I’ve written repeatedly over the years about my contempt for the Iowa caucuses, less because the state is demographically unrepresentative of the nation or because caucuses are inherently undemocratic than because the whole process is basically a sham. The main problem is that it’s more of a beauty contest than an actual result; the delegates that are “won” on caucus night are not really committed to any particular candidate. But even if the caucus results were iron-clad and binding, the secondary problem is that the media treats the caucuses as much more important than they are. The truth is that relatively few delegates are at stake, and a minuscule number of voters will actually participate.
Yet, a typical pre-take on the results looks like this:
“No one has more at stake tonight than Joe Biden. A first-place finish in the Iowa caucuses here could put him the driver’s seat to win the Democratic nomination; a fourth-place finish could end his political career.”
“No other Top 4 Democrat has that wide range of possibilities.”
Two more questions: “Are there really only two tickets out of Iowa — with Michael Bloomberg purchasing the third? Think about it: The only realistic third-place finish that would be a positive story for that candidate is Amy Klobuchar’s.”
“And if Sanders really does win Iowa, does he start acting like a front-runner? How he declares victory, if he wins, will matter.”
You can read a more sober take from the folks at Daily Kos Elections who also explain how the caucuses actually work. The reason Iowa is important has less to do with who comes in first or fourth than in how those results track with expectations. A better-than-expected result is a victory, while a disappointingly narrow win can effectively be a momentum-killing loss. This is superficial because of how the media chooses to report things, but the actual mechanism is that campaigns need a big new influx of cash after Iowa if they’re going to be able to maintain and grow their organizations for the many contests to come. If they get negative news coverage out of Iowa, the money won’t be forthcoming and they’ll have to drop out for lack of funds rather than for any mathematical reason. Their staffers will either latch on to other, better-paying campaigns or they’ll go home to work on state and local races.
Even this logic doesn’t work all the time anymore. Newt Gingrich, for example, sustained a long campaign in 2012 simply because he had one incredibly generous oligarch funding his Super PAC. Actual billionaires, like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, can stay in the race as long as they’re willing to spend their own money.
So, Iowa actually is very important, but this derives from the media overhyping the results and the public then swallowing their analysis whole.
In the above example, we are told that only two candidates will remain viable after Monday’s caucuses, in addition to Michael Bloomberg (who isn’t even competing there). We’re also told that only Amy Klobuchar can exceed expectations by coming in third place and thereby claim some positive news coverage. Conversely, we’re told that Biden could see his entire political career destroyed if he doesn’t wind up in the top three. And as a cherry on top, we’re informed that Bernie Sanders could blow the positive coverage he ought to get from winning if he “doesn’t act like a front-runner” in his victory speech.
This is not nonsense exactly, but it’s also not good or helpful analysis. For starters, it’s short on details. It doesn’t explain why some candidates are in one position and other candidates are in another. But it also seems illogical on its face. Elizabeth Warren is polling in fourth place in Iowa. Is she really doomed if she finishes third? Will she fold up her campaign before New Hampshire? What would a fourth-place finish mean for Sanders, the consensus frontrunner to win the caucuses? Yes, this would not be “a positive story” for him, but would it necessarily knock him out of the top two going forward?
This analysis doesn’t make an effort to look forward other than to anticipate Bloomberg’s entry in the race. Biden is still looking like a likely winner in South Carolina, even if his once commanding lead is dwindling. Wouldn’t a win there rekindle his hopes? It appears that Tom Steyer is putting his hope in South Carolina, too, so should we say he doesn’t have a ticket to stay in the contest if he doesn’t finish in the top two in Iowa? Meanwhile, the demographics of Pete Buttigieg’s support suggest that he’ll do better in Iowa than he does in more diverse states on Super Tuesday. Doesn’t he have more at stake on Monday than Biden?
Instead of any effort to understand what the race will look like after the results are in from Iowa, we are told that it will involve two unidentified candidates, plus Bloomberg.
Even if this were a likely outcome, the media should be doing more to prevent it from happening than to bring it about through the force of their coverage. The Iowa caucuses should not have this kind of winnowing influence for a whole host of reasons that vary from the small number of voters and unrepresentative makeup compared to the rest of the country, to the oversized influence of money and oligarchs, to the mathematical insignificance of the results, to the fact that the actual winner may not actually be awarded their fair share of delegates at Iowa’s state party conventions.
In some sense, it’s fair that candidates need to win in order to maintain their candidacies, but this analysis is ready to deny Sanders even this kind of coverage if they don’t like his demeanor at his victory speech.
The truth is that some candidates need a good result on Monday more than others because they are low on money or because they don’t have funds to pour into their own campaign. The frontrunners Biden and Sanders have more to lose in the expectations game, but they’re also more viable for the long haul. It’s actually quite likely that more than 70 percent of the caucus participants will be voting against the eventual declared winner, especially on the first ballot, and the small number of delegates will be split three or four ways, making the result basically a wash as far as who will have the lead.
But most of the stories you read about Iowa will tell a much more dramatic story. That’s why every four years I am newly infuriated by this process.