Saturday, January 19, 2008

Iowa is the Outlier

So, we've now had two caucuses and two primaries. Hillary has won three of the four contests, even with the pundits and the blogospheric bigwigs screaming that she was behind, a loser, unelectable, and doing everything in their power to derail her campaign. Moreover, she has won them decisively.

When looking at the results, it's pretty clear that Iowa is the vote that needs explaining. It is the outlier. What has to be explained is not the win itself, because Obama did have a very strong and competitive base of support, but the margin of the win. The few reports and video clips from the NV caucuses pretty much reinforce my working assumption about Iowa, that the Obama block physically intimidated and badgered undecideds and second round voters into coming over to their side. It is very, very difficult to resist the roar of a crowd. Obama won Iowa by the margin he did through strategic use of the face-to-face nature of caucuses to tip the scales in his favor. Mind you, I don't think this is an illegitimate tactic in a caucus situation. It is that the press refuses to notice that it took place and factor it into their analysis.

The other part of Iowa is that John Edwards ran stongly there, and that he pulled away support more from Clinton than from Obama. Thus, Iowa is explained primarily by three factors:
  1. Proximity - Obama was campaigning in a neighboring state
  2. Proximity - Caucuses favor candidates with loud, obstreperous supporters who can keep their message mostly positive.
  3. Proximity - Edwards is closer to Clinton than to Obama in terms of what part of the electorate they appeal to, and Edwards strength pulls disproportionately from potential Clinton supporters than from potential Obama supporters. That he should be strong in Iowa is no surprise considering that he has been campaigning in the state basically since the last caucuses.

When you remove any of these three factors, Obama loses strength. He had an extreme advantage with Illinois bordering Iowa, and it's probable that HRC had some of that effect with New Hampshire's proximity to New York. Edwards does not appear able to capitalize on South Carolina. The proximity factor returns when the candidates run in their own states and/or when Midwest or Mid-Atlantic states vote. The caucus factor is no longer operative, so we're back to more normal "Who gets big crowds" campaigning. All votes from here on out are cast in private.

The last one is the most interesting. Looking at the crosstabs on the entrance polling in Iowa, it is clear that Edwards took away about half of the Independent voters HRC would usually have garnered, compared to numbers from NH, MI and NV, which are very consistent. Edwards also pulled away a lot of Democrats, which reduced both HRC and Obama's usual proportions of them. If Edwards drops out, I think his rank and file supporters (vs. the blogospheric screamers) will go more to Clinton than to Obama, probably 60/40.

But Iowa is the odd-primary-out in this set, and will probably become more anomalous as the campaign season continues.

The irony in all of this to me is that this was supposed to be John Edwards' dream primary set up. Start with Iowa as the clear favorite, go to New Hampshire where he did well last time, swing to Nevada to play to his union support and then end in South Carolina where he'd be the favorite son choice. Unfortunately for him, the party voters don't prefer him to HRC and the Independents see him as old news and a loser.

Crosstab analysis goodies in a later post.


Update & clarification: Fergus asks why I say the caucus influence is legitimate but have condemned the CU for intimidation. Simple. The CU was threatening to prevent non-Obama supporters from even attending the caucuses, which is illegal. A candidate can't get votes if their supporters don't make it to the polls at all. This is why the Republicans are so aggressive about secretly purging voter rolls and why they physically blocked black voters in Florida from reaching the polls. And, before anyone asks, I didn't like the attempt by the teachers' union to prevent the at-large caucuses in the casinos. The *concept* of those caucuses was good. There was some legitimacy in the argument about the fairness of at-large caucuses vis-a-vis the other caucuses, but not enough to halt the procedings. No fair trying to stop them just because you see some political advantage to doing so. The judge made the right call.

The nature of a caucus is to persuade voters to support your candidates. As long as the arguments remain constructive and non-threatening, it's fair. It might not be democratic, it might allow a loud crowd to intimidate someone into agreement, but it is within the bounds of the institution itself. If someone says (whether before or during the caucus) "If you don't vote for my guy, you will suffer retribution," then you are no longer engaging in persuasion, but instead are extorting the vote.

Long story short - the secret ballot is the cornerstone of a true democracy.

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