Mellman: Looking to Iowa

If you think the Iowa caucus results are now settled, you have been paying inadequate attention to the history of this remarkable ritual of American politics.

And with Iowa unsettled, the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination is far from over, because, as regulars are no doubt sick of reading, results in the early states, particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, exert a powerful influence on who ultimately emerges as the nominee.

FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average of recent Iowa polling gives Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., 21.4 percent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) 19 percent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) 17.2 percent and former Vice President Joe Biden 16 percent. 

Fewer than 6 points now separate first and fourth place. History suggests even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is garnering just 4.6 percent, isn’t out of it yet.

At a similar point in the 2012 GOP race, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) led former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by double digits, while former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) held down 6th place with about 5 percent of the vote.

On caucus night, it was Santorum in the winner’s circle with Romney in second, Rand Paul in third and Gingrich in fourth place. 

In a little more than a month, Gingrich’s support was cut in half, while Santorum gained some 20 points, multiplying his vote by three to five times.

That’s hardly unique.

A couple of months prior to the 2004 caucuses, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean led former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (Mo.) by over 20 points in national surveys, with Wesley Clark, and in some polls then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.), standing between Gephardt and Dean. Then-Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) languished in single digits.

Iowa polling painted a different picture. There, it was a pitched battle between Dean and Gephardt, with Kerry double digits behind the leaders. Then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) was farther back, in mid-single digits.

Neither portrait foretold the results weeks later as Kerry and Edwards ran first and second on caucus night, each more than doubling the vote Dean and Gephardt received.

Seeing a front-runner’s curse in this history would be silly. However, the facts do reveal that Iowa can break quite late, in very different directions than are expected, with little relationship to national polls.


First, it’s a relatively small electorate. The record for Democratic turnout was in 2008 when about 240,000 braved the Iowa winter to caucus. That number could be meaningfully higher this year, but it’s still small enough that many have direct exposure to candidates. 

Already last month, nearly half have seen at least one of the candidates in-person at the over 1,600 public events the potential nominees have held in the state. Over a third have seen two or more candidates in-person. 

Iowans are given (or more accurately, took for themselves) awesome power in our system, but they take it seriously. They meet the candidates, listen to them, watch them under pressure and in day-to-day settings and evaluate them. They are not just seeing a television ad or reading a newspaper headline. 

Second, there is a lot more indecision and uncertainty than poll reports suggest. While pundits and prognosticators would love these voters to come to an early and irrevocable decision, voters know they don’t have to, and they don’t. 

Ann Selzer’s November Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll found that although only 7 percent are “undecided,” a majority are actively considering more than one candidate, with many thinking about giving their support to more than two.

Indeed, just 30 percent say their minds are made up. Seventy percent are still open to persuasion, still ready to change, or make up, their minds.

In 2016, nearly 40 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans (who had a more crowded field) say they made their final voting decision in the last month. Sixteen percent of Democrats and 35 percent of Republicans claim they were genuinely undecided until just days before the caucus itself. 

Anyone in search of even near certainty two months before caucus day should abandon that quest and focus instead on what may be changing.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

Tags 2020 Democratic presidential candidates 2020 presidential campaign Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Elizabeth Warren Iowa caucus Joe Biden John Kerry Mitt Romney Newt Gingrich Pete Buttigieg Polling Rand Paul

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