iowa caucuses

Why the Iowa Caucuses Are Biased Against Your Candidate

This is not what democracy looks like. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The tradition of all-dead primary campaigns weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Namely, the tradition of the Iowa caucuses.

If corn country’s quadrennial contest did not exist, no one would dare to invent it. Imagine how unhinged the proposal for the contest would sound in a world where it was not already taken as a given: “To ensure a rational, fair, and small-D democratic presidential nominating process, we must invite the most politically engaged (and/or time-rich) citizens of America’s 31st-most-populous state to huddle in the corners of their local school gyms for a couple hours on a Monday night, and thereby determine through a semi-consensual decision-making process which candidate they would like to give a surge of positive media coverage before voters in every other part of the country get a chance to make their voices heard.”

No intelligible theory of democracy would recommend an institution this arbitrary or complex. The Iowa caucuses are therefore inherently unfair. Meanwhile, the peculiar conditions surrounding this year’s iteration of the event have provided the Democratic field with a panoply of novel causes for complaint. And since the fight over how the media will interpret tonight’s results is at least as important as the results themselves, every campaign is already preparing an alibi for its defeat.

So, for all you Bernie Bros, Liz Lads, Joe Schmos, Klob Slobs, or Pete Freaks looking for a ready-made rationalization for your hero’s potential loss this evening, here’s a quick rundown of how tonight’s event unduly disadvantages each major Democratic candidate:

1) Bernie Sanders

Forget the myriad ways all U.S. elections are biased against self-avowed socialists (the corporate domination of mass media, reactionary bent of the billionaire donor class, the two-party duopoly, and fact that representative democracy is itself a species of aristocracy, etc). Tonight’s caucuses appear poised to disadvantage Bernie Sanders in a more straightforward fashion: His share of Iowa’s pledged delegates will likely be lower than his share of the popular vote among its caucuses’ attendees.

The reason for this is simple. The Vermont senator’s support is heavily concentrated among younger voters, and younger voters are concentrated in college towns and/or (relatively) urban parts of the state. Thus, according to some polls, Sanders is liable to “waste” votes by running up the score at a small number of demographically favorable caucus sites while narrowly losing at a larger number of rural ones. This inefficiency matters for multiple reasons. Iowa doesn’t award pledged delegates solely on the basis of statewide support but, rather, on support at individual caucus sites. If Sanders’s appeal proves geographically limited, he could fail to meet the threshold for viability at some caucuses, even if he wins a plurality of votes statewide. At each individual caucus, candidates who do not have at least 15 percent support in the room will become nonviable (unless they can convince another nonviable candidate’s supporters to join their team). Their supporters then have the opportunity to realign themselves with one of the viable candidates for “the final alignment.” Making matters worse, the formula Iowa uses to determine how many delegates each individual caucus gets to assign may give disproportionate weight to the votes of rural Iowans at low-turnout caucuses. As the New York Times explains:

[E]ach precinct selects delegates to county conventions (who later elect delegates to the state convention). The selection of the county delegates is based on the final alignment, but adjusted into so-called state delegate equivalents — the estimated number of delegates each candidate will get at the state convention. Historically, these equivalents are the basis for projecting a winner in Iowa … (The number of state delegate equivalents is based on turnout in recent elections, so if a precinct has lower turnout in the caucus relative to those recent elections, a candidate will get more state delegate equivalents per caucusgoer than in a precinct with relatively high caucus turnout.)

Sanders seems to be aware of his predicament. The senator’s campaign has argued that the first-round vote totals — which is to say, the number of votes each candidate receives statewide in the initial, first-choice phase of the caucuses (before nonviable candidates’ supporters are reallocated) — will determine the event’s true winner. This year, for the first time ever, Iowa will disclose that figure, along with the second-round vote totals and allocation of state delegate equivalents. But most major news outlets have signaled they will stick to tradition and declare a winner on the basis of the latter metric. Thus, for Sanders, winning the most votes at the Iowa caucuses may not be enough to “win” the Iowa caucuses.

2) Joe Biden

Biden’s rivals may complain about various aspects of the Iowa caucuses, but none are more disadvantaged by the institution itself than Uncle Joe. The Democratic front-runner enjoys strong support from older, moderate, and/or African-American Democrats — and the Iowa caucuses are all but designed to underrepresent those constituencies. Beyond the fact that Iowa’s population is over 90 percent white, caucusgoers tend to be younger and more ideological than primary electorates. As the Upshot’s Nate Cohn notes:

In both Democratic and Republican contests, [caucus results] are plainly different from the results of primaries in demographically similar areas, or even in the same states. They tend to favor outsider, activist-backed candidates, including Mr. Sanders. The only plausible explanation for the difference is that low-turnout caucuses tend to attract the sort of highly informed political activists who are passionate enough to sit through a laborious, multi-hour, public caucus and favor ideologically consistent candidates.

One reason for the difference seems to be age. Caucus electorates appear to be fairly young, and primary electorates fairly or even very old. This shouldn’t be a huge surprise. The kinds of Democrats who have excelled in caucuses in recent years, like Mr. Sanders and Barack Obama, were backed overwhelmingly by younger voters. The young represented a large share of the caucus electorates in the 2004, 2008, and 2016 entrance polls — the only publicly available data on the composition of the caucus electorate, even if it’s of uncertain quality.

3) Elizabeth Warren
Forget the myriad ways that all U.S. elections are biased against progressive female candidates. The Senate’s impeachment trial sidelined Warren during a critical stage in her campaign. Meanwhile, according to some reports, the final Des Moines Register poll would have shown Warren in second place, just four points behind Sanders. This result might have energized Warren’s base, and increased her support among late-deciding voters who are influenced (consciously or otherwise) by media narratives about “momentum.” But the Des Moines Register declined to release the poll’s results on dubious grounds (and at the ostensible request of Pete Buttigieg’s campaign).

4) Pete Buttigieg
Some polls of Iowa have been taken and released without the former South Bend mayor’s express written consent.

5) Amy Klobuchar
Iowa forbids center-left data journalists who live in New York City or Washington, D.C. from participating in its elections, even if they are in town to cover the caucuses. This effectively disenfranchises Klobuchar’s core base of support in the Hawkeye State.

Why the Iowa Caucuses Are Biased Against Your Candidate