Our Future Will Be Shaped By the Outcome of the Iowa Caucuses

It’s possible that the winner of next week’s Iowa caucuses will be the first choice of fewer than one in four Democrats. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, Bernie Sanders currently leads the pack with 22.6 percent. Their forecast has Sanders pulling in 27.9 percent, but that’s only after he receives some reassigned votes from candidates who don’t clear the 15 percent minimum threshold in some caucuses.

They project that four candidates will win delegates in the Hawkeye State. Biden is polling about even with Sanders at 22.3 percent, followed by Pete Buttigieg at 17.1 percent and Elizabeth Warren at 14 percent. Among the rest, only Amy Klobuchar is showing any pulse, but her eight percent rating is far below the minimum threshold, and most of her votes will probably be reallocated.

So, as far as the delegates go, the projection is Sanders 12.8, Biden 12.5, Buttigieg 8.5, and Warren 5.3.

Statistically, this would amount to a four-way tie. And, based on the difficulty of polling the Iowa caucuses and the traditional late volatility in these contests, it’s quite possible that the final order could be scrambled or even reversed. In 2012, Rick Santorum rocketed to the top in the last days from a position about as weak as what Klobuchar is showing now, so she shouldn’t be counted out.

Still, I think it’s safe to say that the media will portray a first-place finish quite differently from a fourth-place finish, even if only a few points separate the two candidates and if there’s no significant difference in how many delegates they’re awarded. It’s easy to see why an endorsement from the Des Moines Register could be immensely valuable to Elizabeth Warren.

It’s also very possible that Trump’s impeachment lawyers could change history by using their time less to defend the president than to attack Joe Biden.

The second day of the president’s opening arguments in the impeachment trial took a sharp turn, when Trump attorneys Pam Bondi and Eric Herschmann spent a significant portion of their time on the Senate floor arguing that Biden should be investigated for corruption.

Bondi primarily focused on Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and his role on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma while his father was vice president and in charge of Ukraine matters. Trump’s team has presented no evidence that Biden used his role as vice president to benefit his son nor alleged anything improper other than the “appearance of a conflict.”

But Senate Republicans used the concerted attack on Biden to raise questions about his political viability.

“Iowa caucuses are this next Monday evening and I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters, those Democratic caucus goers, will they be supporting vice president Biden at this point?” asked Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Trump decided to use Ukraine to attack Biden at a time when Biden was clearly polling the best against him in hypothetical one-on-one matchups. It may be that the impeachment trial is doing what President Zelensky would not: unfairly tar Biden and knock him out of his frontrunner status.

Of course, I’m not sure that Iowa Democrats will react the way that the Republicans hope. They may rally around Biden precisely because he’s being attacked, or because it makes it look that Trump fears him the most. All I know is that tiny differences in voter sentiment can have enormous consequences.

It shouldn’t be this way. The media should really do a better job of explaining how inconsequential it is to win 13 delegates for first place compared to five delegates for fourth. They should point out that no candidate who is preferred by only a quarter of caucus-goers can really be considered a frontrunner. And what does it really mean that a few thousand votes separate four candidates in a mostly white rural state? The results from Los Angeles County in California will have vastly more statistical significance, and they’ll come from a more representative cross-section of the Democratic Party.

Yet, we’ll all be on pins and needles waiting to see who the big winner and loser is in Iowa, and everyone will talk about all the errors and misjudgments that were made and why the loser’s campaign was doomed from the start. It’s all foolishness.

It’s not even guaranteed that the election night delegate winner will be awarded the most delegates. They might drop out later and see their delegates reassigned. They may see their delegates poached by a better-organized candidate, as happened in 2012 when Ron Paul wound up with almost all of Iowa’s delegates despite coming in third on election night.

Yes, indeed, you would have never known it in all the hype leading up to Iowa, but their caucuses have “practically no effect” on who will get the delegates from the Hawkeye state at the Republican National Convention. In 2012, Iowa had 28 delegates at the convention, and according to the New York Times, Ron Paul got 22 of them, Romney got five, and Rick Santorum got zero. One vote is listed as undetermined but probably went for Romney.

Ron Paul achieved this by focusing on the real contest, which actually takes place later in the year at county and state party conventions. This is why it is entirely accurate to call the caucuses a “beauty contest” but horribly misleading to suggest that the voters who turn out to provide “Iowa’s Republican Party a sense of the voters’ thinking” have any efficacy whatsoever over who will represent them at the convention.

I find it frustrating that the future of the country could be dramatically altered depending on who is perceived to have won a beauty contest in Iowa. But that’s the situation we’re in, and the smallest of factors could have a tremendous impact on how the candidates finish next week.

Isn’t this system great?

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com