On top of that, the apparent Iowa frontrunners, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are neck and neck when you average all polls, and two other candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, are also poised to take a share of the delegates. As a result, even though the press will crown a “winner,” that contender will likely emerge with a lead of just one to two delegates over his or her nearest rival—a minuscule figure on the road to the 1,990 delegates needed to secure the nomination.
The importance of Iowa isn't entirely symbolic, though. The most important role it’s played in the past is to winnow the field by pushing the candidates who turn in weak performances out of the race and leaving, say, three or four top-tier names to duke it out.
This year is a little different, though, in that a lot of the middle-of-the-pack senators and governors who’d ordinarily drop out after Iowa have already bailed. Piled up behind the big four candidates this year are mostly billionaires and assorted others running to make a point, none of whom have day jobs that they need to get back to. It’s therefore possible we won’t even see much post-Iowa winnowing this year, though there’s a decent chance we’ll see the departure of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, whom most people seem not to realize is still in the race.
The other important thing that Iowa does is create “momentum” for its winner, which can set the tone for future primaries. But “momentum” is vague and inconsistent; sometimes it’s a big deal, as it was for John Kerry in 2004. Other times, it’s not much of a thing at all—as in 2016, when Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory in Iowa was only the first tentative step in a long trudge in which the candidates traded demographically predictable victories. It’s quite possible, in fact, that we’ll see almost the exact same pattern this year, with a narrow victory for either leading candidate in Iowa followed by a sizable Sanders win in New Hampshire, a narrow Biden edge in Nevada, and a Biden romp in South Carolina.
As for the caucuses themselves—and all subsequent primaries—the most important thing to remember is that a candidate must clear a 15% threshold in order to win any delegates at all. Unlike in the Republican presidential primaries, there are no winner-take-all states. That 15% threshold applies both to delegates that are assigned on a statewide basis and to delegates that are assigned at the congressional district level.
Here’s the final delegate breakdown for Iowa this year, according to the website The Green Papers:
- 9 at-large statewide delegates
- 5 statewide delegates made up of party leaders and elected officials (aka “PLEO” delegates), allocated in the same way as the at-large delegates
- 7 delegates in the 1st Congressional District
- 7 delegates in the 2nd Congressional District
- 8 delegates in the 3rd Congressional District
- 5 delegates in the 4th Congressional District
Don’t confuse the PLEO delegates with the state’s unpledged delegates, who are better known as superdelegates, even though the superdelegates are precisely what you’d think of as party leaders and elected officials. PLEO delegates are allocated based on statewide totals, not on anyone’s individual whims, and they are pledged to specific candidates just like all other delegates except the superdelegates.
Those superdelegates, by contrast, are free to choose to vote at the national convention in Milwaukee as they wish. Iowa’s eight superdelegates are its five DNC members plus its three Democratic House members: Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, both of whom are Biden endorsers, and Dave Loebsack, who is a Buttigieg supporter.
Circling back to that 15% threshold, it also applies to the individual precinct-level caucuses Iowans are conducting Monday night—all 1,678 of them, as well as 87 so-called satellite caucuses. That’s crucial because it underpins the concept of viability, which guides how all of these caucuses work.
In a traditional primary (and many caucuses), you simply cast your ballot and the votes are totaled. In Iowa, by contrast, each candidate’s supporters gather in a designated area of their caucus space, which can be anything from a school gym to a public library. Once everyone has settled on a spot (including an area for uncommitted voters), a tally is taken, known as the first alignment—the first of three sets of results you’ll see on Monday night.
A second round will then unfold. Candidates who hit 15% in the first round are considered viable, and their backers are committed to that candidate and can’t change sides—a new rule for 2020. (These folks can, however, leave the caucus site altogether, and their votes will remain undisturbed.)
Hopefuls who fail to hit 15% of those assembled, meanwhile, are judged nonviable, but their supporters have several choices: 1) They can swing their support to one of the candidates who did hit 15% (which most do); 2) they can vote “uncommitted”; 3) they can join forces with backers of other nonviable candidates to reach the 15% threshold for one of those candidates; or 4) they can storm off in a huff and not cast a second-round vote. At the end of this round, a second tally, called the final alignment, is recorded.
That name also points to another new rule this year: Only this single additional round of rejiggering is permitted, whereas in the past, multiple rounds were possible. But the ability for voters to reallocate their preferences remains critical, particularly for Buttigieg and Warren, who are hanging right around the 15% level in averages of state-level polling (though, of course, not all precincts will necessarily mirror these statewide percentages). If a candidate falls just short in a given precinct, supporters of contenders who are far from viability, or those are began the night uncommitted, can help nudge campaigns over that 15% hurdle and into viability. Accordingly, Warren in particular has begun focusing on second-choice voters in recent days.
The real wild card in all this is Amy Klobuchar, who is currently polling around 10%. That by itself is not enough to get delegates, but it’s possible that, with reallocations, she could also squeak over the line in a lot of precincts—perhaps enough to net some delegates. Having at least something delegate-wise to show for her efforts in Iowa may be make-or-break for Klobuchar as to whether she decides to continue in the primary.
And whether or not Klobuchar squeaks over the 15% hurdle after second-round allocations could have some trickle-down effects in terms of how many delegates all the other candidates receive. For instance, among the nine statewide at-large delegates, any of these permutations are possible:
- Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar (just barely) all clear 15%: 2 Sanders, 2 Biden, 2 Buttigieg, 2 Warren, 1 Klobuchar.
- Sanders (with an edge), Biden, Buttigieg, and Warren all clear 15%: 3 Sanders, 2 Biden, 2 Buttigieg, 2 Warren.
- Only Sanders, Biden, and Buttigieg clear 15%: 3 Sanders, 3 Biden, 3 Buttigieg.
In many states, as the primaries progress, we’ll see major demographic differences among the state’s various congressional districts, which means that different candidates will have strengths in different areas. For instance, in Michigan, Biden could win handily in the Detroit region, which is home to many African American voters, while Sanders might run up the score in the Ann Arbor area, where you have a lot of college students.
But compared with Michigan, Iowa has far fewer congressional districts, and they’re pretty similar demographically to one other. Iowa’s 4th District in the state’s western half, which elects Steve King, is much more conservative overall, but it’s still close to the others in terms of race, age, and education:
- Iowa: 85% white/4% black/3% Asian/6% Hispanic; 20% 20-34 years/17% 65+ years.
- IA-01: 88% white/4% black/2% Asian/4% Hispanic; 19% 20-34 years/18% 65+ years.
- IA-02: 85% white/4% black/2% Asian/6% Hispanic; 20% 20-34 years/17% 65+ years.
- IA-03: 83% white/4% black/4% Asian/7% Hispanic; 20% 20-34 years/15% 65+ years.
- IA-04: 87% white/2% black/2% Asian/7% Hispanic; 20% 20-34 years/19% 65+ years.
As a result, we may not see much variation among congressional districts in how the candidates perform. For example, it’s possible that the seven delegates in Iowa’s 1st and 2nd Districts will be allocated at exactly the same ratio that they’re allocated statewide, e.g., 2 for Sanders, 2 for Biden, 2 for Buttigieg, and 1 for Warren.
Finally, there’s the matter of what data you’ll actually see as the night unfolds. Iowa has been notorious for being extremely opaque about what’s happening as votes report. Believe it or not, results in the past have never actually shown how many individual votes each candidate has won. Instead, they’ve only tallied the so-called state delegate equivalents, which is the estimated number of delegates to Iowa’s state convention in June won by each candidate. (It’s at that convention that the state’s 41 delegates to the national convention will be selected.)
This year, though, thanks in part to pressure for greater transparency brought by the DNC, we’ll all see some more detailed information. The Associated Press (which is the source we’ll be relying on at Daily Kos) will report three categories: total number of votes for the first alignment; total number of votes for the final alignment; and then the total number of state delegate equivalents. The New York Times will also report the number of pledged delegates to the national convention for each candidate.
You’ll therefore be able to see both the actual vote totals for the first time, as well as the delegate-based bottom line, though it might take until the next day or even longer to know how those caucus-level delegates translate into the 41 delegates that really matter. Of course, more information might be great, but at the same time it might muddy the waters even further if these various metrics show different leaders. For what it’s worth, media outlets such as the AP and The New York Times say they will call a winner based on whoever leads with state delegate equivalents, as they have in years past.
But that may not be worth a whole lot. Despite the desire to crown a winner, the difference in delegates between the leader and the runner-up (and perhaps other finishers as well) is likely to be small—which means we’ll be back once more to that long slog.
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