Primary and Caucus Bits & Pieces

By James A. Kidney

Some miscellany on the current news ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

The bottom line, especially if you are tired of the nominating campaigns before the first votes are cast, is that there is a very good chance the whole thing will be decided in eight weeks or less.  (You can find a more pessimistic view here.)  Here are some fact-based observations below.

Here is a calendar of the primaries and caucuses in spreadsheet format for your use.

Why is Iowa Important to Republicans?  It Shouldn’t Be

It is a quadrennial surprise that Republicans give so much attention to the Iowa caucus.  The winner hardly ever becomes the party’s nominee.  Recent winners are Rick Santorum (2012), Mike Huckabee (2008), George W. Bush (2000 – there was no 2004 caucus since Bush was unopposed), Bob Dole (1996 and 1988 – there was no 1992 caucus since George H.W. Bush ran unopposed) and 1980 (George H.W. Bush).  So out of six GOP caucuses since 1980, Iowa voted for the winner only twice.  That’s only .333 percent – a good baseball average, but not a great prediction average.

By Barry Blitt
By Barry Blitt

The caucus is a better predictor of the Democratic nominee.  Obama won the 2008 caucus, amazing the political establishment that year and giving his candidacy instant credibility. Eventual nominees John Kerry and Al Gore won in 2004 and 2000, respectively.  But Tom Harkin ran away with the 1992 caucus (Clinton was fourth) and Dick Gephardt in 1988 (Dukakis was third).  Incumbent Jimmy Carter won in 1980, beating out Ted Kennedy by 28 percentage points.  So the caucus predicted the nominee in four out of six races.  That’s twice as steady as on the Republican side.

Candidates of both parties are inspired by Carter’s out-of-nowhere near-victory in 1976 (“uncommitted” beat him 37.2 to 27.6 per cent, but he doubled number three Birch Bayh’s vote).


These results demonstrate how Iowa is an infectious disease for Republicans, often voting for candidates with no national following, but doing better byt Democrats.  The reason is easy to explain:  Republicans in Iowa are rock-ribbed, with many of them also fundamentalist right wing.  Santorum and Huckabee, and perhaps Ted Cruz in 2016, are quite appealing to this base.  Jimmy Carter won much of the religious support in 1976, when the strongly religious and Republicans were not so closely identified with each other as they are today.  Democrats in Iowa, though nearly all white, align more closely with Democrats across the country, especially those residing in the state’s larger cities and towns.

The clear differences in party constituencies make Iowa a perennial purple or swing state in November.

New Hampshire is a Better Predictor for

Republicans than for Democrats

Like all the early primaries and caucuses (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada), New Hampshire is a poor representative of the larger constituencies in a presidential election.  It has fewer minorities, more older voters, and is more rural than the big voting centers such as New York, California and Illinois.  Despite this, New Hampshire has become a reliably blue state in November and has a largely Democratic state government.  New Hampshire Republicans, with a long history of moderation, are entitled to chafe a bit.  Perhaps that is why polls show Donald Trump with a big margin.

New Hampshire has been a fairly reliable predictor of Republican Party nominees.  It has picked the Republican nominee in all but three of the 17 election years since 1948.  (Exceptions were Harold Stassen in 1948, when New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey was nominated, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. as a write-in against the eventual nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, in 1964, and Pat Buchanan against nominee Bob Dole in 1996).  That’s an 83 percent winning record as a predictor state.

The record for Democrats is much less reliable.  New Hampshire Democrats did vote for the party’s eventual nominee in all but one of five presidential years since 1996, when Bill Clinton had no opposition.  Hillary Clinton got a temporary reprieve and new life from New Hampshire in 2008, when President Obama won the party nomination.  The state also went for neighboring Sen. Paul Tsongas in 1992 against Bill Clinton, for Gary Hart in 1984, when former Vice President Walter Mondale got the nomination, and for Sen. Edmund Muskie in 1972, when the nominee was Sen. George McGovern.  Former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson had no fans in New Hampshire.  Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver beat him in both 1952 and 1956.  In 1948, the state sent an unpledged delegation to the Democratic convention that nominated Harry Truman for reelection.   Of course, baby boomers and older recall that New Hampshire voted for President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 primary, but his margin over Sen. Eugene McCarthy was so small that LBJ announced he would not run for reelection.

So, with 15 elections in which there were at least two candidates who stayed in the race since 1952, New Hampshire got it wrong six times.  That is a record of 60 percent right – or not much more than a coin flip.  In 2016, another senator from a neighboring state, Bernie Sanders, is in the race.  So it is not surprising he is viable, and perhaps favored.  But as 2008 demonstrated, Hillary Clinton also has a constituency in New Hampshire.

March 1 – Super Tuesday – The Real Voting Begins

Party caucuses are held in Nevada on Feb. 20 (Democrats) and Feb. 23 (Republicans).  Plus, South Carolina has a Republican primary on Feb. 20 and a Democratic one on Feb. 27.  Clinton, with union support from hotel and casino workers, seems pretty certain to win the Nevada caucus and is a lock on the South Carolina primary unless African-Americans abandon her for Sanders – a very unlikely prospect.  Trump is on track to win both the caucus and the primary.

Regardless of the outcomes in Nevada and South Carolina, the Great Winnowing begins in earnest on March 1 – Super Tuesday.  Twelve states have a primary or caucus that day.  Four more states come on board four days later and another five on March 15.  By the end of March, 39 states and territories will have selected their convention delegates.  That means 1,552 of 2,472 Republican delegates (1,236 needed to win).  Eighteen of these contests are among the 24 states this site considers red – or staunchly Republican.  They account for 883 delegates to be elected by March 31.  Five of the six “purple” states – swing states – also cast primary ballots or caucus before the end of March, including both Ohio and Florida.  Those swing states account for 281 GOP delegates.  More importantly, the red states voting by the end of March total 172 electoral college votes – 63 percent of the way to winning the 270 EC votes needed to become president.

Of course, a few big blue states also vote by the end of March.  If “moderate” Republicans reside anywhere, it is in these redoubts of the GOP Establishment, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois.  They may well determine if any candidate not named Trump or Cruz becomes a consensus choice for moderates to unite around to counter base craziness.

The voting through March is more interesting on the Democratic side. The overload of red states described above means Hillary Clinton is likely to score big numbers in those 18 contests because such large numbers of party loyalists are Hispanic or black.  The turnout among those groups in all states will be carefully analyzed to see if the huge numbers in 2008 can be approached by a white female candidate.  As a side issue, can Bernie Sanders get any traction with minorities?

Sanders is likely to win the New England states, four of which, including Massachusetts hold a primary in the first quarter of the year.  The big question is who wins the other blue and purple states – especially Minnesota, Illinois, Virginia, Florida and Ohio.  A sweep or near-sweep by Clinton means curtains for Bernie.

Who Is Going to Lose Big Time Besides the Candidates?

Polling?  Media? The Party Establishments?

I don’t recall a nominating contest in which polling has been so frequent, so early and so mixed up, and as a D.C. native I have followed this stuff with an unhealthy obsession for at least 50 years.  If the latest polling collectively proves reasonably accurate, with outsiders Trump, Cruz and Sanders making a strong showing in Iowa, New Hampshire and Super Tuesday March 1, then the media analysts and the party Establishments (which includes many pundits and their publications) will have to reassess their methods and choices.

This really isn’t a surprise at this point (again, assuming it is not the polls that take a critical hit).  We said back in mid-August that the political consultants and pundits as well as the big money contributors were used to imposing candidates on voters from the top down.  Like agribusiness tomatoes, the result was often tasteless and artificial. Voters are bypassing the political power crowd and asserting their own authority.  (See “Why Modern Politicians are Like Tomatoes,” Aug. 17, 2015).

Trump and Cruz illustrate why this is not entirely to the good.  Just as we need newspaper editors (or their digital equivalent) to sift through the chaff of the day’s news to suggest what is really important, it may come to pass we regret letting the vox populi proceed to select politicians not filtered through the professionals.  But, as with Wall Street, the professionals have let most of us down.  It’s time for a change.  Whether it is this kind of change is a different question.

Things will be clearer, if not cleared up, by March 31.  Maybe by March 16.

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