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All Eyes on Iowa – the first state to decide

August 11th, 2019

If you want to know who the Democratic nominee to be President will be, watch Iowa and New Hampshire. Why? Because it is extremely rare for the eventual candidate to fail to win one of those two two states.

How rare?

Well, let’s look at the history for a second:

2016 – Clinton won Iowa
2012 – Obama won both
2008 – Obama won Iowa
2004 – Kerry won both
2000 – Gore won both
1996 – Clinton won both
1992 – Clinton won neither!
1988 – Dukakis won NH
1984 – Mondale won Iowa
1980 – Carter won both
1976 – Carter won both

The record (for the record) is similar for the Republicans. Now, there’s a good reason for this. In Primaries, fields tend to narrow quickly as voters leave less successful candidates and move to more successful ones. So, if you look at national polling, Iowa winners tend to see eight percentage point bumps in the aftermath – which often leads to New Hampshire victory and then the nomination.

Iowa is a rural state. It’s a white state. It’s a small state. It’s a Christian state. It’s a farming state. It is – basically – not a lot like the rest of America, and it’s certainly not a lot like the Democratic base.

Winning in Iowa requires committed supporters, who are willing to brave the snow and the sub-zero temperatures to go to draughty halls and spend an evening at a caucus. It requires organisation, because in those community centres and churches, people need to be physically corralled.

So, then, who will shine in Iowa?

Well, the polls show a pretty tight race. Averaging the last month’s polls, you get the following:

Biden 22.8
Warren 19.3
Sanders 14.3
Harris 13.3
Buttigieg 11.8

Biden has a small lead over Warren, and then there are three other players all with a shout.

Who has the best organisation in the state? Well, that’s an easier one to answer. Elizabeth Warren does, having senior Clinton and Obama Iowa staffers running her operation. Her operation has also been in place longest, with staff on the ground from early in 2018. Pete Buttigieg has also been using his field topping second fund raising haul to put in place solid Iowa operation. Both candidates have around 100 field staff in place.

Harris and Biden trail with 60-65 staff, albeit with some impressive names on the roster. While Bernie Sanders seems to have been unable to recruit all the people he had in 2016.

All in, what does this tell you? Well, it suggests to me that both Harris and Sanders will struggle in Iowa relative to their national shares. There’s not a lot in Iowa for Kamala Harris: it doesn’t look very like California, and she’s not really a retail politician. And Bernie isn’t looking that hot either. Perhaps because his base skews younger, he struggles to get them out on cold nights in Iowa.

Pete Buttigieg looks like the candidate most likely to spring a surprise here. He’s relatively local, got a large and well organised campaign staff, lots of money, and he looks (demographically) like a typical Iowan. He’s not a favourite by any means, and you’d have to rate his chances below Biden or Warren, but he’s candidate I think has the most room to outperform expectations.

Which brings us to the front-runners: Biden & Warren. Biden has money and the national vote share. But I’d remember that he underperformed terribly in Iowa last time he stood there. Going into the Iowa caucuses, Biden was polling around 5% nationally, marginally ahead of former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He got 1% in the caucuses, and his campaign ended soon after.

Which brings us to Elizabeth Warren. She has the organisation. She’s probably the single biggest beneficiary of any further drop off in Sanders vote. But a little warning too. Elizabeth Warren is a city girl. And Iowa is a rural state. She’s the favourite right now, but that doesn’t mean Iowans won’t find someone else more to their taste down the line.

And from a betting perspective, what does this mean? I think it means you have a tiny flutter on Buttigieg, and you sell Harris and Sanders. Biden looks a little cheap given his position in Iowa. While Warren is probably fairly priced right now. Keep an eye on those Iowa polls, mind. If Elizabeth Warren begins to solidify her position then the race may be closer to done than the national polls suggest.

Robert Smithson