Iowa has given us more questions than answers. And perhaps the most important question is whether former Vice President Joe Biden’s poor performance there — with results still not quite finalized, he’s in fourth place with just 14.9 percent of the first-alignment vote1 — can be chalked up to Iowa-specific factors or is instead symptomatic of larger problems for his campaign.
Here’s one way to provide some perspective. Our primary model, although it mostly relies on polling, also uses a regression-based method to forecast the outcome in states where there is little or no polling. The regression tries to impute each candidate’s demographic strengths and weaknesses based on states where we do have polling. It also adjusts for the home states and regions of the candidates — so, for instance, Sen. Bernie Sanders gets a big boost in Vermont at the expense of other candidates. (You can read more about the regression method in our methodology primer.)
Here, then, is what the regression method had forecasted for Biden in each state as of our final update on Monday before the Iowa caucus. (Note the values below includes a slight adjustment to account for the fact that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not on the ballot in New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina, but is in other states.2)
Biden’s best and worst states by the “fundamentals”
Biden’s projected vote share based on demographics and geography, per FiveThirtyEight’s last forecast before the Iowa caucuses
|Rank||State||Projected vote share|
Iowa ranks as Biden’s 41st best state out of 50. The fact that its caucus electorate is fairly liberal — and extremely white — is not favorable for Biden, whose support is concentrated among older, moderate whites and African Americans. On the other hand, Iowa is fairly middle-class, which ought to be helpful for Biden. But it’s a well-below-average state for him on balance.
Still, Iowa is not so below-average for Biden that one can excuse his performance there. Our regression “thinks” that Biden should have gotten about 25 percent of the vote in Iowa. Instead, as I said, he got only about 15 percent in the first-alignment vote.
One explanation for Biden’s numbers in Iowa was the relatively strong performance of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, candidates who compete with Biden for the moderate “lane.” In fact, Buttigieg overperformed his regression-based forecast by around 8 percentage points in Iowa, while Klobuchar beat hers by 5 percentage points. (Keep in mind that the regression already accounts for the fact that Buttigieg and Klobuchar are from the Midwest, which means they overperformed more than their regional advantage would suggest.) But if you were to take a couple of points from Buttigieg and a couple more from Klobuchar, Biden’s Iowa performance would look a lot more respectable.
How Iowa results compare to demographic projections
Projected vote share for each candidate based on “fundamentals” in FiveThirtyEight’s final Democratic primary forecast before the Iowa caucuses vs. their actual first-alignment vote share
|Candidate||PROJECTED vote share||actual vote share|
But an explanation is not the same thing as an excuse. Buttigieg and Klobuchar may have done well in Iowa in part because Biden failed to give older, more moderate voters a candidate they were entirely happy about.
Of course, there are other factors that make Iowa unique. Retail campaigning takes on far more importance in the state, since candidates spend so much time there. And the ground game matters a lot given all the unusual rules in the caucuses. Neither of these are Biden strengths, necessarily. In addition, a caucus is not a secret ballot — caucusgoers can see what their neighbors are doing at all stages of the process. Mild weakness for Biden in a certain precinct could snowball if voters in the room thought Biden didn’t have a lot of support and they preemptively joined other groups.
The problem for Biden is that the next state on tap, New Hampshire, doesn’t look any better for him. In fact, the regression model has it as being an even tougher state — the 46th best state in the nation for Biden, ahead of only Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont and Indiana, which are all home states for one of the other major candidates.
Furthermore, even though the regression model has only modest expectations for Biden in New Hampshire (23 percent), he’s still underperforming the regression forecast in polls there, where he has just 14 percent of the vote, on average.
Nevada, more racially diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire and fairly working-class, figures to be more of a fair fight for Biden. Before Iowa, it ranked in the middle of the pack for Biden — the 30th best state out of 50. However, Nevada is another caucus state, and after Iowa, one wonders whether Biden is prone to systematically underperform in caucuses. Fortunately for Biden, there are far fewer caucuses in the schedule this year if he’s able to survive beyond Nevada.
South Carolina, on the other hand, is certainly a good state for Biden — the sixth best state of 50. And if he loses both New Hampshire and Nevada, expectations for Biden might be so low by the time South Carolina votes that he could actually get some credit (and a bit of a polling bounce) for winning it. For right now, though, a primary on Feb. 29 is an eternity away.
This analysis is not meant to be entirely unsympathetic to Biden. Iowa and New Hampshire generally get a lot more media coverage than Nevada and South Carolina, and so candidates who are well-suited to those states are at an advantage. Even if Iowa had gone first, in the hypothetical world where South Carolina and New Hampshire switched places on the calendar and South Carolina went second, Biden might be poised for a big comeback next week instead of what is likely to be another loss. But that isn’t the world we’re living in, and Biden’s Iowa performance was poor enough that he probably can’t blame the calendar alone.