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How good is Iowa at picking White House winners?

February 1, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
How well do the Iowa caucuses predict success for a presidential candidate? Hari Sreenivasan and the NewsHour data team take a look at that state’s track record, what Iowans are posting on social media and how well these voters match up to the country’s demographics at large.

GWEN IFILL: Now we want to dig into the numbers just a bit, not just the results, but key facts about Iowa and Iowans.

Hari Sreenivasan breaks it down — Hari.


Our data team looked to see Iowa’s track record in picking winners and how similar Iowans are to the rest of the country. The caucuses are far from a perfect predictor of who goes on to become the party’s nominee or eventually to the White House.

In fact, for Democrats, it is slightly better than flipping a coin. The caucuses have picked the candidate correctly 55 percent of the time. For Republicans, the process has only been right 43 percent of the time.

For example, in 1992, three-quarters of Iowa Democrats stood behind longtime Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. That year, Bill Clinton only received 3 percent of the votes, but later went on to serve two terms as president.

We do have better indicators today to which candidate has been on the minds of Iowans in the week leading up to tonight. Over the last week, Facebook users in Iowa had more to say about Donald Trump than any other presidential candidate, Republican or Democrat. You saw that same trend nationwide. Behind Trump on the Republican side were Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson. And among Democrats, Iowans had the most to say about Hillary Clinton, followed by Bernie Sanders and then Martin O’Malley.

Of the issues that most concerned Iowans on Facebook, crime and criminal justice, abortion, taxes and the Affordable Care Act, there was only one topic the rest of the country was talking about. That’s Wall Street and financial regulation. According to Facebook, the rest of the nation is also talking about topics including religion, racism and discrimination, jobs and Benghazi.

But who are today’s Iowans, and how do they compare to the rest of the country? They register to vote slightly more than the rest of the nation. In 2012, three out of four Iowans were registered, vs. two out of three Americans. Among Iowans 18 or older, the state’s median household income is $53,712, almost exactly the national average.

And the poverty rate, 11 percent, is also similar the rest of the United States. But there is a significant difference. And that’s race. According to the census, about nine out of 10 Iowans are white. Nationwide, that number is far lower, about two-thirds. Fewer Latino and African-American voters call Iowa home, compared to the rest of the nation — Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Thanks, Hari.