With the Iowa Caucuses finally here, this is a good time to offer a few thoughts on their significance and the American presidential race this year.
I tell my doctoral students writing dissertations that oftentimes one does not have to be right, just first. That is the story of Iowa. By all accounts if one were going to pick a first state to start the US presidential selection process, Iowa would not be it. It is a state hardly representative of the nation–too white, too rural and agricultural, and too small a population. Its is over-representative in religious conservatives compared to the rest of the nation, and with a caucus system it brings out a very small percentage of the population that even might not be representative of the national let along the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties. But none of that matters–it is first and it does have a major impact on the presidential election.
Its impact is twofold. First it eliminates candidates who do poorly—think Howard Dean in 2004. It does that by drying up money and media attention. But the Iowa Caucuses also can help presidential campaigns by declaring winners and those doing better than expected getting boasts. The Democrats have been holding the Iowa caucuses since 1972 (11 total) and 8 of the winners there have gone to win the party nomination (66%). The Republicans have held caucuses there since 1976 (10 total), and 6 of winners (60%) have gone on to win the nomination. Overall, 14 of 21 winners (66%) have gone on to win their party’s nomination, with seven of the winners of the caucuses winning the presidency.
Year Iowa Dem Winner Dem Party Nominee Iowa GOP Winner GOP Party Nominee President
1972 Muskie McGovern Nixon Nixon
1976 Carter Carter Ford Ford Carter
1980 Carter Carter Reagan Reagan Reagan
1984 Mondale Mondale Reagan Reagan Reagan
1988 Gephardt Dukakis Dole Bush Bush
1992 Harkin Clinton Bush Bush Clinton
1996 Clinton Clinton Dole Dole Clinton
2000 Gore Gore Bush Bush Bush
2004 Kerry Kerry Bush Bush Bush
2008 Obama Obama Huckabee McCain Obama
2012 Obama Obama Santorium Romney Obama
Life is About Showing Up
The caucuses are all about turnout, proving the adage that 90% (if not more) of life and politics is showing up. To participate caucus attendees must register in advance with a party or they can do that at the door. This is effectively day of caucus registration, making it difficult to predict turnout because of the possibility of individuals not previously registered (or predicted by the polls) deciding to attend. In 2008 239,000 Democrats and 120,000 Republicans turned out. In 2012 it was 25,000 (Obama unopposed) and 122,000 respectively.
Turnout is important because the question for 2016 is will the turnout be closer to the 2008 number (360,000) total or 2012 (147,000 total). Turnout is key for Sanders and Trump. For both to win they must generate numbers closer to the 2008 level. This would mean the Millennials, independents, and swing voters go for Sanders and the non-college blue collar (among others) show up for Trump. What will be tested on February 1, is the ability to translate pep rallies and media persona into get out the vote and actually showing up at the caucuses.
Who Lost the White Working Class?
Much has been written about why the Democrats lost the white working class voter to the Republicans? This is an issue again this year because of a great piece in the NY Times recently describing how union leaders are fretting that their rank and file might bolt to Trump if he were to get the nomination. This split in the labor vote would be a disaster for the Democratic nominee.
Lyndon Johnson declared the signing of the 1964 Civil rights Act cost the Democrats the south and the white vote. The Edsells’ Chain Reaction says the same thing. Ronald Reagan pealed off the Reagan Democrats by talking muscular and opposing affirmative action. All possibilities. But Bill Clinton did further damage by supporting NAFTA and blowing off working class America, especially the unions. Obama did that too with his race and his failure to address the economic hardships of white working class America who saw him continue to bail out the banks and not the home owners, and do little to address the loss of manufacturing jobs. Granted the Republicans too have done next to nothing to help white working class. But with neither the Democrats or Republicans having done anything to help white working class, this group of voters has been receptive to the claim that they are losing out because people of color are being helped. Yes, this is the racial card and for 40 years it has helped the Republicans, and Trump is again playing it.
I read the other day about a woman saying she loved Clinton because she was more inclusive than Sanders. Her reference was the Clinton ads showing people of color and Sanders mostly whites. What we see here are contrasting definitions of what it means to be inclusive.
In 2016 Sanders is appealing to many of the white working class again. The political messages and coalitions of Sanders and Clinton display two different concepts of inclusivity–For Sanders class is the inclusive group to unite America, for Clinton it is gender and race. We see here a battle between rival concepts of how to unite America. Moreover, as we think about their coalitions, it is important to remember that neither Clinton nor Sanders is winning 100% of their groups. Both are winning some women, liberals, and people of color. The issue is about marginals and how will each does to hold their own bases, eat into the other’s, and mobilize new voters. This too is what we shall learn on February 1.
Finally what is also surprising is how the institutional mainstream media has lined up for Clinton and against Sanders. The mainstream media however is perplexed by Trump v Cruz, opting to give Rubio its favored treatment yet also liking Trump for the ratings he produces. None of this is a surprise. Remember, Sanders is not a traditional Democrat and he talks about issues that have not be part of the mainstream in years, if ever. In the last week the social and traditional media have piled on to criticize Sanders, often unfairly. For example, there is heavy criticism of his healthcare plan (and there is room to criticize all of the plans by all the candidates) but the idea of national health care and single payer is the norm across many countries including Canada and it works very well. To hear the media and critics, one would think Sanders is the first to come up with this idea and that it is unworkable.
There has also been a media blackout of Sanders in the US, at least until recently, and a continued refusal to treat him as a serous candidate. How will the media report the results on Iowa for Tuesday? Will it be Sanders lost and he is done(if he does), or that a socialist almost beat Clinton (proving her vulnerable), or that he won and it was a fluke? For Trump, does a win legitimize his campaign or does a second place mean that he lost and that it demonstrates he has no ground game? How the media and the candidates spin Monday is even more important that actually what happens. This is part of why the Iowa Caucuses are so important, even though they should not be. They are first and they get to decide how the next stage of the 2016 presidential campaign will be framed.