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After a year and a half of speeches, town hall meetings, and tens of millions of dollars spent, the Iowa caucuses will finally produce a winner of the first in the nation contests. Or will they? With the Democrats revamping their vote-count rules, it may be possible to have a two- or even three-way tie. Special correspondent Jeff Greenfield explains the caucuses process from Iowa.
The polling in Iowa has had various Democratic presidential candidates in the lead over these past several months, and tomorrow's caucuses are a bellwether event. But who wins is going to be decided differently this year because of a new change. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield explains.
Hari, after a year and a half of speeches, town meetings, coffee shop chats, after tens of millions of dollars of advertising, the Iowa caucuses tomorrow will finally give us a winner in that first in the nation contest. …But maybe not. Maybe there will be two winners, or even three who will claim victory. Why? Because of the way these caucuses work.
This is how most voters helped choose their party's candidates in a primary. You vote when it's convenient. Polls usually open 12 hours a day. You cast your ballot, a secret ballot, of course. You leave. But not in Iowa. This first-in-the-nation state holds caucuses in some 1,681 precincts. And the rules are unique and complex. First, you have to show up at a given time, 7:00 p.m. Central Time usually, and make your selection openly. There's no absentee voting, no way to keep your preference private. Then you wait to hear how your candidate's done. If your candidate does not have 15 percent of the precinct caucus, that candidate is not viable. And if you've supported that candidate, well, you can either leave or align with a different candidate, after listening to the pitches of those supporting the leading candidates.
Iowa caucus speaker, 2016: He has proven to be a defender of life and marriage and religious liberty.
And that's when the final results are known. But traditionally, those numbers can be less than clear. Look at these results from 2016. The Republican total represents actual voters. In their caucuses they take an actual poll and release the results. But Democrats don't. They release what are called state delegate equivalent numbers, which reflect how much strength each candidate will have at the state convention down the road. No one actually knows whether more caucus participants actually voted for Clinton or Sanders back in 2016. Why? Because no matter how many voters show up in a caucus, there are only so many delegates to be awarded. So many of those votes will be wasted. The same way Hillary Clinton didn't get any more electoral votes in November from winning California by 4 million votes than if she'd won by just 4,000. If you have more support in one part of the state, that will help get you delegate equivalents in regions where you're weak.
So this time, after years of complaints, Iowa Democrats are doing something different. They will release the actual preferences of participants as they enter the caucuses. Next, they will count the actual preferences of caucus goers after the realignment. And then they will calculate those delegate equivalent numbers.
The result? It's possible that tomorrow night, two or even three candidates may declare themselves the winner, creating as much confusion as that much hoped-for momentum. So why doesn't an Iowa just ditch the caucuses and go to a primary? Because then they wouldn't get to be first. It's New Hampshire that has a lock on holding the first primary, and being first, with all that attention and economic benefit is really, really important to Iowans. So on caucus night, may the best candidate — or candidates — win. Hari?
So, Jeff, when we see those returns tomorrow, what should we look out for? What should we beware of?
First, you should beware of an attempt to find a winner if the candidates are separated by miniscule numbers. Both in 2012 and the Republican caucus, and last time in the Democratic caucus, the numbers were insignificant. But there's something about the media that compels it to find a winner with all that that implies. And so, if a couple of points are separating two or three or four candidates, let's see if somebody just has the wit to just say, you know what, this was a tie. The other thing I would suggest is the one thing Iowa has a habit of doing is knocking out long shots that don't perform. So I think if you're a Pete Buttigieg, or an Amy Klobuchar supporter, you really want to see whether they do well enough to stay in for the next contests.
What should we take from the idea that, look, candidates know Iowa's important, candidates know New Hampshire is important. They get there months, if not years in advance, try to lay the groundwork. They don't pay nearly as much attention to the rest of the country. So how representative is Iowa and New Hampshire?
Well, they're clearly demographically not representative. And the fact is, sometimes, you can lose Iowa and or New Hampshire and still win the nomination. I mean, the impact of these states can be overstated. In fact, Mike Bloomberg is staking several hundred million dollars on the proposition that he can skip these early contests and compete in the bigger electoral and populous states later on down the road. You know, I like to say that when when you're looking at the impact of Iowa, New Hampshire, it's like the last line from "Little Big Men," when Chief Dan George reached for the magic to take him up to heaven and lies there and finally says, "you know, sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't." Sometimes Iowa matters. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes New Hampshire matters. Sometimes it doesn't.
If tomorrow doesn't produce some sort of a clear leader, a clear winner, what are the next contests that you're watching for that says, OK. Well, they really have to get through this state if they want a better shot at taking the nomination?
I really think Super Tuesday in early March is going to be the key. Forty percent of all the delegates to the convention will be chosen on that day. States from California, Texas, a dozen more. That's when we're going to find out if a Bloomberg strategy pays off. That's where we're going to see if one of these candidates, in much more representative populous battleground states, matters.
All right, Jeff Greenfield joining us from California. Thanks so much.
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