The Iowa Republican Party Caucus in 2020; Trump Floods the State Despite No Electoral Competition

By Dr. Troy McGrath

On Monday, February 3, both the Republican and Democratic Parties will hold nominating caucuses in Iowa. While Iowa remains a 4-way race, a quick look at the official site of the Republican Party of Iowa [https://www.iowagop.org/] reveals that it is essentially a campaign site for the incumbent President, complete with Trump merchandise and pro-Trump political messaging, so the GOP caucus is not considered competitive this time around. President Trump will be challenged by former Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld and former US Representative and now conservative radio host Joe Walsh from Illinois, neither of which are considered as serious electoral threats. The Republican Party caucuses will apportion their 40 delegates proportionally according to the statewide vote totals, in order to determine the make the 2020 Republican National Convention (held August 24-27, in Charlotte, North Carolina).  

Participation in Iowa’s caucuses is open to all voters who wish to participate. Any person who is currently eligible to vote in the state of Iowa, or legal Iowa residents who will be at least 18 years old on Election Day (November 3, 2020), may participate in the Iowa Caucuses. At no stage of Iowa’s delegate selection process shall any person be required, directly or indirectly, to pay a cost or fee as a condition for participating. Iowa residents can register to vote or change parties on caucus night, but cannot vote in more than one party’s caucus. In short, Iowa’s caucuses involve a gathering of a party’s registered voters to discuss preferred presidential candidates. The chief difference between the Democratic and Republican caucuses are that the Democratic caucus comprises several counts and realignment of voters who fail to gain the 15% threshold of support, while in the Republican caucus participants simply cast a vote of support (usually a paper ballot).

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Thus the Republican presidential preference poll is far more straight forward. Once caucus-goers arrive and the precinct meeting has been called to order, usually the chair of your caucus will invite anyone to speak briefly in support of their favored candidate. Once all speeches have concluded, each eligible voter in the caucus will be given a piece of paper to write their choice. After everyone has filled out their secret ballot, the votes are counted in the precinct and announced to the room. Unlike Democrats, the Republicans have no 15% threshold. Results are collected by the party leadership and then reported to the Republican Party of Iowa to tabulate the state results. Delegates are proportionally allocated to each candidate based upon the statewide vote tallies.

2016 Republican Iowa Caucus results

 Candidate% of Vote# of pledged delegates (of 2472 RNC total)
1Ted Cruz27.6%8
2Donald Trump24.3%7
3Marco Rubio23.1%7
4Ben Carson  9.3%3
Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, John Kasich, and Mike Huckabee also received 1 delegate each

What this year’s Republican Caucuses

Even though President Trump faces no realistic challenge in Iowa’s Republican caucuses, he has sent family members, cabinet officials, and other GOP dignitaries to the state in order to bolster his standing in the state and to take attention away from the Democratic Party candidates. His re-election team is looking to build voter enthusiasm and commitment amongst Iowa voters ahead of the 2020 general election, as well as recruit volunteers and small-dollar donors, with whom they will continue to engage through November. This was clear in Thursday’s (January ) campaign rally at Drake University in the state’s capital of Des Moines, where both President Trump and Vice President Pence spoke mocked their opponents and decried the impeachment process. Even for Iowa the crowd was overwhelmingly white, though it comprised old and young, and both blue and white collar working people, as well as college students who took selfies and danced. The turnout is reflective of the total takeover of the GOP by Trump. On the day of the caucuses, approximately 80 campaign surrogates — members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, administration officials, etc. —  will speak at caucuses throughout the state to bolster voter enthusiasm for the President.

Pivot Counties and Iowa

One test of Republican strength in Iowa may be discerned from its performance in so-called “pivot counties”. Pivot counties are defined as counties that voted for one party in 2 consecutive presidential elections, then switched to the other party in the next election. In 2016 there were 212 such counties, 206 switched from voting twice for Barack Obama to voting for Donald Trump. Only 6 counties that voted for both John McCain and Mitt Romney switched over to vote for Hillary Clinton. Even though these 206 counties make up only a small fraction of the overall vote, they accounted for 51% of the decline in votes for the Democratic presidential nominee. Trump carried these pivot counties by more than 580,000 votes, by an average margin of victory of 11.45%. Iowa had the most pivot counties with a total of 31.

A fairly peaceful and largely agricultural state, Iowa is vastly unrepresentative in terms of American demographics and economic/employment structures. In terms of race, the state is fairly unrepresentative of national demographics. However, statistically speaking, the state is not quote the outlier that many critics make it out to be. Iowans are slightly less likely to be poor and slightly more likely to be married than people in the rest of the country. They are more likely to own their house, though those homes have less value on average. They are more likely to have a high school degree, but less likely to have a college degree. They are a little more likely to be veterans than residents of other states.

Geographical distribution of the 31 “pivot counties” in Iowa that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

An analysis of the urban status, income, and college education rates of voters in the 31 pivot counties in Iowa supports the notion of an awakened ‘rural and working class consciousness’ that turned against the Democratic party, steeped in a resentment of “big cities” and a feeling that rural communities are being left behind. The prosperity of the Obama years that candidate Clinton extolled had largely been absent (or at least not overly uplifting) for the rural, working class population of much of Iowa. In 2016, both Bernie Sanders (who garnered half the caucus vote) and Donald Trump spoke directly these concerns. In the general election, Trump would carry 75 of the 77 counties with below-average per capita income (and 28 of the 31 pivot counties were in this category).

Despite claims to the contrary, the Trump campaign did not bring out a new mass of voters in Iowa. Turnout in the state actually dipped from in 73.28% in 2012 to 72.77% in 2016, so Trump’s 10-point victory did not rely on turning out a great number of untapped voters. In only 8 of the 31 pivot counties was there an increase in turnout greater than one percentage point. Trump won Iowa with less votes than Obama garnered in either 2008 or 2012. Interestingly, studies have shown that as high as 12% of Sanders Iowa caucuses supporters voters crossed party lines to vote for Trump in the general election.

The increasing polarization of American politics in the Trump era lies at the heart of any prognosis for the 2020 presidential election. As concerns the prevailing voting trends in Iowa’s 31 pivot counties, the picture seems mixed, as can be seen in the chart below. Whether pivot counties will exhort a disproportionate impact on the final tally this November remains to be seen. Perhaps the caucus voting in Iowa, which had by far the largest number of pivot counties in the last election, can give us a clue about any potential ‘pivot county factor’.

COUNTYOBAMA margin of victory in 2008OBAMA margin of victory in 2012TRUMP margin of victory in 2016IOWA Governor margin of victory in 2018CONGRESS in 2018 (district) and marginCONGRESS in 2018 margin for state house (district)**
Allamakee County14.25%  4.17%24.15%     20.5%(1)     R+13(56)**  16.0%
Boone County**  7.63%  6.64%13.69%       2.5%(4)     D+8(24)    35.5% (47)      6.7% (48)    17.6%
Bremer County**  9.31%  2.68%13.68%     10.6%(1)     R+6(63)    13.3%
Buchanan County**18.48%13.87%15.02%       6.3%(1)     R+2(64)   Unopp (95)    7.9%
Cedar County**  9.64%  4.59%17.78%    10.9%(2)     D+5(73)  11.5%
Cerro Gordo County**20.83%13.38%  7.66%     3.4%(4)     D+16(52)   Unopp (53)   Unopp (54)   Unopp
Chickasaw County**20.74%11.07%22.94%     17.5%(4)     R+6(52)   Unopp  
Clarke County**  2.25%  1.47%28.02%     28.7%(2)     R+11(27)   38.2%
Clayton County17.17%  7.03%22.78%     19.4%(1)     R+13(55)     0.1% (56)   16.0%
Clinton County23.03%22.84%  5.12%       1.1%(2)     D+12(97)     8.8% (98)    Unopp
Des Moines County23.04%18.41%  6.89%       8.0%(2)     D+16(87)   13.3% (88)   11.5%
Dubuque County20.77%14.71%  1.23%       1.4%(1)     D+7 (57)   12.9%  (58)   38.4%  (99)   20.7% (100)  25.7%
Fayette County16.60%11.96%19.36%      13.1%(1)     R+6(55)     0.1% (64)   Unopp
Floyd County21.88%14.63%14.84%        8.8%(4)     D+6(52)   Unopp
Howard County25.78%20.95%20.49%       17.3%(1)     R+8(51)   16.8%
Jackson County24.39%16.89%19.27%       13.5%(1)     R+8(58)   38.4%
Jasper County  7.50%  7.07%18.13%          7.2%(2)     R+1 (28)   28.4%  (29)   17.5%
Jefferson County20.23%15.97%   0.47%          8.5%(2)     D+22(82)    0.3% (84)   23.9%
Jones County10.40%  7.78%19.08%    12.8%(1)     R+8(58)   38.4% (96)   25.0%
Lee County16.01%15.49%16.02%      3.3%(2)     D+8(83)    8.3% (84)   23.9%
Louisa County  4.25%   0.64%28.37%    21.5%(2)     R+9(88)   11.5%
Marshall County  9.35%   9.36%  8.31%       1.0%(1)     R+4(71)   16.9% (72)  19.0%
Mitchell County12.31%   3.37%24.04%     22.2%(1)     R+15(51)   16.8%
Muscatine County15.64%15.88%  6.26%       3.0%(2)     D+8(73)  11.5% (88)   11.5% (91)    7.5%
Poweshiek County11.75%  9.35%  6.53%       1.9%(1)     R+1(76)   16.9%
Tama County12.19%  7.43%20.28%       9.5%(1)     R+7(72)  19.0%
Union County   3.70%   3.86%27.49%      22.7%(3)     R+25(21)   31.84
Wapello County13.53%11.88%20.60%       6.9%(2)     D+5(80)   26.9% (81)    8.8%
Webster County  8.51%  5.84%21.52%     11.3%(4)     D+2  (9)    3.5% (10)   34.2% (48)   17.6%
Winneshiek County22.65%14.74%  0.79%       0.5%(1)     D+7(51)   16.8% (55)     0.1%
Worth County22.42%14.53%21.68%     18.7%(1)     R+10(51)   16.8%
**Most of these state legislative districts intersect with one or more pivot counties.

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