A Hundred Days Until Iowa!

By week’s end, we will be within 100 days of February 3’s Iowa Caucuses, the first official voting of the 2020 Democratic Primary. It therefore feels like a good time to get a lay of the cornfields.

To that end, today I thought I’d consider a few big questions, the answers to which can help guide how to look at this year’s Hawkeye horse race. These questions are:

  1. How important have the Iowa Caucuses been in either shaping or previewing the direction of the overall primary?
  2. How does the Iowa race look for the candidates right now?
  3. For the candidates who don’t look so good, how much precedent is there that they can surge into competitiveness over the last three months?

Let’s start with the first.

How important have the Iowa Caucuses been in either shaping or previewing the direction of the primary?

So important! Since Iowa comes first, its results impact polling across the country. Winners (and those who finish better than expected) build momentum — an “Iowa bounce” — which attracts good press, which in turn grows polling and attracts donors. Importantly, just as those successful candidates build that momentum, those who do poorly drop\ from contention, leaving their former supporters looking for new candidates just as strong Iowa finishers are building momentum. As a result, the Iowa Caucuses, together with the ensuing New Hampshire Primary, are the greatest winnowers of the nomination process. After those two, we always see a field dwindle to its final viable candidates.

One way to look at Iowa’s role would be to see how frequently the Iowa Caucuses forecast either the primary winners or the last serious contender against the nominee. First, I’ve highlighted below all the times Iowa has predicted the winner since 1980.

Romney was initially declared the winner of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses, which impacted the overall primary. Much later, Santorum was declared the winner, but it didn’t give him the “Iowa bounce” he was hoping for. Romney got it instead, which feels more relevant for today’s analysis of Iowa’s importance.

Note that:

  • Iowa has predicted half of the last ten Republican nominees and eight of the last ten Democratic nominees.
  • However, three of those five Iowa-winning nominees on the Republican side were sitting presidents. Therefore, we can say that Iowa Republicans only predicted two of the last seven contested nominees.
  • Still, it’s the Democrats we care about this time around, so it’s worth noting how important Iowa has been to them. Though two of the eight Iowa-winning Democratic nominees were sitting presidents, that still leaves six of the last eight contested primaries where the Iowa Caucuses winner later secured the nomination. And if you throw out 1992, when Iowa Senator Tom Harkin ran essentially unopposed in his home state and therefore received no bounce from winning it, we’ve actually seen six of the last seven competitive Iowa Caucuses forecast the ultimate Democratic nominee.
  • And, as you can see, including the two sitting Democratic presidents, every Democratic Iowa winner since 1996 has gone on to become the Democratic nominee, a streak of six in a row. Pretty important!

Beyond just winners, we can also consider how Iowa affects who the final major candidates are. Here’s the same chart, but now I’ll highlight if the top two in Iowa became the top two in the overall primary race:


My highlighter almost died with that one. Only rarely do the Iowa Caucuses not forecast the two main contenders for the nomination. And again on the Democratic side, we see remarkable consistency in recent primaries. Even that 2008 exception kind of fits the pattern; though John Edwards narrowly edged Hillary Clinton in percentage of the vote, Clinton actually netted one more Iowa delegate thanks to quirky caucus rules.

Admittedly, sometimes we come into the Iowa Caucuses with two dominant candidates already. The 2016 Democratic Primary only had Martin O’Malley meekly stand next to Clinton and Sanders, for example. The 2000 Democratic Primary, with Gore and Bradley, was like that as well.

Still, usually it’s more muddled than that. More common in contested primaries we see six or more candidates. If we consider such crowded contests this century, we find that Iowa had a huge impact on all of them. I’m going to take a closer look at the following fields of candidates when I get to Question #3, but here’s a summary of each in relation to how they impact the field’s final two candidates:

  • In 2012, Santorum was not seen a chief competitor of Romney. He was polling low single digits nationally while other candidates — Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich — alternated rivaling Romney on top of national polls. Then a Santorum top-two finish in Iowa all of a sudden turned him into Romney’s primary rival during the voting part of the process, and he finished in second in the primary.
  • In 2008, Mike Huckabee’s Iowa win vaulted him from a distant fourth place nationally past Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani and into the top two with John McCain, who fended him off thanks to a New Hampshire win and strong Super Tuesday.
  • That same year on the Democratic side: Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards were in a mortal struggle for the nomination, and it’s Obama’s Iowa Caucus victory that put him ahead and finally brought over much of the party.
  • Four years earlier, Democrats Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt were seen as the co-favorites for the Iowa Caucuses but the Johns Kerry and Edwards made late rises and finished in the top two, which caused the Dean and Gephardt campaigns to fall off a cliff (with one of them screaming on the way down).

Now knowing the importance of the caucuses, we can now consider: 2. How do the candidates look right now in Iowa?

We’ll start with their Real Clear Politics averages in Iowa based on polling from the last month:


Super close at the top! And here’s how those averages look over the last six months:


We see that Warren’s steady climb in Iowa matches her national climb. Biden’s Iowa polling, though it lags behind his national polling, parallels his national performance in that his numbers haven’t collapsed, but they’ve certainly petered, which looks bad next to Warren’s ascent.

Meanwhile, Sanders’s decline over the last three months is almost a mirror image to Warren’s rise, a clear sign that she’s robbing his voters. It seems he’s fated to be past by Pete Buttigieg, who’s rising and has set up an Iowan ground game to rival Warren’s. Indeed, in the last poll, Buttigieg has already nosed ahead, though we should wait for more polling to confirm Emerson’s survey.

Meanwhile, everything continues to go wrong for once odds-on favorite Kamala Harris. She’s on course for total irrelevance (though a turnaround from such a nosedive is not without precedent, as we saw with John Kerry in 2004 and John McCain in 2008). There’s a chance Amy Klobuchar replaces her in the top five if a strong fourth debate gets more polling results like the one she received from David Binder Research last month.

Due to the quirky way we analyze primary results, if the above pecking order becomes our mental image of Iowa polling over the next couple months, a candidate’s final month and Iowa result will be judged against these earlier expectations. That therefore impacts their respective goals for the caucuses. To wit:

  1. Warren and Biden would only get bounces from a win. Thanks to their national and Iowa success, and the raised profiles that come with that, Iowa will be seen as a proxy battlefield for their larger war. Still, though second place would be disappointing for either candidate, it’s survivable. Finishing third or worse could be unofficial campaign enders, barring one of them (Biden) totally withdrawing from the state early enough to claim he or she was not even trying to win it.
  2. Sanders would benefit a great deal if he moves into the top two, which could set him up for a strong New Hampshire Primary. A third place finish would be seen as an as-expected result, so there’d be no impact on the race — which isn’t good enough to make a move in later states. Fourth place or lower and we can start writing his campaign obituary.
  3. Buttigieg and Harris would be thrilled with a top three result, as this better-than-expected finish would add fuel to their campaigns and they’d probably attract support from whichever of the above campaigns they displaced from the top three. Anything worse, however, and it’s hard to see them surviving beyond New Hampshire, particularly if Warren, Biden, and Sanders are the top three in both states.
  4. Klobuchar, Gabbard, O’Rourke, and Booker can be excellent New Hampshire candidates, but they’d want a top three or four finish to set them up for a competitive run at it.
  5. Everyone else: a surge into the top five probably means they cling to the fringe of relevance, though it’s worth noting Rand Paul dropped out after his fifth place Iowa finish. Finishing out of the top five will cause most candidates to drop out. Some stubborn ones will stay in, especially if they focused on New Hampshire in the final weeks, but their campaigns are dead.

Of course, if our mental image of state polls changes between now and January, the above tiers would shift around. That brings us to…

3. For the candidates who don’t look so good, how much precedent is there that they can surge into competitiveness over the last three months?

Can we expect a late surge into the top tier from anyone outside of that top two? Absolutely! Let’s look at some polling data from all crowded fields this century. I’ll isolate the last six months of polling, which is more relevant than month-to-month comparisons, since the date of the caucuses can change by as much as four weeks. We’ll go from the most recent primary and work back.

First, here are the last six months of the RCP Iowa polling averages in the 2016 Republican Primary before the February 1 caucuses:


Keep in mind that the final polling averages are not the final caucus results, which occur a couple days after the most recent polling. Polling can’t capture the last 48 hours or so of undecided making up their minds. That’s particularly important in this race, as Trump went into the Iowa Caucuses as the polling leader by nearly five points, but Ted Cruz, like this website predicted, nevertheless won the caucuses after running third or fourth place for most of the latter part of 2015. The final caucus results of the top three were Cruz 27.6, Trump 24.3, and Marco Rubio 23.1.

Rubio offers a lesson unto himself. Follow his pink polling average back to October, when he’s a distant fourth place. By caucus time, he was the hottest candidate in the field, and his third place finish put him, by my calculation, on pace to consolidate the anti-Trump vote and win the nomination. Recognizing that, Chris Christie strapped on a suicide vest and tackled Rubio at the New Hampshire debate, later earning himself a spot in Trump’s inner circle as a result. (Note Rubio’s surging New Hampshire numbers make a hairpin turn back down after that debate.)

The GOP field four years earlier was half the size, but it again shows a late shift in dynamic before the January 3 Caucuses:


Here, the most relevant trend-line to watch is Rick Santorum. He was in next to last up until the last couple weeks, then he stormed into third in the polling average and ultimately prevailed with the (albeit belated) win!

The party’s 2008 primary also saw a late Iowa climb:


Just three months before the caucuses, which is about where we are now, Mike Huckabee was running in fifth place. By Caucus Eve, he ended up with the narrow polling average lead and then a nine-point victory in the contest. Rudy Giuliani, who was in second back when Huckabee was in fifth, finished last of the six candidates.

In that same year over on the Democratic side, we had recent history’s most consequential Iowa ascension:


In the last few months, Senator Barack Obama moved from third in Iowa to first and a caucus win, setting himself up for a primary victory, general election victory, and two terms in the White House.

Finally, in the one other crowded primary this century, we have the 2004 Democrats. Real Clear Politics was not yet charting Iowa polls, but Wikipedia assembled some for us:


Though in the closing months of 2003 it looked like a Dean-Gephardt race, the last couple weeks before the January 19 caucuses witnessed a surge from John Kerry and John Edwards, who finished first and second, respectively. They then went on to be first and second just about everywhere else, too, and became the party’s ticket.

In all of the above cases, how things looked three or four months before Iowa is not how things looked when it was time to start voting. So while it might currently look like Warren’s going to run away with the Iowa Caucus and nomination with Biden in second, recent history shows that we’re more likely to see a surprise.

Of course, the surprise might be that, for once, nothing changes! If that’s the case, please forget you just wasted part of your Monday reading this piece.


8 thoughts on “A Hundred Days Until Iowa!”

  1. […] We’ll also be monitoring the month’s polls to see who will qualify for the December debate, which has even tougher qualifying thresholds: four percent polling in four major national and/or early state polls or twice hitting six percent in an early state. Only five candidates have qualified for it (the top five from the above chart). After them, it’s an uphill climb for the other five. Yang, Steyer, Klobuchar, Booker, and Gabbard each have decent shots at qualifying, though all of them qualifying is unlikely. It appears the DNC really wants to get this down to six to eight viable candidates by Iowa. […]


  2. […] Iowa only has 41 pledged delegates at a convention that’s expected to have 3,979, which is just one tenth of one percent of the total. However, as the first official voter input of a primary cycle, Iowa’s results have an outsized role in determining how the presidential primary is covered moving forward. Better-than-expected results translate to a bump in polling and fundraising, whereas worse-than-expected results often lead to a campaign collapsing and soon ending. Iowa winners win the overall primary nearly half the time. […]


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