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Myths and facts in Iowa

As the eyes of the political class turn toward Iowa, it is time to clear away a few cobwebs and dispel three myths that have grown up around the legendary caucuses.

Myth 1: Iowans vote electability. Almost everyone says it, but if this myth were a reality, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani would be knocking ’em dead in Des Moines and across the state. In the latest Iowa Poll, 42 percent of Democrats thought Clinton the most electable, compared to 23 percent for Edwards and 14 percent for Obama. Yet, Clinton garners just 29 percent of the vote with Edwards and Obama close behind at 23 and 22 percent respectively. Clinton under-polls her electability quotient by 13 points, while Obama over-polls his by 8.

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The disparity on the Republican side is even more dramatic. Though Giuliani tops the electability chart (nearly a third identify him as most electable), he gets the votes of just 11 percent, holding down fourth place, one point behind Mike Huckabee.

While not trivial, the importance of electability has long been overstated as the key to Iowa victory.

In 2004, Democratic caucus-goers were asked which one of five candidate qualities was most important to them and 71 percent selected a trait other than the ability to beat Bush. John Kerry did win 37 percent of electability voters, but if he had lost that segment overwhelmingly, he still would have won the night and the nomination.

Iowans take their role seriously, evaluating candidates carefully, and while they tend to support candidates who pass a threshold test of viability, they vote for candidates they believe in, not merely those they think most likely to succeed.

Myth 2: Iowa is all about organization. The theory here is simple but misleading: turnout is small, the demands on caucus-goers great and therefore organization is king. In truth, while organization is vitally important, it is not sufficient; message matters as much in Iowa’s caucuses as it does in New Hampshire’s primary.

Dick Gephardt’s surge in the days just before the 1988 caucuses came from an ad, not just from an organization. John Kerry had a great organization in Iowa, but it was his message that enabled him to double his vote in 20 days.

Indeed, Kerry organizers were frightened as the caucuses began, because relatively few of the people they had been courting showed up, but a vast array of “unorganized” voters put Kerry over the top.

A related mythology is the vaunted “hard count” —organizers’ tally of those solidly committed to their candidate. In 2004, three campaigns went into caucus night with hard counts that should have put them in first place; two of them finished below second.

Myth 3: It’s all about turnout. It’s a sure sign: When a campaign claims it’s going to win on turnout, they will likely lose.

The arithmetic is punishing. Say, for example, “Candidate C” is winning by a relatively narrow 4-point margin with a group that normally makes up 90 percent of the electorate, while “Candidate O” is ahead by 10 points among a segment that is usually just 10 percent. And lets say “O’s” appeal and exhortations somehow double the turnout among his favorite segment, while turnout does not increase one iota among the rest of the electorate. Even in this almost impossible to imagine scenario, “O” still loses. Neither “Candidate O” nor any real competitor can hope to win just on turnout.

As I argued a couple of weeks ago, several candidates on both sides can still win Iowa, but they won’t emerge victorious, and observers will not understand what happened, if strategizing and analysis is clouded by mythology.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.