Decision 2020: The Iowa Caucuses

(JMC note: entire article updated for vote counts as of 2/5/2020 PM, then on 2/11/2020 AM)

The 2020 election season started off with a whimper (and certainly NOT a bang). Not only was a last minute poll bizarrely cancelled just before its public release, but (one day after the caucusing) we only have partial knowledge of the election results from the Iowa Caucus on the Democratic side. However, here are some preliminary takeaways that can be affirmatively given now:

1. Good (not record) turnout – With all of the precinct data in, 177K voted. While this is a healthy turnout (just above the 171K who voted in 2016 on the Democratic side), the all time record of 239K turnout was set in 2008 with Barack Obama’s historic candidacy and wasn’t surpassed.

2. Who won? It’s a split decision: The raw vote showed that Bernie Sanders received 43699 votes/25%, followed by Pete Buttigieg (37596/21%), Elizabeth Warren (32611/18%), Joe Biden (26322/15%), then Amy Klobuchar (22474/13%). However, what really counts in Iowa in terms of delegate selection is “delegate equivalent” – candidates who in individual precincts do not attain 15% of the precinct vote are deemed not viable, and his/her votes do not count in the final total for that precinct – that vote is reallocated to someone else. Under this (delegate equivalent) metric, Buttigieg leads over Sanders 26.2-26.1%. Elizabeth Warren got 18%, Joe Biden 16%, and Amy Klobuchar 12%.

3. Five tickets to New Hampshire: Given that the Iowa results are incomplete even after a lengthy delay before a (partial) release of vote totals, there is not really a clear winner of Iowa, as attention is now shifting to New Hampshire (whose primary is in seven days). Therefore, the five candidates (Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, Biden, and Klobuchar) with double digit support can arguably show some semblance of viability for the next seven days. And therefore it’s unlikely you’ll see much in the way of campaign withdrawals before the New Hampshire balloting.

4. The two halves of the Democratic party: There are really two electoral “swim lanes” in the Democratic Party contest right now. The “liberal swim lane” (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) in the aggregate got 43% of that vote. The “moderate swim lane” (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar) received 49%, and the remaining 8% went to Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and other candidates. In the short term, this party split benefits Bernie Sanders, since he only has one competitor in his “swim lane”, while the moderate vote is (until someone drops out) being partitioned three ways.

5. We’ve only just begun: Since Iowa was a caucus state, these results aren’t necessarily the harbinger of the future. For one thing, primary electorates are a larger/broader spectrum of the party’s base than caucus electorates are. Plus, Iowa and New Hampshire’s electorates are nearly all white – even on the Democratic side. That will change starting with the Nevada caucuses/South Carolina primary on February 22 and 29. Plus, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg are essentially placing their bets on the “Super Tuesday” states on March 3, so their gamble can’t be discounted for now in terms of gaining momentum among the Democratic primary electorate for contests on or after March 3.

6. Iowa’s winners and losers ? Winners: Bernie Sanders (although he really needed a blowout to establish clear dominance in the “liberal swim lane”), Elizabeth Warren (although she really needs a win somewhere), Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar (although it’s more correct to say her “judgement day” has been postponed until New Hampshire, much like Marco Rubio on the Republican side in 2016).

Who is the “loser” ? Joe Biden. As a quasi incumbent when considering his political resume, his fourth place finish is hardly an exhibition of strength. And since Bernie Sanders is well positioned at this point to win New Hampshire next week, Biden won’t have his “moment to shine” until Nevada or South Carolina.