Counting the Votes: Steve Jarding on the Iowa Caucus

February 2, 2016
by Doug Gavel

The 2016 U.S. presidential election season is now in high gear with the completion of the Iowa caucus. Voters congregated yesterday (Feb. 1) in cities and towns throughout the Hawkeye State to select their choices for nominees for both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), is recognized as an expert in campaign management and political strategies, having managed campaigns or served in senior roles for U.S. Senators Tom Daschle (D-SD), Bob Kerrey (D-NE), Jim Webb (D-VA), John Edwards (D-NC), Tim Johnson (D-SD), and Mark Warner (D-VA). We spoke with him about this year’s Iowa caucus and what the results could mean for the candidates going forward.  

Q: How does the caucus work compared to typical primaries?

Jarding: In primary elections in the U.S., voters go to a designated polling place and check in with voting officials by giving them identification, before getting a ballot with candidate names wherein the voter then enters a private voting booth to mark his or her ballot for their preferred candidates. In a caucus system, the process is much different. In the Iowa caucuses, Iowa voters in each party gather at designated polling places in the over 1680 precincts where they cast ballots for their preferred candidates, which are then represented by delegates to the 99 corresponding county conventions which are held later and which ultimately select delegates for the presidential nominating conventions.

The format of the caucuses is such that rather than voting in a private voting booth, Iowa voters go to a designated location – often in schools, public libraries, churches and even individual homes – where they initially go to a designated part of the room representing a particular candidate, or they go to a designated part of the room for undecided voters. Then as a group, they openly debate the groups’ support, allowing voters to switch from candidate to candidate before grouping up at a designated time to determine which voters line up with which candidates. 

On the Republican side, unlike in past caucuses, selected delegates are bound to vote for candidates in proportion to the votes cast for each candidate at the caucus sites. And as with the Democrats, participants in the party’s caucus must be registered with that party, although participants can change their registration at the caucus location. Also, voters who are 18 by the date of the general election can also participate in the caucuses – thus 17-year-olds can participate. Additionally, the caucuses allow observers, so long as they do not become actively involved in the actual debates or voting process.  

On the Democratic side, things are a bit more complex. For the first 30 minutes of the caucus, voters stand in a designated area indicating candidate preference. Then after 30 minutes of debate, electioneering is halted and voters for each candidate are counted. Democrats have a 15 percent “viability” standard, which states that for a candidate to receive any delegates, he or she must have the support of at least 15 percent of the caucus participants. Once viability is determined, participants who supported a candidate who did not get to the 15 percent threshold have another 30 minutes to realign to other candidates. 

Q: Who are the winners and losers in the Iowa caucuses? 

Jarding: On the Republican side, clearly Ted Cruz is the big winner – although with Iowa’s history of supporting candidates from the far right, his win should not be seen as a total surprise.  Remember that Iowa Republicans have also supported Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in their two most recent caucuses – candidates who appealed to the evangelical voters who have been dominating Iowa’s Republican caucuses in recent years.

In addition, Marco Rubio’s strong third-place finish is a victory for him as more of the mainstream candidate of the top three finishers. Finally, Donald Trump will be seen as a loser in Iowa as he had led in most of the polls leading up to caucus night – although most of those polls showed the race narrowing as the caucus date approached. Trump will have to regroup, but should not be discounted heading to New Hampshire, as that is much more favorable territory for him. 

On the Democratic side, the assessment of winners and losers is more difficult, as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders can claim victory in that razor-close race.   In truth, Hillary Clinton must feel a bit shaken by the results, although remember that Iowa was not kind to her eight years ago, so an essential tie will be spun as a victory by her camp. More important, Hillary’s best states should lie ahead of her, as there is a real question as to whether Bernie Sanders will have any base outside of the more liberal caucus-goers in Iowa and the more liberal northeastern part of the country. 

Q: How important is the caucus within the greater landscape of the presidential race?

Jarding: While it is always better to win early and get the major earned media bounce from an early victory, history suggests that the Iowa caucus is not always predictive of the ultimate winner – particularly in recent times on the Republican side. Again, Huckabee won it in 2008 when John McCain went on to win the Republican nomination (he finished fourth in Iowa) and Rick Santorum won it in 2012 with Mitt Romney a close second, and of course Romney went on to win the nomination. 

Moreover, because Iowa  is not the most representative state in the union – very rural and white with a small population (Iowa will send about one percent of the nation’s delegates to each party to their respective conventions) – it is often seen as less impactful than most. But again, being first, the bounce that it gives its winners cannot be discounted completely.

Q: Do the results from the caucus change the trajectory of the race for each of the two major parties?

Jarding: On the Republican side, clearly these results will have a narrowing effect that will impact that race. We now have essentially three major candidates there instead of 10 or 11, as candidates who did poorly here will begin to drop and their support will likely gravitate to the top three candidates. Most observers feel that this will help Marco Rubio, as supporters for candidates like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich likely will see him as closer to the views and values of Rubio than they will for either Cruz or Trump. Yet, observers also feel that Ben Carson’s supporters are more likely to gravitate toward Ted Cruz than they are to Rubio or Trump.  

On the Democratic side, arguably the results don’t change much, as the polls suggested it was very tight going into the caucuses. As such, it likely merely puts more pressure on New Hampshire and South Carolina, although a case can be made that Hillary now needs a win in New Hampshire or the tide could be turning for Sanders. But again, the calendar looks like it now favors Hillary much more than it does Bernie Sanders.  

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Tags: Electoral Politics Electoral Politics , Voting Voting

Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy

Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy

"While it is always better to win early and get the major earned media bounce from an early victory, history suggests that the Iowa caucus is not always predictive of the ultimate winner." --Steve Jarding, lecturer in public policy

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