UW News

January 28, 2016

Iowa caucuses: Expectations can trump votes, but will Trump meet expectations?

UW News

CNN News announces Mike Huckabee the winner of the 2008 Republican Iowa caucus. But winning Iowa does not always lead to the nomination, which that year went to Sen. John McCain.

CNN News announces Mike Huckabee the winner of the 2008 Republican Iowa caucus. But winning in Iowa does not always lead to the nomination, which that year went to Sen. John McCain.Brian Johnson & Diane Kantner/Flickr

In the Iowa caucuses, expectations are nearly as important as votes and front-runners must watch their backs, say University of Washington professors who are closely watching this year’s presidential race.

The 2016 Iowa caucuses will be held Monday, Feb. 1, pitting Democratic leader Hillary Clinton against Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley and Republican mogul and mouth Donald Trump against Sen. Ted Cruz among a lineup of largely ineffective opponents.

We asked political scientists Mark A. Smith and John Wilkerson and historian Margaret O’Mara for some context and commentary — things that are good to remember as we head into this corn-fed contest in the state whose tourism slogan is “Fields of opportunity.”

O’Mara, a professor of history, set the stage noting that in the 1976 primary season, “Jimmy Carter put Iowa on the map, and Iowa put Jimmy Carter on the map.”

With the calendar filling with primaries — the result of reforms from the 1960s and early 1970s — and a crowded field of candidates, the little-known Georgia governor went “all in” on the Iowa caucuses to get a “first win” and the momentum to continue. “It worked, brilliantly,” O’Mara said, in part because Carter was such a natural, easy campaigner. Iowa has been a battleground in most campaigns since then.

Wilkerson, a professor of political science, said that in the Iowa caucuses, those who beat expectations get a boost in positive attention and those who don’t “get the opposite.

“So I would say Trump and Clinton have the most to lose because they are expected to win,” Wilkerson said. “If Cruz and Sanders do better than expected — they don’t have to win — they will benefit from more and more positive media coverage.”

The same is true of the field of other candidates, he said. Any who rise above the group, “without even coming close to winning,” will likely see more press and voter attention.

Smith, a professor of political science, agreed with Wilkerson’s points and added that because of the interactive, hours-long caucus format, “passion counts for a lot in determining who wins. And as a result, the outcome hinges more on depth of support than breadth.”

That passion, as measured by the Iowa caucuses, can also be important later in the campaign, Smith said, “since it predicts fundraising, volunteer support and other forms of active participation in the race.”

And while winning in Iowa can boost or wound a candidacy, it’s only one of many steps to the nomination. Few know that better than the last two Republican Iowa winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — neither of whom came anywhere near winning their party’s nomination.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s strong showing in 2008 bumped Hillary Clinton to third place and “seemed to propel him into a good position,” Smith said, largely though the media coverage dynamic that Wilkerson described.

The one time recently when the Iowa caucuses truly “turned the tide,” historian O’Mara said, was in 2004 when then-Sen. John Kerry “beat back the antiwar insurgent campaign of Howard Dean, who had expected to win, and established the momentum that took him to the nomination.”

Wilkerson added, “It’s also important to remember that a lot of the candidates already have substantial war chests” that could see them through early losses. “If they do well on Super Tuesday, Iowa and New Hampshire are forgotten.”

The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9. Super Tuesday, with 11 states voting, is on March 1 and then five more contests will be held on March 15.

So starting Feb. 1, the odd presidential race of 2016 will be more than just stand-up debates and ad campaigns — it will involve the voters.

Voters like the ones Arizona congressman Morris Udall met in a New Hampshire barbershop during his unsuccessful 1976 bid for the presidency.

“Hi, I’m Mo Udall, and I’m running for president,” he said.

“Yes we know,” replied the barber. “We were all just laughing about that this morning!”


For more information, contact Smith at 206-616-3606 or masmith@uw.edu, Wilkerson at 206-543-8030 or jwilker@uw.edu or O’Mara at momara@uw.edu.