PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: The 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus Opinion PieceYou’re Reading is Probably Wrong …
Every year, I see the same kinds of proclamations of what a ‘win’ at the Iowa Caucus means, and they’re always wrong. Like, I’ve seen this since 1980, as a kid.
The Iowa Democratic Caucus results have produced exactly 1 President, Barrack Obama in 2008. The caucus predicted the Democratic Nominee for President correctly in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2016.
But it only predicted the President correctly once in all that time. Let’s skip how badly Iowa choose in 1980, 1984 and 1988; in each of those years the Democratic nominee for President was thumped by the Republicans.
In 1992, Tom Steyer won over 77% of the headcount. Many said Clinton should drop out, but he persisted. He won. In 1996, Clinton was subjected to a primary by members of his own party, the same as Obama in 2012, because Baby Boomer age Democrats sometime act like lunatics.
In 2000, the next Iowa Caucus had Al Gore and Bill Bradley in stiff competiton, with Gore getting 62.34% of the headcount and Bradley gaining 34.88%. Gore won the popular vote and became President, because what kind of country would ignore a popular vote total?
In 2004 John Kerry and John Edwards split the headcount with 37.6% and 31.8% of the totals, with Howard “SCREAM” Dean and Dick “My Name Sounds Dirty” Gephardt grabbing the rest with 18.0% and 10.6% of the headcount. John Kerry then lost to human lawn ornament George W. Bush.
In 2008 at the Iowa Caucus, political failure Barrack Obama picked up a measley 37.6% of the popular vote and 16 delegates, with John “Sex Scandal” Edwards getting 29.7% of the headcount (and 14 delegates), and some Senator named Hillary someone who got 15 delegates and 29.4% of the headcount.
As mentioned, Baby Boomer aged Democrats sometimes act like lunatics, and will primary a sitting President. This happened to Barrack Obama in 2012. Obama would win the 2012 Democratic Nomination with 3,166 delegates, compared to 56 delegates for John McConnell Wolfe Jr. of TN who has literally never won an election. Ever.
Then comes 2016, which most people still vaguely remember! In Iowa, it was down to two candidates, political underdog Hillary Clinton and Larry David impersonator Bernie Sanders. Clinton got 55.2% of the Iowa headcount vs. 43.1% for Sanders. Like Gore, she won the nomination, the popular vote and then lost the Electoral College vote because our system is stupid sometimes. Although, based on news coverage, it feels like Clinton became President because every time she talks Republicans and some lefties get mad.
The only conclusion that I believe anyone can draw from Iowa is that it does a good job in the modern era of predicting Democratic nominees, but does a terrible job at predicting larger public sentiment and the eventual President.
Since 1980, the only Democrat who …
(1) had the most delegates at the Iowa Democratic Caucus
(2) Won the popular vote
(3) Won the Electoral College
… was Barrack Obama in 2008. Over 50% of the participants in the Iowa Caucus that year were first time participants. A lot of work went into getting people excited to participate in the process and bring new people to it.
For contrast, in 2020 that number was 33%. I’ve seen a lot of people speculate about why, and then be satisfied with the answer to their own speculation. But, given that voter participation is what determines whether Democrats or Republicans win office, the question I have is …
Q: Why did fewer new people chose to participate in the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus, when more people overall participated in the 2018 and 2019 elections?
My own speculation leads me to two paths. The first one is, people in Iowa were depressed and didn’t want to make the effort this year. This is possible. A nuance of this is that caucuses are hard to attend. If you have children, how do you manage being away from home for potentially 12 hours at night? If you work hourly, without paid leave, how do you leave your job for the same amount of time? Sometimes people will work to overcome those nearly insurmountable hurdles, but everyone has a threshold of practicality. If this was the primary reason why new people opted out, what is their sentiment or a year of potential record voter turnout? Will voting this year also feel like too much of a hurdle? The reporting indicated record turnout for the Iowa Democratic Caucus this year, but the opposite happened. There was a depression in new participants this year, compared to previous years. Did the reporting of record participation convince people to opt out? This is the biggest miss of the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus, and I have yet to find a media outlet asking why they got this wrong publicly. How can every news organization get the same thing so wrong?
The second path is that people don’t care who the nominee is, they just want Trump out. In other words, rather than waste energy on the primary, people want to put full energy into the general election. This seems as likely to me, simply because it would align with the 2018 and 2019 elections.
Here’s the thing, though. I don’t really know the answer about why new voter turnout for the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus was down this year, and by the way, as of this writing nobody does. Anyone who says, “This is what happened!” is just guessing at this point. Until there’s, at least, some kind of polling, no one will know.
I feel this question about voter sentiment in Iowa is critical. If voters in Iowa were depressed, it could indicate that the blue wave has dissipated since 2018, perhaps even the long and divisive primary. If it’s the second, then the primary itself doesn’t matter that much this year to a potential majority of Democratic voters, and all of the candidates are spending their money in the wrong way.
Every other conversation and speculation about Iowa looks foolish to me right now, because of the above. Like, I see a lot of political reporters and publications simply recycling old story ideas, conspiracy theories and op-eds, without much evidence they were on the ground to really understand what was happening there this year.
Caucuses are hard to manage, the more candidates there are make them harder, and because there’s no votes, only headcounts, it makes them even harder to tabulate. I saw in media people wildly speculate and conclude based on their biases of “Dem incompetence” and conspiracy theories, who also ignored evidence of Republican interference. As more than a few people I know talked about, yes, Republicans online spread the phone numbers used to call in Iowa Dem Caucus results and jammed phone lines.
All I know is, people matter, your vote matters, and participation matters. I’m not advocating for a candidate here. I’m just dumping out a part of my data analysis brain because I’m frustrated this morning because I keep running into certain kinds of voters who say, “Only candidate X can save us, if they don’t win, I won’t vote!”
And all I’ve been able to think about all day when I don’t occupy my mind with the above is how stupid that sounds. This morning, fellow Brooklynite Eric Diaz-Cruz, 26, who has lived in the U.S. legally since he was 18 was just shot in the face by an unnamed ICE agent. The character assassination of him and his family began this morning, when his cousin (the target of the ICE raid) had all kinds of crimes ascribed to him, and thus to Diaz-Cruz by proxy. Some reporters even said that Diaz-Cruz was ALSO here illegally, because they went with ‘sources on the ground’ (read: the aforementioned unnamed ICE agents) instead of doing good reporting.
All of this to say, I’m glad people are so focused on Iowa and are passionate about politics. I just hope enough of them are thinking about people like Eric Diaz-Cruz while they pout over whether their candidate will be the nominee this year.
And I also hope that the think pieces that get written every Iowa Caucus change, at some point. The truth is, the Iowa Caucuses tell us far less about electoral outcomes than our own characters will.