Professor Voices — 2016 Iowa caucuses explained, analyzed

DeanSapiroThe Iowa caucuses took place yesterday, Feb. 1, and were the first major electoral event decision point in of the nominating process for the United States’ next president. Ted Cruz came in first and won the Republican caucuses and Marco Rubio made a much stronger showing than was expected, and although Hillary Clinton won in the Democratic caucuses, the result was so close that both major candidates justifiably claimed a victory.

Virginia Sapiro is a Boston University professor of political science and an expert on public opinion, political behavior and electoral politics. She is also a former director of the American National Election Studies, the major scholarly survey of American voters that has been in operation since 1948. In a blog post, Sapiro broke down how the caucuses work. Here, a brief explainer:

There were Republican caucuses and Democratic caucuses throughout the state. In both camps, advocates were allowed to speak in front of other caucus-goers about their preferred candidates to try to convince others to join them. This began at 7 p.m. CST all around Iowa (8 p.m. EST). Then what?

Republicans gathered at their locations in Iowa (there are around 700) and decided which 30 delegates will attend the Republican National Convention from Iowa this July. They did so by declaring their candidate preferences, mostly by casting secret ballots.

Democrats gathered at their locations (there are around 1,000) and completed the first process in decision which 44 delegates will attend the Democratic National Convention from Iowa in July. In addition to these 44, eight “super delegates” will attend, picked on the basis of the positions they hold in government and politics, as is the process in the Democratic party across the country, so the super delegates are not chosen through the caucus process. Democrats did this in several rounds, by standing with similar-minded voters in “preference groups,” openly displaying their candidate of choice for all to see, and then doing a head count. After the first round, any group that has less than 15 percent of the people attending is considered “not viable,” and they distribute themselves to other groups or leave for the next round. People who are undecided redistribute themselves. Any people can change which group they are standing in.

Sapiro also broke down the results of both the Republican and Democratic caucuses for us in the following Q&A:

Q: What stood out to you most from Monday’s results? Was there much that differed from expectations?

VS: The biggest piece of news was the upset of Donald Trump, and from two sides. First, Ted Cruz came in first, and comfortably. He was expected to do especially well in the Evangelical western parts of the state, but he pulled strong leads in most regions of the state. And on the other side, Marco Rubio had his “surge,” and came in a reasonably close third. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was expected to win, but everyone who read the indicators knew it was going to be close. In the end it was much closer than anyone expected — virtually a tie. Bernie Sanders was expected to do very well in the college towns and generally among young and first-time voters, but he did well beyond those groups.

Q: How can we explain what happened in the Iowa caucuses?

VS: In one sense, you have to have been there to know. In a primary, people go to the polls and individually case their ballots. But at a caucus, there’s a lot of discussion and argument, especially on the Democratic side, where they stand out in the open to be counted, continuing to argue all the way, while the Republicans cast secret ballots. Bernie Sanders’ appeal is a very emotional one, well represented by the “They’ve all come to look for America” ad. Sanders’ ability to draw people into engagement, and to support his candidacy with enthusiasm and small donations has been very impressive. He promises big things, and he touches those who are angry and frustrated with the state of the economy and politics today. Hillary Clinton’s appeal — a progressive who can get things done — has not grabbed a lot of people with the same resonance, certainly not the young, especially.  Sanders was enormously strong among the very young and the economically least well off, and according to polls he still does much better among men than women. Clinton did much better among older voters and among women. Of course we can’t tell much about race because Iowa is a very homogeneously white state.

On the Republican side, Ted Cruz’s organization and the support of talk radio and religious groups were crucial. Cruz walked away with the very conservative vote. For Marco Rubio, he has been labeled the “mainstream Republican” alternative, and that appeal has worked.

On both sides, attacks on “the media” and “the establishment” also were very appealing. That seems to be a winner with much of the public. 

Q: New Hampshire is up next. What impact will the Iowa results have on the N.H. primary next week and the others beyond that? 

VS: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been predicted for some time to be the winners in New Hampshire. Trump is perhaps more vulnerable than he was, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio will have a strong running start to close that gap in the next week. But it is only a week — and there are still many candidates vying for a good show in N.H. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is likely to “break the internet” — as one CNN commentator said — collecting contributions over the next few days. He will have a large infusion of donations, and his strong lead in N.H. is likely to be reinforced by the strength he showed in Iowa. Above all, we know, both races will continue for some time, certainly through Super Tuesday, on March 1. The results in Iowa have assured that. After New Hampshire, Sanders will encounter states that will be a much steeper climb for him, though, so we’ll all keep watching.

Q: Will we see the candidate roster slim down soon?

VS: Last night, we saw Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley and Republican contender Mike Huckabee withdraw from the race, and we are likely to see some more Republicans withdraw soon. But even for those further down the ticket, we are unlikely to see the race limited to the top three before Super Tuesday.

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