical.  Polls are usually accurate at a 95% confidence level, that is, 95% of the time, the same poll taken would yield the same results within the margin of error.  This means that, say, if Warren was polling at 15% with a margin of error of 3.7%, 95% of the time, this survey would produce a result of Warren’s support being 15% plus-or-minus the margin of error, a range of support (within any flaws of the that poll) of 11.3%-18.7%.  This means that any candidate within 3.7% above or below any other candidate has to be considered in a statistical tie with that candidate.  This also means that, even for candidates outside that margin, they can be closer or further away than that number next to their names, as that number just represents of the middle of the estimate range of their support.

Despite the myth that polls overall were “wrong” in 2016, the results were largely within the margin of error,both nationally and, to a lesser extent, at the state level.

The below picture represents Five Thirty Eight’s final weighted polling averages for Iowa just hours before the caucuses begin this evening (this is Nate Silver’s website, and he and it by far are the best at modeling U.S. election outcomes.

We have Vermont Sanders Bernie Sanders up front, at 22.2%, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden at 20.7%.  Since these are an average of multiple polls but would also clearly be within the margin of error (nearly always at least several percentage-points, with some variation depending on the poll), we can consider them both in a statistical tie but also give a clear tiny edge to Bernie since a large number of polls would have to be wrong in the same way for Bernie not to be a slight favorite.  Behind them are former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg at 15.7% and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren at 14.5%, both basically statistically tied for third but with and edge to Pete for the same reasons as discussed with Bernie and Biden.  Behind them and in fifth is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar at 10.1%, with no other candidate above 4% (businessmen Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer lead the Iowa bottom dwellers at 3.7% and 3.6%, respectively).  So Buttigieg and Warren are withing striking distance of first place, with Klobuchar as a longshot and the rest being able to be safely written off.

In addition to the polling numbers, Five Thirty Eight has released a model giving the probability of each candidate’s chances of “winning” (with three metrics this can mean different things to different people but, of course, delegates count more than the popular vote[s], as they will determine the nomination).  Sanders has a 43% chance of winning the most delegates, Biden’s 34%, Mayor Pete at 15%, Warren at 10%, and Klobuchar at 3%.  So while Sanders has the best chance of winning, at the same time, he is less likely to win the most delegates than he is to (57% chance someone else gets the most delegates).  By Five Thirty Eight’s reckoning as well as the prognosis of many, the results are highly uncertain.

A final factor: people have been changing their mind in Iowa these recent months, as the above graph makes obvious, and plenty have remained undecided.  In addition, people’s second-choice preferences have also shifted, and come election night, this second-choice preference is probably much less firm than the first-choice, and especially when seeing how particular camps are physically lining up with their relative strength, caucusers may think more strategically about switching if their candidate is not viable.

Let’s look at the situation for each of the five candidates with even a slight chance of winning as far as Iowa.

Bernie Sanders

Sure, the numbers look good for Bernie relative to everyone else, but there are reasons to worry if you’re a Sanders fan, too.  Most polls were not taken in the last few days but earlier, and it remains to be seen a.) any “normal” effects that might have happened if there were a lot more polls from just the last few days b.) any effects from the Senate impeachment trial itself, where Biden has been a focus of attention, and 3.) any effects from Sens. Sanders, Warren, and Klobuchar being torn away from campaigning in Iowa because they were legally obligated to sit in on the Senate impeachment trial of Trump over his Ukraine misdeeds and his blatant attempts to cover up and obstruct those actions.  Politically active Iowans famously value personally meeting candidates multiple times and those three of the five main candidates stuck at the Senate trial definitely ceded some in-person connection edges to both Biden and Mayor Pete. At the same time, they have all been campaigning in Iowa for some time and it was only a few days when they were off the campaign trail, though being absent so close to, and even the day of, the caucuses might still mean there will be a bit of a negative effect for them and a boost to Biden and/or Pete.

But now we must consider the reality of the very passionate, often toxic and gratingly obnoxious Bernie “Bros” (and Sisters).

Caucuses are an intensely personal group process, with lots of chances for clashes of personalities.  In the very midwestern Iowa with its very midwestern sensibilities, when we have that second round of voting in the caucus rooms—that aforementioned final alignment—rude, loud, angry, or aggressive Bernie Sanders supporters may very well alienate potential allies.  Buttigieg is right on the edge of viability, and Warren is just under it, with Klobuchar well under it; their combined support is about 40% statewide of the voters surveyed, on average, and all of them are at heavy risk of not having viability throughout the state.  Even if, say, Warren holds on and moves up above viability, that’s still 25% between Buttigieg and Klobuchar alone whose supporters will be up for grabs in many spots.  And, of course, even if Warren is above that 15% statewide threshold, being so close there will likely be a lot of places where she is still not viable.  As noted earlier, even the frontrunners Bernie and Biden still can fall short of viability in particular areas where they lack support, as support is hardly even for all candidates statewide.

Warren is easily the second most liberal/leftist candidate in the race, and a good amount of her support would fall into one of several groups: people who want more a more “progressive”, left-leaning agenda than Biden, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar and others represent, but who don’t want to go as far/hard as Bernie; people who want a more “progressive” style but don’t like Bernie’s style, that of his Bernie bros, and who feel a real allegiance to the Democratic Party; and people who really want a woman for the nominee (obviously these are not exclusive).  A big chunk, perhaps the biggest chunk, of her non-viable blocs would probably go to Bernie, especially if they put ideology first, but perhaps Biden and especially his fellow-moderate Klobuchar could also gain when the other factors are considered.  Still, a bad Warren night would be great for Bernie overall, while a good night for her could really hurt him.  Iowa is also not a terribly young state, and much of his support could be concentrated in areas where there are a lot more young people, a factor that could hurt him in more rural areas.

But when we consider the Bernie Bro factor, in the deliberative caucus situation, the obnoxiousness of many of his supporters may turn others off from switching form their non-viable candidates to his camp.  I think this is actually the unconsidered-x factor: with multiple candidates that will fall short of viability in many precincts, the key to Iowa may be the ability of caucus-goers to win over the support of other caucusers, with the second-choice issue factoring in in a way that we have not seen for some time.  In other words, the final support numbers for the top candidates could be far higher than the polling average, at least if they will be picking up large numbers of people from the non-viable candidates. 

And here is the key: Bernie’s strength is in the passion of his supporters who may be more likely and able to go caucus for him than supporters of others, but it may also be his Achilles’s heel if that passion taken as far as his supporters are often caught taking it turns off many other possible allies, which has basically been the Bernie Sanders & Fans Modus Operandi since 2015.

Like the other senators, though, Bernie may have lost a bit of steam with the impeachment trial physically sidelining him and its focus on Biden.

Bernie is also dividing up the progressive vote with essentially one other candidate (Warren), so he has less competition in his “lane” than Biden, who has to compete with Klobuchar.  Especially if Warren ends up not being viable—and she has been on a downward trajectory for some time—Bernie has the progressives all to himself in Iowa.

Still overall, Bernie has a good chance of winning at least one of the three Iowa reporting metrics, maybe even two or all three.

Joe Biden

Nipping on Bernie’s heels is Biden, but this, I would argue, for some of the reasons outlined above, is deceptivel.  For starters, there are a decent number major moderate candidates who likely will not be viable (Klobuchar, Bloomberg, and to some degree Yang, Steyer), and it seem only Buttigieg is a major threat, but he is also on the cusp of viability, and where his supporters are not viable, as with other moderates, it seems his people would move over more to Biden than anyone else.

So, with more moderate votes up for grabs from the non-viables, its seems Biden is far more able to grow his support than Sanders, and this is why the final polling standings can be quit deceiving.  As in the obnoxiousness of many Bernie supporters, and we can see factors favoring Biden over Bernie.  At the same time, if Buttigeig or Klobuchar did better than expected, if that does not come from stealing each other, that support could come out of Biden’s support.  Either way, Biden has more room for growth than Sanders when it comes to their polling position.

It remains to be seen what effect Biden’s being mentioned so much during Trump’s impeachment trial will have, but at least his physically being able to campaign in Iowa while the senators running were stuck in the Senate might give him a slight relative boost.

Biden may very well come in 2nd in the first round of voting, then end up with the most votes because of the whole viability issues.  Biden should be favored to come in at least second but has a really good chance, perhaps a better chance with viability issues, than Sanders, though it’s possible Buttigieg could gain more from this than Biden.

Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete is a real wild-card, but he should do better than Warren, in part because, though they are both fighting for viability, Buttigieg may do particularly well in rural areas and give himself a boost in viability in a number of small precincts that way, and he has campaigned heavily in certain rural areas.  A key factor will be if late-deciders hoping for a moderate candidate will break for him or someone else.  Both his and Warren’s averages were sliding down overall over the past few weeks, so they are both at serious viability risk but whereas Bernie’s “progressives” might have more enthusiasm than Warren’s, Buttigieg in contrast to the much older Biden might be able to drum up more enthusiasm than Biden, but as something of a passionate semi-moderate myself, we should also not assume Biden has no enthusiasm.  I’d say Pete is probably safe as far as having to worry about Warren, and Klobuchar might be more of a threat to his support than Warren.

If Buttigieg is able to draw a lot of support from the other moderates who are not viable instead of Biden, he could get quite a boost and has a not-insane-chance to overtake Biden or Sanders or both if either of both of them have a bad night.  So Pete could be a distant third (and if he has a poor showing, a largely non-viable one), a close third or second, or surprise everyone and be a shocking winner.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren is not in an enviable position: with Bernie’s rabid following and the only other “progressive” besides Bernie, she has few rivals from whom to draw support, and she has been hemorrhaging supporters to Bernie ever since she peaked months ago, so the idea she will steal some of this thunder tonight is far-fetched.  She had better hope she meets that 15% threshold, or she could have an embarrassingly poor night.  With few ways to grow support, her best likely outcome is a strong third, especially with Klobuchar having a bit of a surge and capturing new support.

Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar is one of the most steady debate performers this campaign season, but it hasn’t helped her much, except for a bit recently in Iowa, but that might be enough to keep her candidacy alive.  Without her recent Iowa surge and some key newspaper endorsements, it would have be right to write her off, but she has a tiny chance of pilling off of miracle, with some solid familiarity in Iowa since her Minnesota runs along nearly all of Iowa’s northern border.  Her cultural similarities to Iowans as a fellow Midwesterner, as well as being perhaps the strongest-performing female candidate contrasted to a faltering Warren, seem to be helping, but her surge may have stalled.  Klobuchar is still in an overall weak spot, but she might be able to peel off enough support from Warren to surprise people and end up fourth, or, with a lot of luck, even third, but it’s probably more likely than not she ends up fifth, surging too little too late.  She’ll have to beat expectations to remain alive in 2020, and even then remains a longshot.  But, perhaps, not for being someone’s running-mate… And that might temper her decision to stay in or leave, in an attempt to sell herself to the stronger candidates.  Whatever she wants, beating expectations significantly in Iowa would greatly boost her chances.


In conclusion, it really is a tossup between Biden and Bernie, with a smaller but decent chance for Buttigieg to surprise people.  Both Bernie and Biden could exceed expectations, too, and a lot of that has to do with if their chief in-lane rivals in the state—Warren and Buttigieg, respectively—are viable or not.  So there are a lot of moving parts, a lot of drama, and a lot of uncertainty.  Biden has more competition in his lane but also more to gain, while Bernie has less competition but less to gain.  Too much is uncertain for any firm predictions, and the night could be chaotic, but I’d say Buttigieg and Biden are more likely to beat expectations, with Warren in serious danger of doing quite badly and Bernie a favorite with some vulnerabilities few have discussed but still a slight favorite.  My gut tells me Biden might win because of the viability factor, but that’s just a slight gut feeling (and maybe I am biased since I interned for him in 2006 and he’s by far my top choice here), but I’m hardly making a strong prediction he will win, and with so much uncertainty, anyone making firm predictions should be written off as a pundit as much as, say, Tulsi Gabbard should be written off as a candidate in Iowa.

© 2020 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

Brian E. Frydenborg is an American freelance writer, academic, and consultant from the New York City area. You can follow and contact him on Twitter: @bfry1981.  He also just recently authored A Song of Gas and Politics: How Ukraine Is at the Center of Trump-Russia.

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