Expert Commentary

The dynamics of the Iowa caucuses: Updated scholarship and clues toward 2016

2014-2015 scholarship that provides new insights on the Iowa caucuses and suggests that the demographics of participants may be changing.

The ranks of those intending to run for president of the United States in 2016 are filling up quickly. The field of Republican candidates is especially crowded, with former Florida governor Jeb Bush and real estate mogul Donald Trump recently joining at least a dozen other hopefuls. The candidates’ first tests on the road to the party nomination will be the Iowa caucuses in February 2016 and the New Hampshire primary shortly afterward.

Since 1972 these states have played the pivotal role of leadoff presidential nominating events. Some commentators have criticized this system for giving Iowa and New Hampshire voters what they say is an unjustifiably influential role in the nomination process. This criticism is supported by research suggesting a tendency for low voter turnout and a biased electorate in early caucuses and primaries.

In the run-up to February 2016 it is worth reviewing some of the academic literature on the history and perennial myths around the Iowa caucus, as well as the crucial issue of the demographics of typical caucus goers. A 2014 study in Presidential Studies Quarterly, “The 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus and Its Effects on the Presidential Nomination Contest,” provides a valuable update on the underlying dynamics of this early contest and makes new insights on the demographics question. In the study, authors Todd Donovan of Western Washington University, David Redlawsk of Rutgers and Caroline Tolbert of the University of Iowa add to the findings presented in their 2010 book, “Why Iowa?” using data from the 2012 state caucuses. In their new study, they analyze results from a University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll and evaluate levels of media attention, as measured by the proportionate share of references to the candidates in New York Times coverage two weeks before the Iowa caucus.

Their key findings include:

  • On a range of demographic measures, “those who were likely caucus goers in 2012 were not dramatically different from the sample of Republicans who said they would not caucus. Across gender, race/ethnicity, marital status and church attendance, there are only small differences.” Ideologically, too, the caucus goers appear to be very similar to their party as a whole.
  • The researchers conclude that the high turnout in the caucuses of 2008 and 2012 moved “the aggregate demographics of the caucuses toward the general population of party identifiers who do not caucus. The point is, at a certain level of turnout, even a caucus can be fairly representative of the statewide voters it represents.”
  • The most important effect of early caucuses and primaries lies in their ability to shift media attention when candidates exceed or fail to meet expectations. Election results from 1976 to 2012 show that “shifts in media attention toward candidates after Iowa affected candidate performance in New Hampshire. Similar shifts in media attention to candidates due to results in New Hampshire predict a candidate’s overall vote share across all nomination contests.”
  • The researchers conclude that “although winning Iowa may not be a direct path to the nomination, failing to meet or beat media expectations is potentially a path to failure.”
  • For the Republican caucus in 2012 they suggest that “Santorum’s run in the 2012 nomination contest seems unimaginable if not for his unexpected strong showing in Iowa.” His practical tie with Romney “earned him a major increase in national media attention (from a 9% share of candidate mentions to 25% immediately after Iowa), and gave him fundraising momentum that allowed him to … place second behind Romney in total votes won (20%), states won (11) and delegates won.”

The authors conclude that including the 2012 data in their study “strengthen[s] the argument that Iowa matters. Whether this is a good thing or not, we leave to another time.” Both the caucus in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire “quickly alter the candidate pool and the flow of information voters receive about the candidates from the media. One need not win Iowa to win New Hampshire; nor must one win New Hampshire to win a nomination. Overall, shifts in media attention to candidates after Iowa and New Hampshire have had implications for whether a campaign is successful and, if not a winner, for how long a candidate remains in the race.” On a positive note, they argue that “the caucuses and the media frenzy that envelope … helped define the candidates, introduced them to the rest of the country, and winnowed the field.”

Related research: A 2015 study, “Who Caucuses? An Experimental Approach to Institutional Design and Electoral Participation,” by Christopher F. Karpowitz and Jeremy C. Pope of Brigham Young University, draws on the results of a survey-based experiment during the 2008 campaign to make inferences about Iowa’s general influence and impact on the electoral system: “Nominating candidates through caucuses rather than primaries not only reduces the number of participants, but also significantly affects the ideological composition of the electorate. Caucuses produce a more ideologically consistent electorate than do primaries, because policy centrists appear to avoid caucuses. This experimental finding is strongly buttressed by the observational data on Obama and Clinton voters.”


Keywords: Barack Obama, Ben Carson, Bernie Sanders, Carly Fiorina, Chris Christy, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Jim Webb, Joe Biden, Marco Rubio, Mark O’Malley, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Iowa, New Hampshire, primaries, caucuses

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