Tuesday marked the date of the Iowa Caucus, of course not without some unexpected difficulties which have delayed the incoming result with considerable controversy and frustration. Former Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg has the upper hand trailed closely by Bernie Sanders. Former Vice President Joe Biden, widely seen as a frontrunner in the race sits in a distant 4th place behind Warren. Either way, the event is particularly notable because it commences the start of the Democratic Presidential Primaries and is the first real test of the candidates before voters, all whom seek the position to contend against President Donald Trump in November.
But what is Iowa all about? And why is it so significant? Although far from determining or predicting the end result, the Iowa caucus might be described as a “stage event” in which the message that is sent out is more crucial than the actual result. It can make or break your campaign. History shows you do not have to win it outright to be on the path to being the eventual nominee, with its delegate total being small and voting patterns being unconventional due to its unique setup. Nevertheless, if you want to prove you are a serious contender you nevertheless need to be in the game here, thus it’s not zero sum and Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren will be fairly happy based on this showing.
The Iowa caucus is different from a classic Presidential primary in that the event is not a formal closed ballot at a polling station, but instead consists of informal gatherings of Iowan residents affiliated to a particular party where they discuss and then proceed to vote on the candidates, thus making the result more community influenced. With Iowa being a largely rural and sparsely populated state with only 3 million residents, the caucus does not hold much weight in terms of determining the actual result and the delegates of which are on offer, but nevertheless because it is traditionally always the first vote for both parties, it becomes decisive in setting a broader narrative on who the major contenders are.
Because of this, an outright victory in the Iowa caucus is not essential to the contending candidates, but a good performance matters and a poor performance is likely to derail your campaign. For example, the Republican version of the Iowa Caucus, the winning candidate did not actually succeed in becoming the party nominee for 20 years. With Iowa’s Republican voters being rural evangelical Christians, the given poll has been biased in favour of candidates with a socially conservative outlook. In 2016, Trump himself failed to win it, being pipped by the evangelical Ted Cruz. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost it to Rick Sanctorum, also a strong Christian candidate and then in 2008, John McCain lost it to Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee. Nevertheless, all the eventual nominees were leading contenders and those who were not dropped out shortly thereafter.
Now for the Democrats, the eventual nominee has a more extensive record of winning the caucus, with Hilary Clinton having won it 2016, Obama in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004. Still, an assessment of each past race finds that it was a close call, repeating the higher importance of simply “doing well” in the primary to be a serious contender than having to win it. Still, this year’s Iowa caucus is unique for the fact that there is a much larger field of candidates and in addition, it is proving to be a much more open game with polling margins between them all being much closer. Therefore it is not likely to predict the eventual nominee, but simply establish who is amongst the frontrunners and who is not.
Stepping aside last night’s delay and controversy, the results are good news for former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and overwhelmingly disappointing for Joe Biden, Andrew Yang and all the rest. The top three are likely to be established as major players, meaning the upcoming primaries will be open game and may go in any direction. Whilst Biden is unlikely to quit and give up at this point, nevertheless this result will prove damaging to his brand and he will need to score a decisive victory quickly to stay in the game. His team will point to the fact that John McCain finished 4th in 2008 in the Iowa caucus and still became the nominee, but this is a rare occurrence follows on from the fact his campaign was already losing momentum to Bernie to Sanders.
Thus, the Iowa caucus is a magnificent beginning to a long process. It does not affirm anything pertaining to the final result, there can be surprises, twists and turns. Nevertheless, as the first and most anticipated event, failure here can prove costly.