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What Are The X-Factors That Could Change The Results In Iowa?

Welcome to a special edition of FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Our last politics chat before the 2020 Democratic primary kicks off!! And we’re talking Election X factors! Or what things we should be looking at, besides the polls (and our forecast), that could affect who wins on Monday?

[Our Latest Forecast: Who will win the Iowa caucuses?]

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): To me, in a race that is so close, the number of precincts in which a candidate is either ahead or falling short of the viability threshold – 15 percent at most caucus sites — seems like it could be really important for what happens on Monday. Because say, someone like Bernie Sanders, if his support is concentrated in more urban areas or college towns, does that mean someone like Joe Biden could get more delegate support because he has backing across more rural areas? I don’t know.

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Yeah, and related to that point: The polls only measure voters’ initial preferences. But caucusgoers are allowed to realign if their candidate doesn’t meet the viability threshold, and then, of course, the delegates awarded are based on that post-realignment total.

In other words, the polls can’t really tell us exactly how votes will translate into delegates. So it will matter whose support is distributed the most efficiently.

sarahf: (Quick side note: For the first time, raw vote tallies from the first and second alignments will be released publicly, as well as the state delegate equivalents that a candidate earns. In the past, the party only reported the delegate tallies.)

ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior writer): Well, and an interesting question along those lines, Geoffrey, is how much will turnout shape the final narrative? In the past, when raw vote totals weren’t released, candidates like Sanders didn’t have as much of an incentive to run up their numbers in places like college towns where they have lots of densely concentrated support. This year, that will be different, and it could make for some confusion when the delegate counts and the raw votes are in.

I’m also curious to see what kind of horse-trading will go on in the caucuses themselves!

geoffrey.skelley: Definitely true, Amelia. I’m looking forward to the possibility of a scenario where Sanders wins the post-realignment raw vote total, but Biden wins the delegate count.

ameliatd: That’s one of the things that makes caucuses so fascinating and unpredictable — people are literally trying to convince each other to join their side as it’s happening.

sarahf: And you’ll be there to see it in action, Amelia! That ought to be wild.

ameliatd: Yes! I will be on the ground at a precinct in Iowa City, which I think will be one of the hubs for a potential Warren/Sanders showdown. My Monday night is going to be full of drama.

sarahf: But play out that scenario you just mentioned, a little bit more, Geoff. How could it work that Sanders wins more votes, but Biden wins more delegates (and therefore Iowa)?

geoffrey.skelley: Basically, every precinct is worth a certain number of state delegate equivalents, which is used to determine delegate allocation for national delegates. So if you get particularly high turnout at a precinct near, say, the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Johnson County, that precinct’s value for delegate purposes is already set based on a calculation determined by the 2016 presidential and 2018 gubernatorial Democratic vote share in that precinct. So if Sanders gets like 500 of 600 voters there, it might have the same delegate value as Biden dominating in a different precinct with 150 voters if they are worth the same number of state delegate equivalents. In the 2016 caucuses, for instance, Hillary Clinton swept all 1.6 SDEs in a Waterloo, Iowa, precinct that had 141 people show up, while Sanders got 1.6 of 1.8 SDEs in an Iowa City precinct that had 646 participants. We can’t know what the “popular vote” was in those precincts in 2016 — that’s available for the first time this year — but the delegate value for the two candidates was pretty much the same, even though one precinct had far higher turnout.

nrakich: I’m curious — which of those measures will you guys be paying the most attention to?

sarahf: I mean … I find the whole “both sides could claim victory on caucus night” a bit disingenuous, or at the very least, there should be a heavy burden on the media to report it responsibly. Because you can’t claim victory from the pre-alignment vote total!! That’s not how caucuses work. (Now you can have quibbles with why Iowa caucuses in the first place sure, but this whole sowing confusion narrative bothers me. Let’s not sow confusion!)

nrakich: Why not, Sarah?

That’s the popular vote!

That’s how almost every other state does it, i.e., primary states.

It is the most small-d democratic.

sarahf: That’s true, but Iowa isn’t a primary state! And maybe caucuses should be banned for the reasons you outline (it is really time consuming to caucus), but it’s not like how the winner in Iowa is determined has changed. It’s still based on the number of state delegate equivalents a candidate wins, we’ll just get to see more inside the process, which as a journalist, I’m 100 percent in favor of. More data always, please.

But that means as journalists we have a responsibility to talk about the three different vote totals in the context of how they work within a caucus, e.g. don’t read too much into the pre-alignment vote, because this will change (not every candidate will have enough support to make it to the next round of voting). That vote is the most small-d democratic, as you say, but it’s also not how caucuses work, so we shouldn’t feed into that narrative! Although, I’m sure some candidates will. But whatever. Report the process; don’t sow confusion.

nrakich: My short argument for why the initial preference numbers are the most important is that they’re the best representation of how voters feel — kind of like a massive poll. The state delegate equivalents might matter more for delegate selection, but Iowa is a small state — the number of delegates a candidate gets there is less important than the momentum/vote of confidence he/she receives.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, Nathaniel — in fact, AAPOR (the American Association for Public Opinion Research) recommends that journalists compare poll results from this cycle to those pre-realignment numbers when considering the accuracy of polls.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Here’s a pulled-out question, not related to thresholds: Is there anything that could happen in this last weekend to sway things one way or the other for voters still on the bubble? Is it good for the Democrats that all these senators aren’t going to be in the Senate for a drawn-out impeachment trial after all?

ameliatd: I have to imagine, Clare, that the senators are pretty excited about the prospect of getting back to Iowa. They’ve had surrogates campaigning on their behalf, but having the actual candidate there seems like a much better recipe for firing up their supporters — and that enthusiasm can really matter in the caucuses.

clare.malone: Another x-factor to mention: Could some big-name establishment Democrat speak out against Sanders? That sort of stuff has been floating around the past couple of weeks in news stories. It’s the kind of thing you could see happening on a Sunday show or a cable interview over the weekend.

sarahf: I mean, that’s a great question. In theory, Iowa always has at least a few polling surprises, but it’s also kind of hard for me to see Buttigieg, Warren or Amy Klobuchar making a big comeback at this point.

I know, never say never. But it’s hard for me to see this path — don’t @ me!!

Someone from the Democratic establishment speaking out against Sanders, on the other hand … that could be 🔥.

Except Democrats would be smart to not have the spokesperson be Hillary Clinton. I feel like that Hollywood Reporter story about that new documentary where she dished on Sanders, and what it was like working with him in Congress, just fired up his base more than it actually hurt him.

nrakich: I don’t know if any figure in the party is big enough to matter, unless their last name is Obama.

And I don’t think either of the Obamas is going to weigh in at this point.

Mayyyybe if Sanders wins the first few states and he becomes the favorite to win the nomination …

geoffrey.skelley: Which could definitely happen — if he wins Iowa, he’ll be favored in New Hampshire and probably Nevada, too.

ameliatd: It would make sense to me if it were that the big establishment figures were biding their time to see how Sanders does in Iowa, and holding their fire until then.

clare.malone: I think the polling surprise is a great point, Sarah.

And considering the big Des Moines Register poll didn’t drop this weekend, we’re kind of in the dark as to where things could be headed. Hazard any guesses on potential surprises?

sarahf: I mean, we expect a few polls later today, but I was surprised in this last week that Buttigieg and Warren didn’t see more of an uptick. If anything, Warren actually ticked down more in our forecast this week despite the endorsement from the Des Moines Register, which should have helped her at least somewhat in the polls.

If anything, Klobuchar has started to do better. Granted she only has a 3 percent chance of winning the most votes in Iowa, but that’s been an interesting development to me anyways.

I mean … if anyone other than Sanders and Biden are in the top two at the end of the night on Monday, that’s an x-factor, right?

ameliatd: It’s all because of Klobuchar’s hot dish, Sarah. Never doubt the power of tater tots!

sarahf: Lol, that article.

nrakich: Klobuchar doing well would be an x-factor because I’m not sure there is room for FIVE front-runners. If Klobuchar surges, in my mind, someone like Buttigieg would have to crater.

As a reminder, we have never seen more than three candidates get more than 15 percent (the threshold required to get delegates) in any state before.

geoffrey.skelley: Definitely agree that it would be surprising if Biden or Sanders were not in the top two, but that’s certainly a possibility. With voters’ second-choice picks being really important in Iowa, I don’t want to totally discount anyone in the top four from winning, or anyone in the top five — so Klobuchar, too — from ending up in second or third.

And right now, we have three polling above 15 percent in Iowa and Warren just under that at 14 percent. Plus, Klobuchar is now right at 10 percent in our polling average.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): In some ways, I wonder if the buzz about Sanders’s potential to win Iowa and that victory catapulting him to the nomination happened a week or so too early for him. And it allowed his opponents within the party to hit him fairly hard, with an argument (electability) that Democratic voters really care about.

clare.malone: Ooooh, I like this take.

Interesting fodder!

And the idea that a person can have a “week too early” surge seems like a very Iowa phenom.

nrakich: It’s amazing how the timing of an election can matter. Random choices like whether the Iowa caucuses were this week or last week can make a big difference in who potentially gets elected leader of the free world.

ameliatd: Well, and a scenario like that could be especially helpful for Biden is that his supporters are generally older and perhaps more likely to caucus, too — although some of those folks aren’t necessarily regular caucusgoers.

perry: Buttigieg is even trying to get former Republicans to go to the caucuses. Those people are not going to support Sanders or Warren as a second choice.

geoffrey.skelley: Actually, age is one of the big questions about the caucus electorate — some polls have people under 50 making up as much as 47 percent of the electorate, which would be good news for Sanders, while others have it much lower than that. This has ramifications for each candidate’s poll numbers, but especially Sanders and Biden because their support at the age poles (oldest and youngest) are opposite of one another.

sarahf: So OK, say Sanders doesn’t win — because as Perry says, he peaked too early — does that put him a few points behind Biden … and Warren? Is there still room for her to be thought of as a moderate alternative to Sanders?

Perry: If the turnout is screwed young, I think Bernie will win. He really needs the electorate to be younger.

geoffrey.skelley: If Warren remains viable in most places, that actually could be quite bad for Sanders. And that’s because she’s the one whose backers are most likely to pick Sanders as their second choice. As the most recent Iowa State/Civiqs poll showed, 33 percent of Warren backers picked Sanders as their second choice, whereas no more than 11 percent of the other leading candidates’ backers chose Sanders as their top second choice.

nrakich: I mean, not to be that guy, Sarah, but in 80 percent of simulations in our model, Sanders could do anything from surge to 43 percent of the vote to drop to 11 percent in Iowa. And yeah, if he falls that far, he could finish below several other candidates (for the record, Warren’s range of outcomes in the 80-percent confidence interval is 3 percent to 31 percent).

ameliatd: I’m also really curious as to what will happen in places like Iowa City, which Bernie won handily in 2016. Obviously, a lot of 2016 Sanders’s voters are already supporting other candidates. But is it possible that all of the sudden focus on Bernie actually energizes his young lefty supporters and juices turnout even more?

Or, to answer your question, Sarah, maybe the attacks on Bernie prompt some progressive folks — the people who actually live and work in college towns, not the students — to give Warren a second look.

geoffrey.skelley: Thing is, because each precinct has a pre-assigned value based on the 2016-2018 Democratic vote, how much you can gain from juiced turnout near college campuses could be limited if it’s in select precincts.

nrakich: Right, which is why the actual preferences of Iowa voters is all that matters 😜

sarahf: Lol, what about the possibility for technical glitches and the fact that Iowa is kind of sort of going to be making it easier to caucus this time around?

Do you think that’s an x-factor at all?

ameliatd: I’m a little skeptical of whether the satellite caucuses are actually going to make things easier. There are not that many of them, and they’re mostly in the middle of the day or the evening.

Of course, there will be a caucus in Tblisi, Georgia, which could really be what gives one of the candidates their edge.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, you still have to gather for a couple hours in the evening. Not like having ~12 hours to show up for 20 minutes and cast a ballot.

ameliatd: Or drop your ballot in the mail!

geoffrey.skelley: So I’m not expecting turnout to be crazy high.

nrakich: I think the overarching thing to remember here is that caucuses are always going to be harder to vote in than primaries. This article, about how difficult it can be for people with physical disabilities to caucus, really stuck with me.


sarahf: OK, rapid fire, final X-factors going into Monday. What do you think is super important to keep an eye on? I still think there’s got to be some kind of polling surprise that we just don’t know about yet, or wasn’t caught because there were a lot less polls this time around. …

nrakich: I think it will be whether the media makes a big deal out of “so-and-so winning Iowa,” even if he or she wins by just a fraction of a percentage point. To me, that is better thought of as a tie, but the way cable news tends to frame things as winners and losers could have a real impact on the narrative of which campaign is surging and which is struggling going into New Hampshire.

For instance, if Warren and Biden effectively tie, I think it will be spun as a win for Warren but a loss for Biden, and I don’t think it should be.

geoffrey.skelley: Relatedly, I’m interested in the possibility of having super ambiguous results because we will have three different outcomes to look at — first preference, final preference and state delegate equivalents, the last of which actually determines delegate counts.

ameliatd: I’m going to be a broken record but — turnout! Who shows up, and where? Whose supporters are most jazzed up and enthusiastic? That’s something that’s harder to predict/see until the caucuses are actually happening.

perry: What I’m looking for, before Monday night, are any clear urgings from really prominent Democrats to not back Sanders. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave clearly anti-Sanders remarks on Friday, but they didn’t get much attention and she didn’t use his name.) Also, I’m watching for some of the lower-tier candidates to point their supporters to all get behind a second-choice person. (This would not be done by the candidate or their top staffers directly, but more under the radar.) So would most Yang/Gabbard supporters get behind Sanders? Klobuchar backers to Biden? The most interesting questions to me are whether Warren supporters, in places where she is not viable, mostly go to Sanders and in places where Buttigieg is not viable, if his supporters mostly go to Biden.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.