Who Will Win the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucuses?

Can I do it? Can I be perfect again?

Almost certainly not. Dumb luck, like lightning, rarely strikes twice. But it’ll be a cold day in Des Moines when I don’t grab a lightning rod and head back into the storm.

Like last time, I think it’s best if we start by clearing the clutter. The following candidates have no chance to crack the top five, nor do I think they get into the top seven. We’ll call them…

Tier 4: The No-Shots

John Delaney: On Friday, two-and-a-half years after declaring his candidacy, and about six months after he was publicly neutered by Elizabeth Warren, John Delaney finally dropped out.

As for other No-Shots, there’s really no sense in ordering them, since they’ll all tie with zero delegates and come away with no viability in any precinct during the final vote count. However, for the initial vote count (catch up with the three ways to measure Iowa’s caucuses here), I’ve listed them in the general order I expect them to finish. Barely any votes will separate them, so it’s silly to even attempt a ranking. Never forget, however, that I am a silly person.

11. Deval Patrick: somehow an even worse candidate than John Delaney.
10. Michael Bennet: a good western candidate, but one who focused on New Hampshire.
9. Michael Bloomberg: nationally potent, ignored Iowa.
8. Tulsi Gabbard: also New Hampshire focused, but she’s the only one of this group consistently registering in Iowa polls.

If any hit seventh place, they’ll throw a party.

Tier 3: Happy with a fifth place result. With a top-four, they might have something. (Spoiler alert: they do not.)

7. Tom Steyer
6. Andrew Yang

Whereas candidates in Tier 4 poll either 0 and 1 in just about every Iowa survey, Steyer and Yang have settled into the 3 to 5 point range. I like the #YangGang’s passion a lot more than the #SteyerStarers, a hashtag I may have just made up. Therefore, I like Yang to lead Steyer in the initial vote count despite Steyer’s millions of dollars on ads. However, I doubt either approach the top five, who poll significantly better, and therefore neither will earn any delegates. The most important role their supporters will play is when they head over to the Bernie Sanders group upon each caucus’s realignment.

(Parenthetical side note: the online Yang Gang is CONVINCED that polling isn’t picking up on them and they’re going to shock the world. It’s equal parts endearing and annoying. We’ll see.)

Before we move into the top two tiers, which I considered the contenders, here’s Iowa polling averages over the last three weeks:


I’ll surely refer back to that a few times.

Tier 2: Amy Klobuchar

5. Amy Klobuchar

The case that she might surprise us:

  • No candidate has more improved their polling over the last three weeks.
  • In each of the last four Iowa caucuses that had three or more contenders, a candidate who picked up late support surged on caucus night:
    • John Kerry 2004: In a few weeks, Kerry jumped from polling in third place in the mid-teens to an Iowa win with 37.6% of the vote.
    • Barack Obama 2008: A week before Iowa, Obama was polling around 26% and alternated between second and third place with John Edwards, both trailing Hillary Clinton in first. Obama jumped to 31% polling by the caucuses and won them with 38% of the vote.
    • Rick Santorum 2012: the all-time great late surge, Santorum was polling single digits a week before the caucuses. Two days before the caucuses he was polling at 14%, and then he ultimately won 24.6% of the vote, which was considered second place on caucus night but later he was declared the winner.
    • Marco Rubio 2016 was polling at 10.8% ten days before the caucuses, finished with a polling average of 16.8%, and then earned 23.1% of the vote for a strong third.
  • Klobuchar’s hope is that she pulls a Santorum, who took off in the last few days when undecideds broke hard to him. Santorum visited all 99 Iowa counties, a talking point that aided that late surge. This time around, Klobuchar is the only contender to have done that.
  • That means she hit a lot of rural counties ignore by the Big Four. Rural voters have outsized strength in delegate allocation.
  • One recent poll found that of the voters “who’ve made up their minds in the last week,” 25% went to Klobuchar, with no other candidate earning more than 17%.
  • “Among those who say they’re still making up their mind, Biden (22%) and Klobuchar (21%) lead.” In other words, she’s winning late-deciding voters, of which there are plenty, with more likely to come.

So, if you squint enough, there’s a case to be made that she’s about to shock the world.

So far I’ve noted where campaigns would be “happy” to finish. Tier 4 would be thrilled with a top seven showing, while Tier 3 would be ecstatic if they break into the top five. None of them have a chance to win, however.

Klobuchar, I’m sad to say, won’t win either. It’s been a decent mini-surge, but methinks she ran out of time. She’s clearly polling ahead of Tier 3 candidates, but she’s also still polling behind all candidates above her, even if that gap has closed considerably. Thus, she’s alone in Tier 2.

However, since she’s still climbing, a top-three result is in play. Unfortunately for Klobuchar, though a top-three keeps her going into New Hampshire, where she’s also a clear fifth place, it won’t change the fundamentals of a weak national candidacy, particularly if she finishes behind Biden in the process. If, however, she finishes top-three and Biden finishes below her, then we might be talking about her or Buttigieg as the more viable moderate candidate moving forward.

Her worst case is realistic: we likely see her falling short of 15% thresholds across most districts and losing her supporters to Biden, Buttigieg, and Warren on realignments.

Tier 1: The Contenders

Ah, so hard! Polls disagree on whether Sanders or Biden is the leader. Of the last six used to determine RCP’s polling averages, Sanders has won three, Biden two, and this morning’s large-sampled CBS News/YouGov poll had them exactly tied at 25 a piece. Meanwhile, we know caucus organization means a lot, and all hard and anecdotal evidence suggests that Buttigieg and Warren are the most prepared.

So any of the four can win. Meanwhile, three of them (all but Sanders, I’d say) can finish in fourth — or, with a Klobuchar caucus-day surprise, fifth. And the stakes couldn’t be higher:

  • A Biden win in Iowa earns him the nomination going away. Sanders would likely still win New Hampshire, but his best case scenario would be merely as a headache to the inevitable nominee, just as he was four years ago.
  • A Biden fourth or fifth means he’s got a glass chin heading into New Hampshire and Nevada. If Buttigieg and/or Klobuchar finish ahead of him here, he’ll have a weaker claim as the strongest moderate candidate. If it happens twice, he’s done.
  • A Sanders win in Iowa means he’s going to win New Hampshire. A win in both means he’s the favorite in Nevada. No candidate in either party has ever won the first two states and not won the nomination. If he wins the first three? Look out.
  • But if Sanders, who comes in with highest caucus expectations, finishes a disappointing third — and worse, if Warren finishes ahead of that — then it’s Warren who dominates the expectations game and she’s off to the races as the progressive choice.
  • A Buttigieg win in Iowa could well set up a win in New Hampshire, where he’s already polling top-three. Re-read the Sanders win bullet for those implications. Even if he finishes second in New Hampshire behind Sanders, that still means he beat Biden in the moderate lane both times. All of a sudden, national Democrats could see a young, vigorous, intellectual Midwest moderate as the much better choice to take on Trump then a 77-year-old has-been.
  • A Buttigieg fourth or fifth means he probably puts up a dejected fight in New Hampshire, but he won’t be competitive in the final results. With sagging national numbers and no support in the minority community, his campaign would end before it even gets to the third state.
  • A Warren win returns her to the prominence she held in mid-autumn. The progressive who’s still a trustworthy Democrat, she’d be off to the races. She’d win back a lot of the support she lost to Sanders and could well pair her Iowa win with a New Hampshire triumph, aided by serving as Senator from a neighboring state.
  • A Warren fourth or fifth dooms her campaign much like it would Buttigieg. Her national numbers are going in the wrong direction. There would be a lot of pressure on her to withdraw to help Sanders unify the Left and score dominant New Hampshire and Nevada wins over the moderates.

Huge stakes, I tell you! Iowa will isolate a few contenders while severely winnowing the field for those who disappoint.

So who the heck wins this thing?

Tier 1: Looking for a Win, Cool with Second, Bummed with Third, Scared of Fourth, Absolutely Terrified of Fifth

Candidates in some order: Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren

A few factors make the Iowa caucuses tough to predict in general:

  1. Due to the quirks of realignment, caucuses are generally harder to predict than conventional primaries. For example, Sanders will benefit if Warren fails to meet 15%, while Biden will benefit if Klobuchar fails to meet 15%. Both could happen, as could neither. But if only one happens, the other guy is left claiming the initial vote-count matters more than the final count. He would be wrong.
  2. Since Iowa is first, we have no idea if this primary cycle hides a group or demographic of voters not being picked up by polling.
  3. Iowa’s complicated, multi-tiered delegate selection process means we might not have a direct correlation between popular support and delegate projections. We could well have a popular vote winner who’s not the “delegate equivalent” winner.

Yet more factors make this race particularly muddled this year.

  1. A four (or five!) way race between people who can hit 15% of the initial vote is unprecedented. It requires not only four (or five) strong contenders, but that none of those contenders are too strong.
  2. All four (five) are pulling big crowds.
  3. Polling (see graph) suggests it’s Sander>Biden>Buttigieg>Warren, but reporters who measure campaign footprints have largely agreed it’s Warren and Buttigieg with the largest and most sophisticated organizations. Organization is huge in a caucus state, and it’s the main reason I gave Cruz the advantage over Trump four years ago despite Trump leading all the Iowa polls.
  4. Sanders leads the polls and competed in the caucuses four years ago, giving his team valuable experience. And yet, even as the clear favorite, the statisticians over at FiveThirtyEight give him just a 40% chance to win the caucuses. In other words, it’s more likely he doesn’t win Iowa than he does. And if we wake up on Tuesday morning and he hasn’t won… then who the heck did?

I know what you’re thinking. “Enough stalling, PPFA! I can’t take it anymore!”

Fine. Here it is.

4. Elizabeth Warren

I don’t like downward polling trends heading into a primary or caucus. Of these four candidates, Warren’s downward slope is longest. Three months ago today she was polling at over 22% in Iowa with a five-point lead on the field. She now just sits at 15.2 according to RCP and 14.4 according to 538. She’s clinging to pre-alignment viability.

Also working against her is that half of her second choice support comes from Sanders supporters, who will have no reason to jump ship or throw her a life raft. Meanwhile, Warren voters list Sanders as their second choice about half the time as well. It’s reasonable that Warren supporters will see her on viability’s cusp in their precincts, while on the other side of the room the Sanders college kids rival with the Biden supporters from the local old folks home. At that point, they may decide to go help Sanders win. The result? Warren loses votes, and her fading polling continues through the actual vote. There’s of course a chance her organization can squeeze out every last vote and give her a decent result, but someone has to finish in fourth.

Meanwhile, she’s not the only one fading…

3. Pete Buttigieg

Depending on when one starts the trend-line, Buttigieg is falling even faster than Warren. He was leading Iowa much more recently than was Warren, polling in the 20s as recently as early January. He now sits at 16.3 in RCP’s average and 15.8 in 538’s.

Like Warren, however, he’s got a strong organization ready to deploy. On Wednesday, I felt that this strong organization could get him the top-two finish he so desperately needs; since the two candidates probably break even in this category, I give him the edge over Warren not only because the polls slightly favor him (this morning’s CBS poll had him at an impressive 21) but also because of his voters are more strategically spread throughout the state, giving him an advantage in the aforementioned rural vote, which will help his “delegate equivalent” count.

Like Warren, Buttigieg will also see voters peeled off in re-alignment if he’s falling short in areas Biden (or, less likely, Klobuchar) are stronger. I think he’ll finish with the third most votes, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at least tie for the second most delegates.

He’d be rivaling, of course, with the runner-up of Biden and Sanders. But which one?

Biden’s best chance at winning are Klobuchar and Buttigeig falling short of 15% in a lot of precincts while Warren does better than expected to meet viability and not lose support to Sanders. Unfortunately for Biden, that’s walking across a particularly narrow tightrope.

Sanders is guaranteed to win Yang and Steyer supporters, which could be as many as 10% in some precincts. He would love Warren supporters on top of that, but he doesn’t need them unless both Buttigieg and Klobuchar supporters go to Biden, which is unlikely.

In other words, Sanders is not only the polling leader with valuable 2016 experience, he’s also in the realignment advantage. Biden’s best chance is that his more rural support nets him a disproportionate delegate advantage while Sanders runs up the score in denser precincts like college towns, potentially giving us a split decision. (How perfect!) However, it’s looking to me that Bernie Sanders will win the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucuses.

2. Joe Biden
1. Bernie Sanders

Phew, I’m glad we figured that out with a day to spare. Sanders wins.

But will that win propel him to the Democratic nomination? It certainly might! Tomorrow, I’ll have my overall primary prediction. I hope to see you then.


4 thoughts on “Who Will Win the 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucuses?”

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