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Iowa Might Have Screwed Up The Whole Nomination Process

In trying to build a forecast model of the Democratic primaries, we literally had to think about the entire process from start (Iowa) to finish (the Virgin Islands on June 6). Actually, we had to do more than that. Since the nomination process is sequential — states vote one at a time rather than all at once — we had to determine, empirically, how much the results of one state can affect the rest.

The answer in the case of Iowa is that it matters a lot. Despite its demographic non-representativeness, and the quirks of the caucuses process, the amount of media coverage the state gets makes it far more valuable a prize than you’d assume from the fact that it only accounts for 41 of the Democrats’ 3,979 pledged delegates.

More specifically, we estimate — based on testing how much the results in various states have historically changed the candidates’ position in national polls — that Iowa was the second most-important date on the calendar this year, trailing only Super Tuesday. It was worth the equivalent of almost 800 delegates, about 20 times its actual number.

Which states will produce the biggest bounces?

Expected bounce magnitude according to FiveThirtyEight’s primary model

Relative bounce magnitude
Date States Based on delegates Early state bonus Combined
Feb. 3 Iowa +3 +20 +23
Feb. 11 New Hampshire +2 +10 +12
Feb. 22 Nevada +3 +5 +8
Feb. 29 South Carolina +3 +5 +8
Mar. 3 Colorado, Alabama, Utah, Oklahoma, Vermont, Texas, Tennessee, Maine, Virginia, North Carolina, California, American Samoa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Arkansas +30 +30
Mar. 10 Mississippi, Michigan, North Dakota, Washington, Missouri, Idaho, Democrats Abroad +12 +12
Mar. 14 Northern Marianas +1 +1
Mar. 17 Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Illinois +16 +16
Mar. 24 Georgia +5 +5
Mar. 29 Puerto Rico +3 +3
Apr. 4 Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, Louisiana +5 +5
Apr. 7 Wisconsin +4 +4
Apr. 28 Rhode Island, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania +18 +18
May 2 Guam, Kansas +3 +3
May 5 Indiana +4 +4
May 12 Nebraska, West Virginia +3 +3
May 19 Kentucky, Oregon +5 +5
June 2 New Mexico, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana, District of Columbia +8 +8
June 6 Virgin Islands +1 +1

Everything was a little weird in Iowa this year, however. And there were already some signs that the Iowa bounce — which essentially results from all the favorable media coverage that winning candidates get — might be smaller than normal. Iowa was bracketed by an extremely busy news calendar: President Trump’s impeachment trial both before and after the caucuses, the Super Bowl on Sunday, the State of the Union address on Tuesday. There was not the usual climactic uptick in media coverage around Iowa. From initial indications — to the extent any information at all is reliable at this point — Democratic turnout there wound up being fairly low.

But we weren’t prepared for what actually happened, which is that — as I’m writing this at 3:15 a.m. on Tuesday — the Iowa Democratic Party literally hasn’t released any results from its caucuses. I’m not going to predict what those numbers will eventually be, although early indications are that Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and perhaps Elizabeth Warren had good results. The point is that the lead story around the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses is now — and will forever be — the colossal shitshow around the failure to release results in a timely fashion.

Maybe there will eventually be a decent-sized Iowa bounce despite all of this. But there’s a good chance that the candidates who did well in Iowa get screwed, and the candidates who did poorly there get a mulligan. To repeat: There’s very little importance in a mathematical sense to who wins 41 delegates. Iowa is all about the media narrative it produces and all about momentum, and that momentum, whoever wins, is likely to have been blunted.

Who might this help? Let’s pretend for a moment we don’t have any hints about how the results might have turned out. In fact, let’s pretend that Iowa didn’t happen at all. I reran our forecast model as though the Iowa caucuses were canceled.1 Here’s how that changed each candidate’s chances of getting a delegate majority:

How Iowa’s presence affected Democrats’ odds

Chances of winning a majority of pledged delegates per FiveThirtyEight forecast model on Feb. 3 (pre-Iowa), compared with a version of the model that skips the Iowa caucuses

Candidate As of our final PRE-IOWA SIMULATIONS ON Monday night In A HYPOTHETICAL SIMULATION WHERE Iowa didn’t exist
Biden 43% 50%
Sanders 31 24
Warren 5 5
Buttigieg 4 <1
Other <1 <1
No one 17 20

The presence of Iowa was helpful to Sanders, whose chances of winning a national delegate majority would have been 24 percent without Iowa — as compared to the 31 percent chance that he had with Iowa, as of Monday afternoon. Iowa hurt Biden, however, whose chances of a delegate majority would have been 50 percent without it, rather than 43 percent with it.

And Iowa was extremely helpful to Buttigieg, whose chances of winning the delegate majority were fairly low even with Iowa — keep in mind that he had slipped to third in polls of Iowa and fifth in national polls — but would have been virtually nonexistent (less than 1 percent) without it.

By giving the winning candidates a boost, the presence of Iowa also reduced the chance of an unstructured race and a potential brokered convention. The chance of there being no delegate majority was 17 percent without Iowa, but would have been 20 percent with it.

Granted, none of those changes — say, 24 percent versus 31 percent — are necessarily that large. But that’s partly because, as of Monday afternoon, four or five candidates appeared to have a shot at winning Iowa. For the candidate who actually won Iowa, it would have been a much bigger deal. We estimate that Sanders’s chances of a majority would have shot up to from 31 percent to 58 percent with an Iowa win, Warren’s from 5 percent to 32 percent, and Buttigieg’s from 4 percent to 22 percent.

And in some ways that still discounts Iowa’s impact, because several of the campaigns — for better or worse — built their entire strategy around the state. Would Buttigieg have been a major player in the race without Iowa? Considering his lack of support among black voters, probably not. Would candidates such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julian Castro have dropped out so soon? That’s a harder call, since Harris, Booker and Castro weren’t polling particularly well anywhere. But the Democratic field might have remained a little more diverse.

So we’ve arrived at a point of some ambivalence. On the one hand, candidates such as Buttigieg, who seemingly did well there, are liable to be injured by the muddled storylines in Iowa following the results-reporting disaster on Monday night. On the other hand, it’s not clear why Iowa was afforded so much importance in the first place, and Buttigieg possibly owed his entire presence in the campaign to this quirk in the nomination process. Nonetheless, these were the rules of the game as every candidate understood them. So if Iowa turns out not to matter very much because of the results-reporting snafu, they have every right to be upset.

To be even more blunt: The Iowa Democratic Party’s colossal screw-up in reporting results will potentially have direct effects on the outcome of the nomination process. The failure to report results will almost certainly help Biden, assuming that indications that he performed poorly in Iowa are correct, as they won’t get nearly as much media coverage. And they’ll hurt whichever candidate wins the state — most likely Sanders or Buttigieg. (Although if Sanders winds up finishing in second place or lower, he also might not mind a reduction in the importance of Iowa, especially with one of his best states, New Hampshire, coming up next.)

Furthermore, Iowa is typically a state that winnows the field. But with every candidate either having performed well there, potentially having an excuse for a disappointing finish there, or somewhere in between, it might not do that. Delaying the winnowing process would tangibly increase the chance of a contested convention.

It’s not a good situation for the Democratic Party. And it’s already too late for the damage to be entirely undone, even if Iowa eventually gets its act together.

CORRECTION (Feb. 4, 2020, 8:47 a.m.): An earlier version of this article inaccurately said that Democrats have 3,990 pledged delegates this primary cycle. They have 3,979. Therefore, if Iowa’s delegates were discounted, the remaining total would be 3,938, not 3,949.


  1. That is, assuming that Iowa doesn’t get to vote at all, and the overall number of pledged delegates was reduced to 3,938.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.