TCS Daily


The Viewer's Guide to the Iowa Caucus

By Christopher C. Hull - January 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Every four years, the presidential primary pulls on high boots and heads into the frozen cornfields of Iowa looking for a nominee -- or rather, more commonly, looking for those who will not be the nominee. No candidate since the post-Watergate Democratic primary reforms has become president without finishing at least third in the Iowa Caucus.

This year, the contest should not disappoint. The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll released over the weekend showed the closest contest in at least 20 years. That said, like me I imagine you're already tired of hearing, "Organization is the key!" repeated endlessly in Caucus coverage. Platitudes about farmers (or heading into the frozen cornfields of Iowa) go only so far in describing the intricate event the country is about to witness.

Accordingly, below are some hard facts about the Caucus that will help viewers go beyond the surface coverage, the stand-ups and the stagecraft. It is intended to provide perspective for voyeurs, but also to aid political observers working to put today's Caucus in context.

1. Tracking Polls: How Wrong Are They, and How Should they be Interpreted?

We will be treated to a welter of tracking polls today, all with appropriate caveats about statistical margins of error. And as often as they are repeated, someone will say that polls in Iowa are unreliable because organization dwarfs the importance of popularity.

But how far wrong are Iowa polls? The answer is that on average, since the 1988 Republican and Democratic Caucuses, the Iowa polls have been off by an average of 4 points per candidate. That's not the same as a four-point margin of error, of course. A margin of error means that if we repeated the polling calls ad infinitum, if the number we obtained was right we would expect that 95% of the time we'd get a number inside that margin. Being wrong by an average of four points is a great deal worse.

To interpret the polls apply the Yepsen factor: David Yepsen, Des Moines Register political columnist and dean of the Iowa Caucus press corps, says that organization can count for as much as, you guessed it, a four percent shift from poll strength. (Below we'll talk about measuring two aspects of organization: union strength, where Gephardt is strongest, and online strength, where of course Dean leads.)

With those apologies in place, below is Zogby International's tracking information for the past 9 days, including calls made just last night:


Jan 16-18

Jan 15-17

Jan 14-16

Jan 13-15

Jan 12-14

Jan 11-13

Jan 10-12

Jan 9-11

Jan 8-12



Kerry

25

24

23

24

22

21

17

16

15



Dean

22

23

22

19

21

24

28

26

25



Edwards

21

18

18

17

17

15

14

12

14



Gephardt

18

19

19

19

21

21

23

23

23



Clark

2

3

3

3

3

3

2

2

3



Kucinich

2

2

2

3

3

2

3

3

2



Lieberman

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

2

3



Sharpton

0.1

0.1

0.2

0.1

0.1

0.1

0.1

0.1

0.1



Undecided

9

10

11

13

11

13

12

14

14



Source: Zogby International, www.zogby.com, 1/19/04. Monday, January 19th, is the date of actual caucus voting in Iowa. Zogby International conducted telephone interviews of a random sampling of 501 likely caucus voters statewide over a rolling three-day period. All calls were made from Zogby International headquarters in Utica, N.Y., from Friday (1/16/04) thru Sunday (1/18/04). The margin of error is +/- 4.5%. Slight weights were added to party, age, education, union, and gender to more accurately reflect the voting population. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.

According to pollster John Zogby, "The story here is that Kerry had a huge day (29%) on Sunday alone. He carries his lead into the caucuses. He will probably be on top in Monday's entrance poll. Edwards finished strong and Dean bounced back. Only Gephardt seems to have faded on this last day."

And here is the latest, old reliable "Iowa Poll" by the Des Moines Register, for a less up-to-date but likely more home-town view of what's going on:

Source: Jan 17, 2004, Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, http://miva.dmregister.com/miva/cgi-bin/miva?extras/iowapoll/poll.mv+file=prez0401, "Iowa Poll Finds Surge by Kerry, Edwards." Iowa Poll. Based on interviews conducted Jan. 13-16 with 606 likely Democratic caucus participants. * Carol Moseley Braun withdrew from the race on Thursday. Her name was dropped from the candidate list during polling on Thursday and Friday nights.

One last caveat about Iowa polls: they fail to capture the state-wide nature of the Caucus. Winning 100% of Des Moines and Iowa City would be nice, but the number of delegates is determined by how broadly a candidate wins throughout the 1,993 precincts. Edwards' support, for instance, is heavily concentrated in a few areas, which could be a major stumbling block tonight.

Past Polling and Caucus Results

Source: Hugh Winebrenner, The Iowa Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, 2nd Ed., 1998, Ames, Iowa State University Press.

2. Weather: How Much of a Factor is it, and Who Benefits?

To see just how cold the Hawkeye state is right now, go to www.weather.com and plug in 50319 for the Iowa Capitol's ZIP Code. Des Moines' temperature at 9 am this morning was 2 degrees with a windchill of minus 11. That said, there is currently no snow anywhere in the state, which should aid turnout somewhat. Here's what the implications are if the temperature stays bone-chilling, and especially if any snow develops by 6:30 pm Central Time tonight:

  • Gephardt: Praying for a Blizzard. Don't buy the spin that since Dean has the largest organization, he benefits most from wintry weather today. Dean's organization is demographically younger and less battle-tested, and Gephardt's, made up mainly of professional organizers from 21 industrial unions, is far more predictable and reliable. Gephardt benefits the lower the mercury plunges.

  • Dean: Hoping they Bundle Up. We'll find out today just how strong Dean's organization is, but it's obviously very large compared to Kerry's and especially Edwards'. Thus even though weather helps Gephardt more, Dean still benefits relative to the other two frontrunners the colder it gets.
  • Kerry: Getting Warmer. Kerry's newest support is largely unorganized, despite his large intact operation, because the new folks came in the last few days of the Iowa campaign. That means the warmer it is, the more of the new, untrained supporters will turn out. Weather may mean the difference between winning and losing to him today. That said, Kerry's Iowa organization has always been underrated relative to its actual strength, so don't rule him out on that count.
  • Edwards: Make it North Carolina Hot. The man without virtually any seasoned Iowa organization benefits most the warmer and clearer it gets today. His surge of support could be stifled by blasts of cold air.

3. Entry Poll Results and the "Viability Threshold"

Before 6:30 pm CT when the Caucuses start, news organizations will poll Iowans as they enter 50 precinct meetings. Democratic party officials have asked that those results not be released right away, but TV talking heads will likely only pause before releasing them.


Regardless, those first results have a crucial flaw: they do not account for the "viability threshold" built into the Democratic Iowa caucus process. Simply put, in each of the 1,993 precincts every candidate needs to reach at least 15% support or those supporters must re-gather and caucus for someone else. With a tough 8-way race, this Caucus math will play a critical role in today's contest, because even frontrunners will fall below the 15% threshold in many single precincts.

At first glance this appears to advantage Kerry and Edwards relative to the first entry poll results. After all, they are the most popular second choices, as the attached Zogby polling shows:

Second Choice Candidate %


1/16-18

1/15-17

1/14-16

1/13-15

1/12-14

1/11-13

1/10-12

1/9-11

1/8-10

Kerry

25

26

25

24

21

21

21

21

22

Edwards

21

20

18

16

15

16

15

13

12

Gephardt

15

15

14

15

17

18

15

15

17

Dean

13

15

17

16

17

15

17

21

20

Clark

5

5

4

4

4

4

5

5

6

Kucinich

3

2

2

2

2

3

3

2

1

Lieberman

1

1

2

3

2

1

1

2

2

Sharpton

1

1

0.2

.1

0.1

0.1

0.1

0.1

0.1

Not Sure

17

15

16

19

19

20

21

20

19

Source: Zogby International, www.zogby.com, 1/19/04. May not add up to 100%, due to rounding.

What's more, Dean appears to be in big trouble once the horse-trading begins. Few Iowans who haven't settled on Dean are considering picking him up mid-way through the caucus.

However, remember that campaigns will play that re-gathering process strategically -- to the extent they are well-organized. Every campaign will have made up its mind what its second choice is after last night's tracking, GOTV calls and final "hard counts" of supporters are in. That is, the Gephardt, Edwards, Kerry and Dean campaigns now know who they most want to help other than their own candidate.

For instance, Kerry might want to help Gephardt, considering him least likely to top him in Iowa, while Gephardt might want to help Edwards for the same reason. And more global considerations enter the calculation -- Dean's camp, for example, may want to boost the candidate it considers the least threatening in New Hampshire. These second choices could make up as much as a third of caucus voters in a race this crowded and tight (that's just a guess), so they could badly undercut the broad-based entry polling's results.

Implementing the campaign's decision on second-choices is only as good as the campaign's organization. The ability to communicate with one's caucus-goers absolutely determines one's ability to steer them to a correct second-choice. Otherwise Iowans enter the precinct meeting blind, likely to go to whomever they actually favor second -- often the last thing the campaign wants them to do.

The implications are especially stark for those with poor organizations. Assuming a candidate is doing well in entry-polling, remember that a thin organization will be unable to tell those supporters to whom to switch if necessary. Edwards supporters in particular may end up bleeding into camps his campaign desperately wants them to avoid. By contrast, most of Dean, Gephardt and Kerry's supporters will know their campaigns' preferred second choice, and be able to put a spear through those they fear most during the caucus process.

One wild card: The Kucinich team's second choice, publicly announced, is Edwards. Because Kucinich appears to have a good network through his supporters, but will fall under in precincts 15% throughout the state, that decision may give the young senator a boost his national campaign badly needs.

...and all that will take place after the entry polls are announced.

4. Final Results and What They Mean

Whenever the Iowa Democratic Party announces its results -- and if the new, computerized system the IDP is trying doesn't work, it'll be late tonight or tomorrow -- here are contests-within-the-contest to keep in mind:

· The Trial of Online vs. Old-Style Organization. One public Internet supporter site indicates that Dean has an independent online following seven times the size of Kerry's, 39 times Edwards', and 119 times the size of Gephardt's. If Dean's online supporters will turn out on a cold Iowa night to support him, it has important implications for the rest of the campaign. (Source: www.MeetUp.com)

· The Clash of the Old and New Democratic Parties. Though unions endorsing Gephardt have 95,000 members in Iowa, unions endorsing Dean 18,000, and unions endorsing Kerry 1,700, claims abound that the old industrial unions are in decline. The Caucus results, especially the relative strength of Gephardt and Dean, should demonstrate the relative clout of Dean's public employee union base against Gephardt's 21 industrial unions, one way or the other. That result will also measure the strength of the new "Deaniac" youth surge relative to old-line labor Democratic organizers. And don't forget that Kerry's 1700 union supporters include the well-oiled Firefighters' machine. (Source: USA Today, Dean, Gephardt toiling hard for labor vote, p. A4, Jan. 15, 2004)

· Dean's Fundraising Edge vs. Kerry and Edwards' Surge. The last time a candidate with a percentage fundraising edge the size of Dean's at Caucus time failed to reach the nomination was 24 years ago (Crane in 1980, who led Reagan in fundraising in late 1979). The others with this much of an edge were Mondale in 1984, Clinton in 1992, Bush in 2000, and Dukakis in 1988. Note that of those four, only two won the Iowa Caucuses, though 1992 was a special case with Sen. Harkin running for president. (Source: Federal Election Commission records)

Regardless of the result, the Iowa Caucus this year is one for the ages -- all ages, young and old. Those interested in the inner workings of hard-core politics are going to get more than a glimpse tonight.

Christopher Hull is writing his dissertation on the Iowa Caucus as a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University's Department of Government. He served three years as the Majority Staff Director of the Iowa Senate. During that time he was named a Polk County precinct party committeeman (1999-2000) and as such he organized and ran the 2000 Caucus for Des Moines' 69th Precinct.


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