2016 USA primaries: #1 – Iowa

by Jackie_South on January 31, 2016

Iowa iconTomorrow sees the first test in the 2016 US presidential race: the Iowa caucuses.


Of the 48 contiguous US states, the Hawkeye State is the one I’ve spent least time in: a train journey across the south of the state and a few hours in Council Bluffs. For many Americans, they will have visited less than that, merely flown over in a plane journey from California to the North East or Chicago. And Iowa is probably most impressive from the air: a 300 mile wide quilt of perfectly square fields stretched between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers.

Iowa is small town America. It has a population of a similar size to Wales but covers an area almost as large as England and Wales together. Des Moines, its capital and largest city, has a population similar to Portsmouth or Luton. Its next biggest city, Cedar Rapids, is about the size Cambridge or Gloucester.

It may seem a little arbitrary that it is always Iowa that gets to have the first say in who is the presidential candidate for each party every time in its caucus, but Iowa is a swing state. It has a Republican governor and Republican senators, and three of its four congressmen are Republicans too. But in presidential elections, it has voted Democrat in six of the seven last elections (it voted for George W Bush in 2004).

The map below shows how each of its counties voted in the 2012 presidential election (Obama won the state by 52% to Romney’s 46%, within a whisker of the national 51-47 split). The black dots show the 11 cities with a population over 50,000 whilst the four shaded areas show metropolitan areas of over quarter of a million inhabitants: Des Moines and Cedar Rapids within the state, the Quad Cities straddling the Iowa-Illinois border and the smaller part of Omaha on the Nebraska border.

Iowa political map

The east of the state and cities tend to be more Democratic, the west and rural areas more Republican. The Democrats are strongest in the university dominated Iowa City whilst the South Dakota border votes heavily for the GOP (“Grand Old Party”).

Iowa’s caucus has been the first to choose since 1972. For the Democrats, it picked an unfancied Jimmy Carter in 1976 and propelled John Kerry (2004) and Barack Obama (2008) to victories ahead of the favourites.

Its record for the Republicans is less impressive, but it did pick George W Bush in 2000.  In the last two elections, it has picked the candidate who has carried the evangelical banner: Huckabee in 2008, Santorum in 2012.


The primaries for each state elect delegates to each party’s convention held in July (earlier than previous years), with the number of delegates based on the state’s population and party strength there (in addition, senior members of the parties are super delegates to that conference). The primaries elect those delegates based on the support for candidates.

There are two sorts of primary: a primary election (where people vote in a secret ballot at a polling station) and a caucus – a sort of town hall meeting where the people who turn up huddle together or vote on slips of paper in support of their favoured candidate.

Who gets to vote varies from state to state. Some states, particularly in the South, have open primaries where anyone can vote in the election or caucus. Others (often states with reputations for machine politics) have closed primaries, where only voters registered as a supporter of a party can take part. There are variations on this, such as semi-closed primaries – where only voters registered for that party or as independents play a role. Different states have different rules on how recently you can register for a party too.

Iowa is a closed caucus system, but where voters can register for a party on the day. In 2012, there was a suspicion that some Democrats (knowing that Obama was certain to be selected) registered as Republicans on the day to have real election to take part in.

Voting takes place in 1,682 precincts, which decide conventions in each of the state’s 99 counties. Those in turn decide a convention for each of the state’s four congressional districts and then the state convention.

Voting in each precinct takes place in a large hall, typically a in a school or similarly sized building. Usually, both parties will use different parts of the same building.

The parties have different processes.


The Republicans have a new process this time, where they either give attendees a blank sheet of paper to write the name of their preferred candidate on or get them to put their hands up for their choice. Eventually, the state convention selects 27 delegates: 3 each from the four congressional districts and 15 for the state at large. To this, a further 3 delegates are chosen as super-delegates by the Republican National Committee.

Given the process, in the past it hasn’t been clear how many delegates each candidate secured until much later on. This time, the process has been tightened to give certainty on the day of the election.

The graph below shows our rolling total of the last five polls in the state, weighted on the size of each poll (so, 25% of a poll of a poll of 500 counts as 125 whilst 25% of a poll of 400 counts as 100 and so on, with thee totals then added and percentaged). I have also excluded ‘don’t knows’ so that the candidate percentages total to 100%.

Iowa 16 GOP polls

Polls currently show Donald Trump ahead of the pack for likely voters.  Trump fell behind Ted Cruz in the state in December, but retook the advantage three weeks ago and has widened his lead, although both have lost some support in the last few days. Trump’s support in the state has edged up five points over the last month, although this is a drop from the peak he achieved at the start of the week.

That could make Trump very difficult to stop in his nomination campaign. He is well ahead in polls for the next two Republican primaries: New Hampshire and South Carolina. If he takes Iowa, it is difficult to see how that changes and with three victories under his belt he would be in pole position for Super Tuesday on 1 March (there is one other contest before that, Nevada on 23 February).

The poll close watchers were anticipating was the Des Moines Register poll that came out today. This has a reputation from previous election of usually getting the caucus results right. This also showed a lead for Trump, but at a lower level of 25%. The Des Moines poll has a margin of error of 4%, but unless Trump voters are really significantly less likely to turn up to vote than those for other parties, it looks like Trump will win Iowa.

DM GOP Iowa poll

Right-wing Texan senator Ted Cruz seems to be clearly in second place, but having taken some knocks from the other candidates. He has lost seven points over the last three weeks, and his slip seems to have preceded Trump’s recent bounce, suggesting that some of his earlier support perhaps sees Trump as a more viable Tea Party option. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump will certainly have helped that. Cruz problem is that leading Republicans seem currently more willing to attack him than Trump: the state’s governor has been particularly scathing. It seems as if the establishment want to knock him out of the way to clear a route through for a more moderate candidate to be able to take on Trump in later contests.

In third place is Floridian senator Marco Rubio, positioned on the moderate end of the Tea Party, and he is now clearly the leader of the more establishment pack. With polls from the most recent GOP debate yet to be published, it may be that his recent growth in support could accelerate from its current 15%.

The mechanics of the caucus could also help: if it is clear that more moderate candidates have little chance of picking up delegates support could switch towards Rubio whilst that support is unlikely to gravitate towards Trump or Cruz. However, the system of viability is less explicit than the Democrat system and so this is unlikely to catapult him into the lead.

But if it did, Rubio suddenly becomes the candidate to watch and will be the stop Trump candidate. If so, expect others to start clearing the field for him.

Behind him is Ben Carson, the Maryland brain surgeon turned wackadoo. A couple of months ago, he was running second to Trump, but his star is now seriously on the wane.

The rest of the field seem less likely to pick up anything from Iowa. Libertarians-Tea Partier and Kentucky senator Rand Paul was always unlikely to do well among the more religiously-conservative Republican base in Iowa, and Jeb Bush’s campaign has failed to ignite.

Like Paul, Chris Christie was never likely to win in Iowa, even before Bridge-Gate, and is conserving his energies for New Hampshire eight days later. Ohio governor John Kasich and businesswoman Carly Fiorina have similar problems of garnering support among the conservative base, whilst previous winners here Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have made no headway this time.


For the Democrats, the process is longer: they turn up, spend half an hour trying to persuade each other to support their candidate and then huddle together in groups for each. If any group comprises less than 15%, that candidate is deemed unviable, and the process starts again. Once this is done for each precinct, the maths are done to apportion 46 delegates.  The state then has a further 8 super-delegates.

The poll graph for the Democrats (compiled in the same way as the earlier one for the Republicans) shows a clear two-horse race.

Iowa 16 Dem polls

This ought to have been in the bag for Hillary Clinton, but her campaign mistakes and the on-going concern about her honesty as a result of the questions about her using her personal email account for top secret communications whilst Secretary of State have damaged her. Given that she is unlikely to win New Hampshire, losing here would begin to undermine the sense of her inevitable nomination.

Socialist Vermont senator (and not even a Democrat) Bernie Sanders is already ahead in New Hampshire (the border with his home state helps there). Even if he also wins in Iowa, that is unlikely to lead to him eventually getting the nomination but it might open the door to another mainstream candidate entering the race and pressure for Clinton to drop out. Joe Biden is there, waiting in the wings…

The final candidate is former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (reputably the model for The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti), who is left of centre within the Democrats. He has bene pretty much squeezed out by Clinton on the right and Sanders on the left, bumping along at around 5%. The question here there is if he fails to be viable in caucus meetings where that support goes. Whilst small, his support is larger than most polls put the difference between the other two candidates and so could be the critical difference. My hunch is that it will probably split more for Clinton than Sanders, saving her blushes.

Today’s Des Moines Register poll bears this out: Clinton holding a 3-point lead over Sanders and O’Malley trailing well back on only 3%. Whilst 3% is within the margin of error for this poll, the number of polls that have put Clinton ahead of late suggest a slim victory for her.

DM Dem Iowa poll

So, I expect that Clinton will eek out an uncomfortably tight win in Iowa. Although Sanders should still win in New Hampshire, she should win the next two: Nevada’s caucus on 20 February and South Carolina’s primary election on 27 February. Then her resources should power her through Super Tuesday and New Hampshire will just seem like a flash in the pan.


In some years, Iowa’s caucus has played a fairly minor role in picking presidents: Dick Gerphart’s win in 1988 and Tom Harkin’s in 1992 saw neither get anywhere close to the Democrat nomination, neither did Huckabee’s 2008 win or Santorum’s 2012 one get them close to becoming the Republican nominee.

But I think Iowa will be different this time, given the large poll leads currently held in New Hampshire by Trump and Sanders. A Trump win in Iowa makes him more likely than not to win the Republican nomination whilst a Clinton win should ensure her nomination by the Democrats. At the moment, both seem to be the most likely outcome.

But if either fail, that changes a great deal and makes it a far more open contest.

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