What the Iowa Caucus Actually Means


It makes an odd scene, does the Iowa caucus. Hardened supporters of the various candidates brave freezing temperatures as they head to school gyms and community centres in order to kick off the bonanza of voting that is the Presidential Primary season.

For a state as well known for its folksy mid-Western charm, using caucuses is very Iowa. The idea that the best and most efficient way to vote for a candidate is to literally gather in a group with other like-minded citizens is wonderfully antiquated in an odd way, despite the fact that it’s completely ridiculous and ineffective (more on that later). However, Iowa has managed to catapult itself to national importance by sheer fact that it hosts the first primary of the Presidential race

and therefore the US media descends on the state, hungry for some actual action 10 months after Ted Cruz announced that he would be running. It is unsurprising then that the coverage of the Iowa results has been massively overblown in the hours following the results being announced.

Before delving into the results and what they do or don’t mean, it is important to establish a sense of perspective. Firstly, Iowa is not, in any way, shape or form, representative of America. Using the most recent census data (which came in 2010) Iowans are 91.1% white compared to 63.7% of the national population (who identified as White Non-Hispanic) with a far higher number of people living in rural areas. Though the percentage of Iowans who identify as Christian is broadly similar to the national average (75% compared to 76% nationwide) the state is renowned as strongly Evangelical, as opposed to the fairly latent Protestantism practiced in other parts of the US. Also, the Iowa caucus has a somewhat iffy record of predicting nominees, particularly in years with competitive races. In 2012, Rick Santorum won for the Republicans in Iowa, in 2008 it was Mike Huckabee both of whom, last time I checked, have not served as President. Going back further, in 1992 the Democratic caucus backed Tom Harkin (an Iowan Senator) over Bill Clinton. In 1980 George H.W. Bush won the Iowa caucus against a former B-Movie actor; one Ronald W. Reagan.

So, now we’ve established that the media both here and in the USA might be slightly over-reacting to the events of Monday night (as they do every four years), let’s get into some analysis. Ted Cruz won the Republican vote on 27.7% of the vote, with Donald Trump in second on 24.3% and Marco Rubio in third on 23.1% (no other candidate got more than 10%). The big story appears to be the fact that Donald Trump, who had been leading in the polls failed to win, but it’s not actually that surprising. The aforementioned Evangelical base in Iowa was always far more likely to vote for Cruz, the son of the Evangelical pastor, than they were for the somewhat religiously indifferent Trump. In a similar vein, Cruz, a Texan, was far better at portraying a friendly, folksy, candidate than Trump, a member of the New York metropolitan elite. For Cruz, the greater test comes in the New Hampshire Primary, a state far less likely to support his hard-line Conservatism and Evangelical values. If Trump loses in New Hampshire then he can start worrying that his populist line and strong national numbers aren’t going to get him elected.

The real story from last night may have been Rubio’s strong showing. He was always expected to come third, but only finishing a percentage point behind Trump was significantly better than most commentators expected. Also he was only 5% behind Cruz and picked up only one less delegate than the Texan. It is now clearer than ever that Rubio is going to be the establishment candidate for the Republicans, and he’s likely to see a big boost in donations as the backers of other establishment men (Bush, Christie and Kasich) jump on the Rubio bandwagon. One thing to remember as Primary season rolls on is that Americans love to back a winner, and that momentum is crucial to sustaining a campaign.

That might be why Hillary Clinton was so relieved to record a win over her main rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, even if it was by the slimmest of margins – 49.9% compared to 49.6% (Martin O’Malley, who took 0.6% of the vote, quietly withdrew from the race soon after the end of polling). In fact, Clinton won six delegates on the outcome of a coin toss after votes were tied (remember what I said about caucuses being ridiculous and ineffective) and there are even allegations that voters in one precinct were misled after the Clinton precinct captain failed to take an actual count of supporters, with some supporters then choosing to make a swift exit before a proper recount could take place. This is the issue with using a voting system predicated on getting someone to stand in a corner of a room.

Again, the media made a lot of how close Sanders pushed Clinton, but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Caucuses favour candidates that run effective grassroots campaigns (Barack Obama in 2008, Rick Santorum in 2012) and Sanders’ campaign is largely reliant on a strong grassroots support. It is somewhat astonishing that Sanders has gone from a relative unknown to serious contender in less than 12 months, but it’s not entirely without precedent. However, the momentum factor is important, as Sanders is in a very strong position in New Hampshire (the next primary state) and if he’d taken Iowa as well then Hillary could have been seen to be floundering, much akin to her 2008 campaign. Hillary still carries a huge advantage over Sanders in the southern states, and she could have won without taking Iowa, but this is result will have had many of her supporters breathing a sigh of relief.


2nd Year Modern History and Politics student. Moans a lot about politics, unlikely to actually do anything about it. Direct complaints towards @FSGLoveman on Twitter.

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