Iowa Caucuses and the 2020 Election

Iowa Press | Episode
Feb 14, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Donna Hoffman, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, and Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University, discuss the Iowa Caucuses and the upcoming 2020 general election.



The 2020 presidential race has moved on to Nevada, South Carolina and Super Tuesday. But back here in Iowa, the politics of Caucus Night are still lingering. We dive deeper with political scientists Donna Hoffman and Dennis Goldford on this edition of Iowa Press.


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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, February 14 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. 


Yepsen: As the 2020 presidential race winds through Nevada, South Carolina and more than a dozen other states on Super Tuesday, there are still lingering questions back here in Iowa. The nation's kickoff state for presidential campaigning is nursing a black eye of delayed results and partial recounts are underway. To discuss the next steps, we're joined by Donna Hoffman, Political Science Professor from the University of Northern Iowa and Dennis Goldford is Political Science Professor at Drake University. Welcome back to both of you. Thanks for joining us. Good to have you here.

Hoffman: Thank you for having me.

Yepsen: Also joining the conversation are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Professor Hoffman, first, what is your reaction to the unpleasantness of the Iowa Caucuses? And are they doomed to be first in the nation?

Hoffman: I don't think they're doomed, per se, but as David mentioned certainly they have a black eye. So one of the -- I might use an academic term here which is everyone should calm down. The results didn't come in as people wanted them to, obviously. But if we look back at any event in which you're counting ballots, if it is really close you often times cannot call a race, it often times takes a long time to get those things counted and that is when you are typically using some kind of electronic counting machine. So if you look back at 2018, for example, in congressional races a week after Election Day there was still seven House races out, a couple of gubernatorial races out, a couple of Senate races still out, because they were very close. So we live in an instant society and people want instant results and they also want winners. And one of the other things that needs to be thought about here is the nuance in terms of democrats award their delegates proportionally, delegates are the name of the game, not necessarily the popular vote. That's obviously nice to have, but delegates is what you're really searching for. So there's a lot of this that needs to be put into proper perspective that we might gain with a little bit of time.

Henderson: Professor Goldford, does Iowa have the time to regain its reputation?

Goldford: Well, you know, I think 48 states really dislike the position that Iowa and New Hampshire hold in the presidential nominating process. So there's a need to defend the position of Iowa, which again I would argue is simply a historical accident, but there is a need to defend the position of Iowa every four years. The collapse of reliability and fast results and everything that occurred on Caucus Night simply furnishes the opponents of the position of the caucuses a lot more ammunition. I would agree with Donna, don't call the caucuses out yet. But if I use medical terminology I think the patient, while not dead, is certainly critical, it's a lot more than serious.

Yepsen: Erin?

Murphy: So while that patient is on life support, those 48 other states are going to be making their plans for what could replace Iowa as first in the nation. What are some of the options out there? And should Iowa just -- let me ask first, and I'll start with you Professor Goldford, should Iowa just move to a primary, get rid of the caucuses? Obviously New Hampshire is a stumbling block there. But should they just go ahead with that?

Goldford: Sure. Well, again, as you said there would be tremendous problems coming from New Hampshire if Iowa tried to go to a primary. They allow us on their sufferance, if you will, to go first because we don't look like a primary as far as they are concerned. I think that there have been proposals over the years, people talk about regional primaries, Midwest, Northeast, Southwest in some way. People talk about different kinds of sequential arrangements to do this. But I just recall I guess it was the fall of 2015 before the last caucus and presidential year, I was talking to some reporters from Scandinavia in my office at Drake and they were asking me how all this works. And the look on their faces was just astonishment. And they said, you mean, you're the most important country in the world and this is how you do this? So there was just disbelief in their view and I have to tell them all the time that American political parties are not centralized, top down organizations where somebody in Washington can snap fingers and it's done a certain way.

Murphy: Professor Hoffman, how about you? Other ideas have been talked about. Should just another state go first, maybe a battleground state like Wisconsin, where it would pay off for the campaigns in the end? Or should all the early states, another option I've heard pitched about is the four early states going on the same way, which would alleviate the concerns that people have about the lack of diversity in Iowa?

Hoffman: Sure. We will have those discussions. I think the problems that Iowa has had accelerate those discussions a little bit. As Dennis mentioned earlier, every four years we go through this to some degree. Now we're continuing it after the caucuses as well. And so there are a lot of different things to consider. One of the things that hasn't been mentioned is a national primary. But there you're going against some of that decentralization that is a key factor in American politics. We also want to think about that this is a party nominating its standard bearer. So, for example, it's not a normal election in that sense. In a state like Iowa, for example, we have closed caucuses and primaries, so if the democrats want to say to republicans you can't come in, they don't, and vice versa. And that is a key factor when you think about a party nominating its standard bearer. And different states have different rules. In New Hampshire we saw that independents were able to come in. So if you have a national primary you change a lot of the, of who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged. And that is the key with any system, there is no perfect electoral system. Every system that you adopt is going to advantage some party and it's going to disadvantage some other party and I mean entity, not necessarily political party. And so if we were to change there would be consequences that might even be unintended. And those are things that have always been talked about, but this may be the thing that moves that discussion maybe a little bit closer to reality and we might drag New Hampshire in along with us then in terms of their position because they have similar criticisms. While they don't have a caucus, they have a primary, size, makeup of the state, etcetera, also are criticized.

Henderson: Professor Goldford, Iowa republicans, the Governor, two U.S. Senators, the Party Chairman, have said, Iowa's republican caucuses are going first in 2024. President Trump has tweeted a couple of times about this, if I'm President Iowa is going to go first. What sort of role do you think, how would this work if Iowa republicans went first and Iowa democrats did not?

Goldford: Well, it was some years ago I believe that the parties agreed to have their caucuses on the same day to maximize the impact of Iowa. Maybe back to the future, so to speak, when we go back to separate caucuses. But clearly the great thing for Iowa and Iowa political activists of both parties, is that we're the center of the political universe every four years. The problem was there we had Monday night the attention of the entire political world both nationally and internationally and nobody showed up on stage with any results. And so that was the difficulty. Republicans have a simpler caucus because remember, it's not even anything formal, it's simply a preference vote, an expression of preference. And that's what I've said all the time to folks who come in that all this is about expectations. The four early states together this year I think nominate or they send about 3.9% of all total convention delegates for the democrats this year whereas Super Tuesday those states send 34%. So the key thing about Iowa and Iowa's position is that Iowa is an indicator in both parties as to what real party activists, not an opinion poll, not a polling sample, not a man on the street interview, what real party activists think about their candidates.

Henderson: Professor Hoffman, one of the impacts of having the caucuses go first is that you have a professionalized political class in Iowa who knows how to run campaigns and that bubbles down and sort of percolates up but it also bubbles down. What would be the impact if republicans went first and democrats did not? Would that make the Democratic Party sort of a second class party?

Hoffman: It could. One of the things that is important in terms of how Iowa is considered in a general election is the strength of the party. So we are competitive in a general election, we swing. Sometimes we swing rather largely, but we do swing. And part of the position that we have in that sense can be attributed to the strength of the two parties and the caucus system helps with that. And so if the democrats were not doing the organizing, if they were relegated to not first status on the democratic side, then they might suffer. If the republicans were not relegated to a similar status they might benefit from that. And this is one of the things that the parties in the state do typically cooperate on. If you remember right after the caucuses both Senator Ernst and Senator Grassley came out with a joint statement saying this is okay, basically, we still have votes to count. And so democrats and republicans do usually cooperate. So before we would split that up I would expect that there would be a lot of deliberation and a lot of discussion both within the state and at the national stage about how to approach keeping this together for the benefit of the state as a whole.

Yepsen: Senator Harkin has said, to your point, that one of the reasons he was able to win the 1984 U.S. Senate race was all this great democratic organization that was built during the caucuses that the republicans didn't have. So that is an advantage to whichever party is having a contest.

Hoffman: It certainly is and if you think about what it takes to put on a caucus, so you had, if you count the satellite caucuses the democrats had 1,700 plus precincts caucusing where you have to have a chairman, you have to have a secretary, those people are volunteers, they're not getting paid and they are giving of their time for this purpose, for that party. If you're doing it in such a way that it's later and it doesn't have as much attention then you may not get that base and those people who get involved in the central committee of the counties, work, do that hard work to keep the party strong in those areas that can parlay benefits later on for the party.

Yepsen: Dennis, if this plays out the way it has played out in the past, there's always this criticism of Iowa and a vow to try to do away with it, and those decisions start getting made at the national conventions. And we go to the national conventions and the eventual nominees of the party say knock it off, we don't want to talk about 2024, we've got an election to win in 2020 and New Hampshire certainly is a battleground state, Iowa may or may not be. And so the conversation gets postponed. Doesn't the sitting President then, the new President who takes office in 2021, doesn't that individual have a lot to say about what happens in his or her party?

Goldford: Well, yeah, the sitting President certainly has some sway but it's not the President that ultimately determines this. Whatever happens in the 2020 elections the republicans will need a new nominee in 2024, we know that. And you can be sure that people that might be thinking of that are going to be looking at the Iowa Caucuses in terms of their particular advantage or disadvantage from having them.

Yepsen: And to Kay's point, Chairman Kaufmann has sat right where you're sitting and said, we're on, game on, we're going to go ahead. And they don't have this hang up about delegate equivalents and all that. So that is likely to continue in the GOP, is it not?

Goldford: Well, it certainly makes things a lot easier and simpler to keep track of in that regard. Yeah, the democrats complicate this immensely. And I read through the democratic procedures at least twice for this time around and each time toward the end I kept thinking it shouldn't be this complicated.

Yepsen: 77 pages. Professor Hoffman, I want to go back to what happened here in Iowa. What were some of the things you saw that went wrong on Caucus Night?

Hoffman: I think generally speaking the reports I'm hearing is that on Caucus Night in the precincts it was somewhat typical. Now, caucuses are always a bit chaotic. But it was somewhat typical, for the most part, especially given that they are implementing new rules from the 77 page document, that it went fairly well all things considered. It's really that reporting aspect that was problematic and people using multiple ways, the app was certainly problematic, but there was a backup, the phone. That didn't seem to work out as well. And then kind of an overall confusion. And I think that got compounded when you then got press reports of no results, no results and then problems and then maybe you had a little bit of panic as well in that regard.

Yepsen: So the have to fix their app, maybe test it more. What is Nevada's solution? They are now throwing out the app and saying we're going to have paper ballots that are scanned and tabulated that way. Dennis, will that work?

Goldford: I mean, it could well work, but everything is always subject to human error, there's no question about that. But again, it's the issue of precisely what are these caucuses supposed to do? They are party building exercises in all the states, the relatively few states remaining that use them, that does make a difference. But at the same time are they clear, easily understandable, efficient ways of contributing toward the accumulation of delegates on the part of candidates? We didn't do so well this time, to understate it, and I know Nevada is concerned about that occurring with them as well.

Murphy: So we eventually did get results. It took three days but we got them. And of course they're being contested by some of the campaigns right now as well. But we have results. Pete Buttigieg by a very, very narrow margin has the slightest edge in state delegates equivalents over Bernie Sanders. But because of the way the results slowly trickled out and so much of the attention was instead on the failures on Caucus Night, start with you Professor Goldford, do we have any indication of whether that usual Iowa bump happened from the results of the caucus moving into New Hampshire? Did any of the campaigns benefit from what happened in Iowa? Or was it like Iowa never really happened?

Goldford: Well, partly it depends upon how you measure that. But in terms of press attention and political attention generally it certainly gave the Buttigieg campaign a bump. Here's someone really we need to take a look at, there was that. It certainly showed the weaknesses in the Biden campaign. And despite people for months saying how good the Warren organization was she certainly didn't live up to expectations in that regard. So again, the whole issue of delegates aside, in terms of getting a sense of the relative standing of the various candidates the caucuses I think in that sense did do their traditional job.

Yepsen: Professor Hoffman, what is your answer to that question? What impact, if any, did Iowa have?

Hoffman: Yeah, I would agree. New Hampshire likes to say they're so independent they don't pay attention to Iowa, right? But I think you did very much see them take another look at Buttigieg, also maybe Klobuchar. Now, Klobuchar helped herself I think with a debate performance in between there as well. The danger here is whatever the system looks like in the next round is that there might be some candidates say, you know what, I'm just not going to come to Iowa. We saw that this cycle and we've seen it before a little bit, but we saw it with Bloomberg, for example. But there may be a concern on some candidates that they didn't see that. I actually though would say that for a candidate, depending on what it looks like obviously, but Iowa is still a good bet in terms of coming to campaign and trying to talk to people, answer questions. I was at a Pete Buttigieg event on campus before the caucuses and somebody asked him a question about our education. Where are you going to get a question like that on a national debate stage or maybe even in another state?

Henderson: Professor Goldford, let's talk about turnout. There were some estimates in late 2019 that turnout might be 300,000. It turned out to be far lower than that and was not a record. Should the Democratic Party be worried about how juiced their people are about politics?

Goldford: Absolutely. To me that was actually the big story coming out of the caucuses. Supposedly, at least the latest figures I saw, showed that in the urban areas turnout was up but in the non-urban areas, especially in the Obama/Trump areas, the people that voted, the counties where people voted for Barack Obama in 2012 and then Donald Trump in 2016 turnout was flat or down in those particular areas. Yeah, the democrats nationwide took control of the House in 2018, it helped Cindy Axne in Iowa's third, it helped Representative Finkenaur in Iowa's first district. There's no question about that. And the only way the democrats have a shot at turning out an incumbent president is with that juiced up turnout and we just didn't see it in Iowa. So that had to be a major disappointment to Iowa democrats.

Henderson: Professor Hoffman, a couple of other factors in turnout. Number one, what influence do you think President Trump had on turnout?

Hoffman: Well, I would not disagree with Dennis, but I might amplify another alternative viewpoint here is that if you look at some of the polling, democrats were united around this feeling on issues. What is your main issue? Removing Trump. Now, if you're a democrat and you know the caucuses are on a cold night, it's going to take a couple hours of your time, there's a very broad field of democrats, you're okay with whoever the democrats are going to nominate, maybe you did stay home. Now, I think that you probably have multiple things at work here and I agree with Dennis, the democrats do definitely want to watch that. But you could also have a factor here where the democrats said, I don't care if they nominate a yellow dog, as sometimes historically we have had it said about democrats, that is who they would vote for. That could have depressed turnout in some places.

Murphy: Speaking of turnout, the benefit of having you both here is you both work on college campuses and youth turnout was something we wanted to watch closely in this race. What was your impression? And have we seen exit polling data that shows whether young people turned out for this caucus? Professor Goldford?

Goldford: I think there might have been a small bump. I'm trying to remember if I saw good exit polling data on that. But a lot of the young, a lot of the Sanders support obviously is the younger voters. There are democrats worried about that because they're concerned that voters like that who are necessary if they're going to have a shot at winning, there are some mainstream democrats  who are worried that if Sanders is not the nominee they won't turnout for anybody in the fall. So if you look at any set of voting statistics obviously as age rises, voting turnout rises, as education rises, voting turnout rises. But generally speaking, looking at Iowa or anywhere nationwide, republicans generally turn out at higher rates than democrats. Both turn out at higher rates than independents.

Yepsen: Professor Hoffman, is there a danger to democrats in a third party? We've seen disaffected democrats in the past side with the Green's or other parties, other third parties. Is there a risk in this race of that happening?

Hoffman: I think there's always a risk of that when you have somebody who is disaffected in terms of the process potentially who wants to step outside of that framework of the party and make a go of it, but where the other party is going to stay united, where you're going to split up a democratic vote and allow a minority president to come in, someone getting the minority of the vote, and we've seen it before on both sides of the political party aisle and that is always a concern. So the democrats obviously want to stay unified in that goal that they seem to have of making sure that President Trump is a one-term President.

Henderson: We haven't much time left. Professor Goldford, what will be the impact of a Bloomberg candidacy? Can we tell that now? Do we have to wait until Super Tuesday results come in?

Goldford: Obviously the amount of money he brings to bear is a major impact. But again, if memory serves in the fall of 2007 nationwide the leading republican candidate was Rudy Giuliani and Giuliani did not compete in Iowa, he did not compete in New Hampshire, he started in Florida, and of course that didn't go well.

Yepsen: But Rudy Giuliani didn't have $300 million.

Goldford: Right, but the point is that he, my conclusion from that, the money aside, was that you've got to start in either or both New Hampshire or Iowa. And Bloomberg is basically a new test of that particular perspective. I think to a great extent though for all the talk about him we've got to wait until Super Tuesday to see if that money is buying him anything.

Henderson: About this time last year there was a lot of political chatter about the government shutdown. That was the huge story. How much of a story will the Iowa Caucuses be in November? And what impact might that have on how democrats perform?

Hoffman: I don't think much of one, think back to the shutdown that you mentioned, it seems like it was five years ago, not just a year ago. And so I think democrats to a large degree have moved on from the caucuses. Politicos are still talking about it obviously but we moved to New Hampshire, we're going to move to Nevada, they're going to move to South Carolina, then Super Tuesday. And you often times see, you've seen in other races where democrats may sanction a state for leapfrogging or something like that. By the time the convention rolls around that is essentially all forgotten. We even sometimes restore your delegates. And we try to go forward as one big happy family. And so you typically are going to get that. There's even discussion now of democrats going into a contested convention. We often times get discussion of that too but it's not in a party's interest to do that. And so usually it's just talk, something that we can talk about. But it's usually not going to happen because a party is going to do the things they need to do to prevent that if they at all possibly can and they do have some levers by which they can do that with.

Murphy: Professor Goldford, just a little bit more than a minute left here. Professor Hoffman mentioned that Iowa has in the past few elections been a swing state, have been competitive. Will Iowa be, it went for almost 10 points to President Trump four years ago, will it be a competitive state this fall?

Goldford: That depends upon turnout on the part of democrats and whether in fact they can win back the support of any of the independents who are the plurality, the biggest single group of registered voters in Iowa.

Yepsen: Professor Hoffman, same question. Is this a battleground state?

Hoffman: I think it still is because, again, even though Trump won by almost 10 points, Obama in 2008 won by a similar margin, that margin went down in '12. You look at the Gore/Bush from earlier. We swing back and forth. It is a game of turnout. We know that democrats are excited but republicans are excited too. We saw it in 2018, both were excited, democrats were a little bit more excited.

Yepsen: Less than a minute. Is one problem democrats have that young people are leaving Iowa? Young people tend to be voting democratic. But as we educate them they move to other states, they don't stay here, and the effect of that is to leave Iowa a more republican state. Is that a big problem for democrats?

Hoffman: I think that is a problem. But you also do sometimes have some of those people that leave the state as young people come back to raise families. And then the question is are they participating and how are they participating?

Yepsen: Just a few seconds.

Goldford: You've always got that particular issue. Yes, the older voters here tend to vote more republican and they vote more regularly.

Yepsen: Thank you. Thank you both for being with us today, appreciate it. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and Noon on Sunday. 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.