A race for second place in Iowa? Dig deeper into the numbers

A race for second place in Iowa? Dig deeper into the numbers
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The Des Moines Register and Ann Selzer conduct the gold standard of Iowa caucus polls, so it’s no surprise that its latest Des Moines Register/Mediacom/CNN Iowa Poll survey released on June 8 generated headlines nationwide.

Most of the takeaways sound similar, focused either on the horse race at the top — former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Top Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony The great AI debate: What candidates are (finally) saying about artificial intelligence MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders urges impeachment trial 'quickly' in the Senate The media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' Steyer rolls out 5B plan to invest in historically black colleges MORE (D-Mass.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe media have fallen out of love with Bernie, but have voters? Tulsi Gabbard reacts to Afghanistan report, calls out Pete Buttigieg's McKinsey work Buttigieg surrogate on candidate's past consulting work: 'I don't think it matters' MORE — or those stuck at the bottom of a vast 24-candidate field. Politico noted that “Biden stretches lead over Sanders.” CNN and CBS focused on those chasing the former vice president: “Biden leads, with Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg in tight race for second.” Slate and Vox framed the results as Biden ahead but “slipping,” as Warren and Buttigieg “surge.”

All of those stories, however, are based on just one question from the Iowa survey: Which 2020 Democrat is your first choice? While the headlines accurately reflect the answer — Biden ahead of a tightening second tier — that snapshot gives a misleading picture of the entire poll, as well as the rules that power voters in the Iowa caucus.

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That’s because second and backup choices matter a lot in Iowa. The most important word in the opening round of a caucus is “viability.” A candidate needs 15 percent of the caucus vote to earn delegates. But supporters of candidates who fall short of viability can then support a viable backup choice able to surpass 15 percent. Underscoring how this system is effectively ranked choice voting, Iowa Democrats are expanding access by allowing early voting. These "virtual caucus" voters will rank their top five candidates. If their first choice finishes last, their ballot goes to their next choice and and will end up counting for their top ranked candidate who is viable. In Iowa, your vote truly counts.

Pay too much attention to the headlines and the horse race coverage and you’d see Biden at 24 percent, being chased by Sanders (16 percent), Warren (15 percent), and Buttigieg (14 percent). You might think that Biden remains the favorite in Iowa, and even that he is widening his lead over the rest of the pack.

But that’s not actually the case. Dig deeper into the numbers, keep in mind how the vote actually will be conducted, and the race looks much different — and is essentially a dead heat among several frontrunners.

The poll asked voters to name their second choice, as well as candidates they are actively considering. When you combine those three measures, you get a much more accurate sense of the race: Biden and Warren are suddenly tied at 61 percent. Sanders takes third with 56 percent, and Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) tie for fourth with 52 percent. Three other candidates — Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) — top 30 percent.

The Iowa Poll doesn’t yet release its data in as useful a way as ideal because in the actual caucuses, every voter has only one vote — your second or next backup choice only counts if your first choice is eliminated. As a result, it matters which voters rank you after their first choice and how you fare against your top opponents once votes coalesce around the viable candidates. Future Iowa Poll results may show this more accurate assessment of the state of play.

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Given the importance of second choices, it’s also important to look at the favorability and unfavorability numbers of candidates. The highest net favorability among likely in-person caucus goers? It’s Warren first at 54 percent, followed by Harris at 50 percent, Buttigieg at 49 percent, Biden at 48 percent, and then Sanders at 45 percent.

Of course, it’s still early. A Des Moines Register poll released on May 30, 2015, at a similar junction in the 2016 cycle, found former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with a 7-point lead in first choices (the only ones that count on the Republican side), chased by “a tight pack of four in a clear top tier” of current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.  

Although polls can’t predict where a race ends up, they can be useful in giving us a sense of where it stands right now — that is, when they are accurately and carefully interpreted. If you want to understand the state of play in Iowa, you have to consider second choices, especially in a 24-candidate caucus that may necessitate more shifting to backup choices than ever before.

Biden clearly remains formidable. But it’s not, as CNN and others suggested, simply “a close race for second” here. Look inside these Iowa numbers and Biden actually may be in a virtual tie with Warren at the top. Buckle up for the debates and the next eight months of campaigning.

Rob Richie is president and CEO of FairVote. He is co-author of “Every Vote Equal” and “Whose Votes Count?” Follow him on Twitter @Rob_Richie.

David Daley is a senior fellow at FairVote and the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” (Norton). Follow him on Twitter @davedaley3.