It consists of a tiny and unrepresentative sample of voters in a small, overwhelmingly white state. Its importance depends almost entirely on the perceptions of the political elites and the news media. The spin after the vote often matters as much as the vote itself. Its rules can be surprisingly informal, to the point that baked goods are sometimes exchanged for the promise of a vote. And it has a terrible track record at predicting the GOP’s presidential nominee.
If you’ve been following the news, you might assume that I’m referring to the Iowa Straw Poll, which the Iowa Republican Party decided to cancel on Friday. But all the points I raised above also apply to the Iowa caucus:
- In 2012, around 120,000 Iowans voted in the Republican caucuses. That’s only about 20 percent of Iowa’s registered Republicans and 5 percent of its overall population. It’s also only about 0.2 percent of the 60 million people who would eventually vote Republican for president in the United States that November.
- The Iowa caucuses haven’t always been so self-evidently important. The Democratic caucuses were all but ignored by the press in 1992 because Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was running and took 77 percent of the vote. They were also a relatively obscure event before 1980, but their reputation was buoyed when Jimmy Carter performed well in the 1976 Democratic caucuses and went on to win the nomination.
- Historically, the share of the vote that a candidate receives in Iowa doesn’t matter very much in predicting how he’ll perform in New Hampshire and subsequent states. But how he performs relative to his polls — in other words, relative to expectations — matters quite a lot. In the 1984 Democratic caucus, Gary Hart got hugely favorable press attention and dramatically boosted his standing in New Hampshire despite finishing with 17 percent of the Iowa vote to Walter Mondale’s 49 percent, all because he won the expectation game.
- In the Iowa Democratic caucuses, voters literally gather together to express their support for a candidate, and “precinct leaders attempt to corral as many people into their corner as possible, using such enticements as food — cookies, cake, or even sandwiches,” according to one academic study. The Republican caucuses don’t use this process but are fairly informal, too. Some precincts still vote by show of hands, for instance. And the votes are nonbinding for delegate selection.
- While the Democratic caucuses have a decent track record at picking winners,1 the Iowa GOP caucuses don’t. In competitive Republican nomination contests,2 the eventual nominee has won the Iowa caucus just 2 of 6 times. That’s not really any better than the Iowa Straw Poll, which was 2 for 7.3
|ELECTION||IOWA STRAW POLL WINNER||IOWA GOP CAUCUS WINNER||EVENTUAL GOP NOMINEE|
|1980||G.H.W. Bush||G.H.W. Bush||Reagan|
|2000||G.W. Bush||G.W. Bush||G.W. Bush|
Iowa Republicans are aware of these parallels, which (as this excellent reporting from the Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacobs describes) may have been some of their motivation to cancel the straw poll. If the Iowa Straw Poll seems too much like a political carnival and too rarely picks viable candidates, “it’s a pretty easy leap in terms of logic to take the next step and say the caucuses aren’t important,” said Drew Ivers, chairman of Ron Paul’s 2012 Iowa campaign, in an interview with Jacobs.
But it’s also important to consider the straw poll — and the caucuses — from the standpoint of Republicans outside of Iowa. The entire presidential nomination process is largely controlled by the parties. Voters play an important role in vetting and vetoing candidates, especially when there are too many candidates whom party leaders find acceptable or too few. But both formal (state and national Republican party organizations) and informal (Republican elected officials, donors, operatives and commentators) party networks have an almost unlimited set of tools at their disposal to influence events. They set the schedule for primaries and caucuses and control the method of delegate selection. They can direct financial resources and favorable media attention toward a candidate or “nuke” him when he becomes a threat to a preferred nominee. And they can nudge the scales when officiating disputes: It wasn’t an accident that Iowa Republicans quickly and prematurely declared the establishment-backed Mitt Romney as the winner of their 2012 caucus and then only reluctantly acknowledged that it had been Rick Santorum instead after an error in vote tabulations was uncovered.
From the standpoint of the parties, the purpose of the Iowa Straw Poll is not necessarily to pick winners but to narrow (or “winnow”) the field. (In some years, this applies to the Iowa caucus too.4) In that sense, the biggest danger from the straw poll is not a “false positive” — an insurgent candidate like Michele Bachmann winning when she has little shot at the nomination — but rather a “false negative,” meaning an establishment candidate like Tim Pawlenty making a big bet on the straw poll and coming up with a disappointing performance, as happened four years ago.
But given that Pawlenty’s case was often cited as a reason to discontinue the straw poll, we should ask how much it actually mattered. Did it really eliminate him from contention in the 2012 race? And if so, was this really such a bad outcome for Republicans? Pawlenty’s campaign had a series of problems — notably, poor fundraising and an inability to draw contrasts between him and other GOP candidates. And he was polling in the low single digits nationally at the time of the straw poll. If the straw poll hadn’t provoked him to end his campaign, some other event might have just as easily.
Besides, it might be argued, party leaders can choose to interpret the straw poll results however they like. In 2012, for instance, they might have argued to the press that Pawlenty’s third-place finish (behind Bachmann and another insurgent candidate, Ron Paul) was a sign that he was the most viable establishment candidate and had some momentum in Iowa.
What Republicans seem to have concluded is that the straw poll was producing more noise than signal. Especially with more Republican candidates avoiding active participation in the straw poll, it was becoming less clear how its results might be interpreted.
In other words, it’s one thing to have a miscalibrated signal; it’s another to have a signal that you’re not sure how to read. In the Iowa caucuses, at least, Republicans (and the mainstream media) have some sense for how to interpret the results: Very conservative candidates, especially Christian conservatives, are expected to do well. More moderate and establishment-backed candidates are graded on a curve, although they won’t necessarily be forgiven for skipping Iowa entirely.
By extension, one reason the parties have been deferential to Iowa and New Hampshire and allowed them to maintain their first-in-the-nation status is because the parties have some experience in how to evaluate the results they produce. If, say, Oregon and Indiana were the first states to vote instead, the parties might not be sure what to make of them. Would an Oregon primary favor evangelicals or moderate Republicans, for instance? If the parties don’t know, that introduces more noise into the system and increases the probability of an unwanted nominee.
So what could really threaten Iowa’s first-in-the-nation position? One possibility: If a candidate proved he was able to ignore Iowa entirely and win the nomination despite it. That’s never really happened, except in the special circumstance of Bill Clinton in 1992.
Another would be if the party seems to have lost control of the nomination process. If an insurgent candidate like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz is nominated with little establishment support or an establishment-backed candidate is chosen but only after a lot of bloodletting and perhaps even a deadlocked convention, the whole nomination process could be blown up before 2020, with Iowa being collateral damage.