Iowa Caucus Research

Iowa Press | Episode
Jan 24, 2020 | 27 min

It's nearly decision time for Iowa caucus goers. With polls and pundits online and on-air, the horse race speculation is at a fever pace. But what do academic researchers see on the horizon? We sit down with David Redlawsk and Kelly Winfrey on this edition of Iowa Press.


It's nearly decision time for Iowa caucus goers. With polls and pundits online and on-air, the horse race speculation is at a fever pace. But what do academic researchers see on the horizon? We sit down with David Redlawsk and Kelly Winfrey on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. 


For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, January 24 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   

Yepsen: A perfect storm of punditry, polls and presidential candidates is converging across Iowa as caucuses draw near. It's the culmination of one year of campaigning and the kick off of another 10-month long primary and general election campaign. As Iowans reach their final decisions, what clues have academic researchers found for the 2020 election year? Well, we've gathered a pair of them here at the Iowa Press table to discuss. Kelly Winfrey is an Assistant Professor of Politics and the Research Coordinator at the Carrie Chapman Catt Center at Iowa State University. And David Redlawsk is Political Science Professor and Chair at the University of Delaware and a visiting Professor at the University of Iowa. Welcome to you both. It's good to have you here.

Yepsen: Journalists joining us today are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson, News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Professor Redlawsk, I see you at many candidate events around the state. Let's just begin. Handicap this race.

Redlawsk: Handicap this race? Oh my. I kind of got out of the handicapping business last time around I think. Look, the polls I think are more or less accurate. That is there are four candidates who are roughly tied at the moment. Any one of them I think could end up on top, any one of them could end up significantly behind the other three and it's really not clear to me at the moment where that's going. I will say this, because we always say it but it's absolutely true, it depends on who shows up on Caucus Night.

Henderson: Professor Winfrey, what does your crystal ball show?

Winfrey: My crystal ball broke in 2016 but with those fractured pieces I agree that there are four candidates and I think maybe a fifth that may do better than expected in Amy Klobuchar. But who is going to win? There might be three different winners as we've heard others talk about. I think Sanders has a surge happening now and I think that could follow through with a successful Caucus Night. I think really what I'm seeing in some of my research is that there is a pull between people who want to make sure that they beat Trump and the candidates they also most agree with and like and those aren't necessarily the same people.

Murphy: Some other things we wanted to ask you guys about that's happening right now is the impact of the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. That has taken a few of the candidates off the campaign trail here in Iowa, Senators Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar in particular. How much of an impact does that have, Kelly we'll start with you, on this race so close to the end both Senators not being able to be here in front of Iowans? How much does that hurt those three candidates in particular?

Winfrey: I'm not sure it really hurts them too much. I think that the leaders are pretty firmly the leaders and a lot of people have maybe not fully committed to a candidate yet but know pretty much who they're going to support on Caucus Night. Getting here at this point may be swaying some who aren't committed but really it's more about rallying the base, making sure people show up and making sure that everyone is there to caucus for them and working to make that happen. And I think all the candidates have surrogates that are coming into the state to try to help rally the troops to make sure they have a good Caucus Night.

Murphy: Would you agree with that, David?

Redlawsk: I think it varies. I do think, for example, for Senator Sanders it doesn't matter that much whether he's physically here. His supporters are hard core, they're with him. We have been doing some surveys of Iowa caucus goers, we talked to them back in November, talked to them again the beginning of January, 89% of Sanders' November supporters were his supporters in January, just two-thirds for the other top three candidates. So in some sense him being in the state I think is less critical for rallying his troops because they will be there. On the other hand, it does feel to me like it matters to some degree. That is, the surrogates are nice, but ultimately people still want to see the candidates, even at the last moment. You didn't mention Michael Bennett of course who is also a Senator but is not really all that active in Iowa anymore anyway. And I think in the end the one who is hurt the most is probably Amy Klobuchar just because there is this sense that she has been, she has perhaps been surging a bit, I've been talking to county democratic party leaders and about half of the 40 some who have responded to my question say they are seeing a surge for her in their county but her not being here may dampen that.

Murphy: Well, an Iowan recently told my colleague here that if you haven't seen them at this point that’s kind of on you, they've been here for a year now. Shouldn't that, or does that still matter to be able to get in front of Iowans at this late stage in the game?

Redlawsk: I think it still matters. I think you still need to make the closing argument. I think being here and making the closing argument does have some benefits. Having surrogates do it is helpful I suppose but in the end I think even if people have seen the candidates multiple times they're still coming to the events, they still want to see the candidates.

Henderson: Still focusing on the democratic Senators, two of them are no longer in the race. Kelly, what impact has that had with their supporters? Are they dispirited and won’t show up?

Winfrey: No, I think a lot of them will, a lot of them have moved to other candidates at this point. Their strong supporters probably had other people as a second choice in mind and I think that those supporters know the importance of the election for the party and probably went to their second choice. And I think particularly thinking about Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand looking for candidates that offer some of the same qualities and some of that might be looking for another woman that has some of the same issue positions that the others had and also looking for a moderate or a more progressive candidate. But I would say most of them have settled in other places. And from when I've talked to volunteers and campaign staff I hear a lot of people coming over from other campaigns, a lot of Castro supporters came to Warren's campaign, they started volunteering for Warren pretty soon after Castro endorsed.

Murphy: It's easy to forget because of all the candidates and all the excitement on the democratic side that the republicans also will be caucusing. Does the impeachment trial have any impact on that turnout on the republican side at all? Does it maybe fire up the base a little more?

Redlawsk: The Trump base is fired up anyway pretty much no matter what. At the same time it's a non-competitive caucus even though Joe Walsh is in the state in fact as we're talking today and Bill Weld was here the other day, I saw him at a coffee shop in Newton with three people, only one of whom was a voter. And the bottom line is expect relatively limited turnout for the republican caucus because it's not a competitive caucus and Trump is going to take the vast majority of those votes.

Murphy: Is there any chance that Congressman Walsh or Bill Weld get enough support in this caucus to even raise a few eyebrows?

Redlawsk: If I saw evidence that they had organized it all as opposed to just dropping in once or twice into the state I'd think it was possible. But I'm not sure I see anything going on.

Henderson: Kelly, you mentioned that there is this debate in the minds of many voters, do I vote based on the issues or do I vote based on this concept of electability, which is kind of in the eyes of the beholder? What is your judgment?

Winfrey: Based on the research that I've done is I don't have a firm answer because people are viewing Biden as the most likely to be able to beat Trump and Sanders second in that from the research that I've been doing. And at the same time people are rating Warren and Sanders higher on things like compassion and honesty. So that's telling you that they like those candidates and some other questions that I asked were related to how likeable they were, so how much they saw the world like them or shared their vision for the country. And Warren and Sanders were excelling in those and Biden was actually coming in below Buttigieg. So there's a push/pull happening I think between the heart and mind maybe. Do I vote for the candidate that I really agree with and that inspires me? Or do I vote for the person I think is most likely to beat Trump? And I think a lot of people still think Biden might be that person. I think that on Caucus Night though the turnout for those candidates could maybe sway some people who are on the fence of I don't know if I should vote with my head or my heart, but wow look how exciting this Warren group is or this Sanders group is, maybe I'll go over there. So I think there could be some movement and some last minute decisions.

Henderson: David?

Redlawsk: Our research that we did in the 2008 cycle suggests that Iowans historically tend to vote their heart rather than strategically or electability. It's something about going first, it's something about being able to kind of tell the country who do Iowans really want to see as president whether they're likely to be president or not. And that was absolutely true in 2008 when we looked at the data we collected then. This time around though there is a lot more talk about electability, a lot more talk about thinking strategically, that heart/head kind of issue. And in the data we've collected so far we're seeing a very even split between those two.

Henderson: Isn't that a function of 2008 was an open race whereas 2004 you were choosing someone to run against a sitting President and this time around you are as well?

Redlawsk: Well, but I still think Iowa's position first is a little bit different, right. It's a long time until we get to the end of this process and at least historically the data suggests Iowa caucus goers really have focused a lot more on the heart than the head. But I do think it may well be different this time around.

Henderson: So the way to win Iowa is to have one of the best organizations, the grassroots structure that helps turn out caucus goers. How much is that still the case, especially this year with so many candidates and such a close race as we talked about? Or has paid TV advertising, has that kind of replaced that organizational structure? David, we'll start with you. Which is more important?

Redlawsk: I think the organization is still more important. In the end unlike a primary you're getting people out at a certain place at a certain time, probably a cold winter night, maybe a snowy winter night. Having those precinct captain volunteers, having the organizing staff, having the folks working in the office, getting people out to vote, really matters I think still more than how much television advertising you're doing or YouTube advertising or anything else. So the county chairs I've talked to, for example, suggest in a few counties they're seeing some Steyer action. There isn't a lot of Steyer organization to pick up on any of that action, lots and lots of television ads, but I don't think it's the television ads that are going to get Iowa caucus goers out to vote.

Yepsen: Professor Redlawsk, I want to ask you, you are not only doing research on this Caucus, you have written a book about the Caucuses. But you're actually out there traveling the state, doing what is called field research, showing up at events, many of those caucuses more than a lot of reporters are. What does your research, what does your experience in the field tell you about which one of these candidates is doing pretty well? What are local party leaders telling you?

Redlawsk: I think what we're seeing is pretty much honestly what the polls are showing which is this uncertainty. I do find that among the folks who have responded to the questions, the county leadership that has responded to the questions, just under half expect Joe Biden to actually win the Caucus and second is about a quarter of them expect Sanders to win the Caucus statewide. But I don't know that that's true. It feels to me, and I'm always as a quantitative political science a little scary about it feels to me, but the Joe Biden operation, for example, very heavily dependent on older people who are very likely to caucus but I don't feel like there's the organizational structure building that get out the caucus across the entire demographic.

Yepsen: Professor Winfrey, let's talk about Joe Biden first. To what sense do you have that caucus goers are concerned about his age? He has had a problem with some halting delivery in some of this debate. Some people think his childhood stuttering may be coming back. He had an aneurysm years ago. Are people concerned about his health? Is that an impediment to Joe Biden?

Winfrey: I think there are certainly some people who are concerned about his age but they're also concerned about Bernie Sanders' age and health as well. I think that for a lot of voters that's not a huge factor, it's more of a question of who do they think can beat Trump. And with Biden's case he's the most well-known, he is considered to be very qualified and I think people are willing to overlook a lot of that stuff, also because three of the four top candidates are older. So that argument or that comparison isn't very strong unless you're leaning towards someone younger like Pete Buttigieg or even perhaps Amy Klobuchar.

Yepsen: What's the flare up in the Middle East done, Iran? Has that helped Joe Biden because it puts foreign policy back in center stage? Or does it hurt him because he's having to defend his vote for the Iraq war and that sort of thing?

Winfrey: I don't think it has helped him or hurt him. The Iraq war vote I think at this point is just old news. It was talked about a lot in 2016 with Hillary Clinton too but it wasn't, it was a place for the left to kind of rally around but it seems to kind of be dead to me. It doesn't seem like a place we're seeing a lot of conflict. And really the foreign policy news kind of faded away once impeachment started. So I'm not sure how much people are paying attention.

Redlawsk: I wanted to add something actually about the question of age. We ask this question on our survey, our Iowa caucus goer, likely caucus goers, we had about 500 at the beginning of January and for each candidate we posited a question, do you agree or disagree on whether something would make it difficult for them to win in November. For Joe Biden it was age. So we said, he's 78 years old and 33% of likely caucus goers said yes that would make it difficult for him. For Elizabeth Warren we said that she's a woman, 40% said that would make it difficult -- I'm sorry, excuse me, 33% also for Warren. But women were twice as likely as men to say it would make it difficult for her. We asked about Pete Buttigieg being gay. That's the one where 40% of likely caucus goers said that will make it difficult for him to win in November.

Henderson: Professor Winfrey, let's talk more specifically to you about this female issue. During the last debate before the Caucuses Elizabeth Warren brought it up, she brought Amy Klobuchar into the conversation. What is your judgment? How is the likelihood of a woman winning playing in among the Iowa Caucus electorate?

Winfrey: I think that people are scared and I think that's a fair question. When we look at things like electability Warren was coming in behind Biden and Sanders in my study. But there were still about 60% of people who thought that she could easily beat Trump in November. So I'm not sure that gender is playing a huge factor. Having said that, it's hard for people to forget that Hillary Clinton lost to Trump and that Trump made a lot of sexist arguments towards her. And I think that really what matters is what voters do on Caucus Night. We can elect a woman President if people decide to elect a woman President. I think Iowa is the first step in doing that, much like Iowa is the first step in getting the first African-American President. In some ways electability is a myth, that there's this kind of thing out there that people have to be electable. But really what you're talking about are qualities that candidates have and do they have those qualities? Are they qualified? Are they compassionate? Are they relatable? And Warren and Klobuchar both are doing well in those categories so I think they could both do well.

Murphy: David, how about Senator Sanders? He's still very much in this race, in fact leading in the most recent Iowa Poll anyway. Is he bucking the notion that he's too far left to win the nomination?

Redlawsk: So Iowa democrats are a relatively liberal bunch. There are sort of the standard two wings, more centrist, more liberal. But Iowa democrats in general are relatively liberal and hence Sanders doing well last time as well. His challenge at this point is really whether he can grow past where he is, that is all along I've felt like he had a lower and an upper limit, the lower limit essentially those hard core supporters who just have been with him since the beginning four years ago. But the upper limit tied to the fact that he's not the only in sort of his space this time. So instead of 50% of the liberal Iowans he's got to contest with Elizabeth Warren, for example, and even some of the others have taken many of the issues that made his, he made his name on the last time around. So again I'm not suggesting that he's going to suddenly collapse somewhere at all but I also don't think we're going to see a massive surge towards Sanders on Caucus Night.

Yepsen: What about, both of you, Bernie Sanders technically is not a democrat, he's a Socialist. Professor Winfrey, what is that? Is that a problem for Bernie Sanders? Are there some democrats reluctant to support him because he's a Socialist?

Winfrey: I don't think it's necessarily that there are democrats that are reluctant to support him because he's a Socialist but maybe because he didn't get in line with the party in 2016. That is what I hear more of as the complaint that he waited too long to endorse Hillary Clinton, he wasn't enthusiastic enough to get his supporters to show up and vote for her, and I think there are some democrats who are still a little upset about that.

Yepsen: And she really teed off on him last week. Does that, would Hillary Clinton's comments about Bernie Sanders last week hurt him with caucus going Iowa democrats reminding them of all this?

Winfrey: I think it does, it helps and it hurts, right, because the diehard Bernie supporters just love that. They're like of course she would say that about him. She's part of the establishment and that's what he's fighting. And the people who already dislike him are going to say well yeah, she's right, of course she doesn't like him.

Yepsen: Professor Redlawsk, we've got just a couple of minutes. I want to go back to Pete Buttigieg and you're finding that 40% of caucus goers say that the fact he's openly gay may be an impediment to his winning an election. Why? Elaborate on that. What is at work here?

Redlawsk: I think what is at work here obviously is firstly the fear that well, democrats, liberals are all fine with this. That just is how people think about it. Those people in the middle are going to be scared by it. I think that is kind of the way to simplify how people are thinking about it. While same-sex marriage, for example, has very broad support nationally the reality is that there is a big chunk of the electorate that is still relatively socially conservative and particularly in the Democratic Party African-American voters.

Yepsen: So you could easily not be personally, a caucus goer could be personally comfortable with his being openly gay, but may have a problem if a democrat can't win a big vote in the black community they can't win the White House.

Redlawsk: Yeah, and the way we ask the question we allowed people essentially to put it in those terms. That is, we didn't ask what you think, we asked is it going to be a problem.

Henderson: Professor Winfrey, in 1988 there was a surprise, a sitting Vice President finished third in the republican caucuses. What in your view might be the big surprise that comes out on February 3rd?

Winfrey: I think it could be Biden finishing third. I think it's very possible that he could come in after Warren and Sanders. I think another possibility is that Buttigieg could do better than we expect, better than fourth or third. He's got a pretty good campaign organization in Iowa and I think if they get people to turn out, especially young people, that that could be good for him.

Henderson: Professor Redlawsk, what surprise are you predicting?

Redlawsk: I've been really puzzled by Andrew Yang in some sense and one of the things that really puzzled me was he had more than 600 people at a rally the night before the debate here in Des Moines. I had just no basis to expect that kind of turnout. And it was a pretty raucous crowd and many of them seemed to know all of the call and response lines, which means they had been paying some attention to him. I'm not going to suggest that Yang will suddenly end up in third or second place. But if he gets this group that never caucuses, it's basically young men, college age young men are massively supportive of him, if they care at all, they don't caucus, but if they do at least in some places he may show up on the board in ways we don't expect.

Yepsen: Okay, our viewers are now not going to be surprised if Biden is weak, if Buttigieg finishes well and if Andrew Yang has a surge. What about Amy Klobuchar? Any surprises there from her?

Redlawsk: I almost feel like if she does well and well for her I think would be to pop into fourth place and one of the top four drop into fifth, but in some ways, the media will take it as a surprise, it won't feel like a surprise to me. The last couple of weeks it does feel like something is happening and those county leaders that I've been surveying also half of them say they're seeing some kind of surge for Klobuchar in their counties.

Winfrey: And she has gone to all 99 counties, right, so she has taken the time to go to every county, to spend time in those rural areas, talking to those voters, which I think is important.

Murphy: Speaking of how the media reports things, we're going to get this year not only the state delegate equivalent totals but that first raw vote total. What impact does that have on Caucus Night? Might we have multiple campaigns claiming victory? What is that going to look like?

Redlawsk: Sure, we could have three winners. We could have a different initial vote, we could have a different realigned vote, and then because delegate allocation is not exactly one person, one vote because of the way they are allocated we could have yet something else on the delegate allocation. You're a winner, you're a winner, you're a winner. Of course, the key with Iowa is not as much winning as it is surprising and getting everybody to talk about you the next day.

Yepsen: Professor Winfrey, we've got one minute left. Has Iowa's role as the place where the field is winnowed been superseded by the Democratic National Committee's debate rules? When they exclude some people from the debate isn't that really a death sentence? How do you feel about that?

Winfrey: I think that it matters. The research that I was doing showed that political debates are important places for Iowa voters to get information. So if they're not on the debate stage they're losing some information. That said, a lot of Iowans, most Iowans I would argue that are going to caucus, want to see a candidate in person. So the ability to still come to Iowa and talk to voters in those one-on-one or small group settings is still important.

Yepsen: DNC debate rules hurt Iowa?

Redlawsk: I think probably, I'm very similar to Kelly, I think ultimately they hurt in a way but again those candidates could still come here, they could still get attention.

Yepsen: I'm sorry, I'm hurting for time. Thank you both for being here with us today, appreciate it.

Winfrey: Thank you.

Redlawsk: Thank you.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press. It's Iowa Caucus Eve on Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. So for all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.