The Iowa story is about psychology, not arithmetic.
Iowa sends 44 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, 30 to the Republican National Convention. In each case, the state accounts for only about one percent of the total number of delegates.
About 171,000 Democrats and 180,000 Republicans took part in the caucuses. Although news stories are talking about high levels of participation, the combined total of 351,000 adds up to just 18 percent of Iowa’s 1.9 million active registered voters. Or to put the matter into a California perspective, Iowa caucus turnout was about 20 percent less than the number of San Diego County residents who cast ballots in the not-very-exciting 2014 gubernatorial primary.
Iowa is neither representative nor predictive. In contrast to America’s growing ethnic diversity, 87 percent of Iowans are non-Hispanic whites. Only three non-incumbent victors in the caucuses – Jimmy Carter in 1976, George W. Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008 – have gone on to win the general election.
So why are commentators and political operatives getting so excited about such a bad bellwether? After months of unreliable polls and unfounded speculation, the Iowa caucuses represent the first official event of the nomination process. With no other “real” numbers to go on, observers assign outsized significance to the Iowa results.
This significance, in turn, depends less on winning delegates than on beating expectations. Cruz, Trump, and Rubio all got similar numbers of delegates (8,7, and 7), but Cruz and Rubio were the “winners” because they did better than the pundits expected. Trump had been the putative favorite, so he was the “loser” – or in Trumpian terms, a huge, disgusting, pathetic, sad loser.
On the Democratic side, the results are a statistical dead heat, meaning that Clinton and Sanders will come away with about the same number of convention delegates. Because Clinton has a tiny numerical advantage (as of early Tuesday morning anyway), her supporters are declaring victory. But because polls and pundits had previously put Clinton ahead, Sanders is claiming bragging rights.
Despite a weak statistical basis, the perceptions coming out of Iowa do have some real-world consequences. Campaign contributors and political leaders pay close attention, so the “winners” pick up money and organizational support while the losers face pressure to exit the race. Indeed, even before bedtime last night, Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Martin O’Malley dropped out. Others will soon follow suit.
As more states hold primaries and caucuses, the focus will shift from symbolic outcomes to the actual delegate totals that will determine the nominees. In the end, contests will be about arithmetic, not psychology