Chase Martyn, our colleague at Iowa Independent, pens an informative and cautionary tale on the Iowa caucus.In the final days of the caucuses, political observers face a barrage of numbers emanating from Iowa — from poll numbers to turnout projections, from newspaper endorsement totals to delegate counts, and beyond. Myriad chyrons offer cable news viewers tantalizingly simplistic explanations of the Iowa caucuses, a political tradition that is just too chaotic to be reduced to one chart or graph.
Still, we pay attention to certain numbers because campaigns and some observers consider them important. We tallied up newspaper and state legislative endorsements, we read dozens of polls (always skeptically), we measured crowd sizes and reactions, and we kept a close eye on each candidate’s movement through the state.
With caucus night nearly upon us, now seems like a good time to check the scoreboard for a few of the numbers we have been watching over the course of the campaign.
Over the past month, newspapers across Iowa have issued their presidential endorsements. Sen. Hillary Clinton holds claim to the “holy grail” of newspaper endorsements, that of The Des Moines Register, but Sen. Barack Obama’s total number of endorsements is double Clinton’s.
On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain holds a somewhat surprising lead in Iowa newspaper endorsements considering his reluctance to campaign here. Gov. Mike Huckabee has nearly as many endorsements as McCain, but McCain’s Register endorsement gives him a wide lead in terms of circulation.
Although certain newspapers carry more influence than others, few believe that any will have much of an impact on caucus-goers’ first choices on caucus night. Their primary impact may be on candidates’ second choice support, which is relevant to the Democratic caucuses during the realignment period.
State Legislative Endorsements
Campaigns have been quick to tout endorsements from state legislators, but no release ever claimed a direct connection between such endorsements and tangible results on caucus night. Still, state legislators are often viewed as credible political experts by their supportive constituents. At the very least, they have helped candidates build crowds for events in their districts. And on caucus night, they may exert some influence over the loyal activists in the room.
On the Democratic side, all but 11 state legislators have issued endorsements. Clinton holds a one-legislator lead over Obama, 21 to 20. In a surprising third place, Sen. Joe Biden has garnered 16. Click here for the latest Democratic endorsement scoreboard.
On the GOP side, nearly 50% of state legislators remain uncommitted. Gov. Mitt Romney leads the field with endorsements. McCain has 8, and Thompson has 6. Click here for the latest GOP endorsement scoreboard.
Several numbers didn’t seem to fit into categories of their own, but rather fit into the general category of “organizational strength.” For instance, Obama has 37 campaign offices across the state, while Clinton has 34 and former Sen. John Edwards has 25. In terms of staff, most campaigns remain mum about their total numbers as best they can, but both Clinton and Obama reportedly have more than 300 paid employees on the ground. And Edwards has 175 by his campaign’s own admission.
Another important statistic is 99. It is the total number of counties in Iowa, and only Edwards and Gov. Bill Richardson have campaigned in them all.
And finally, there’s crowd size. At Iowa Independent, we have used differences in crowd size as part of our justification for predicting an Obama victory in our recent Democratic Power Rankings. We have noticed significantly larger crowds at Obama appearances than at Edwards or Clinton appearances in the same small towns, and the Obama campaign has made its own crowd size comparisons public in an effort to illustrate a trend. Whether or not the trend holds true statewide, crowd size is not merely a measure of the enthusiasm a candidate generates. It is most valuable as a demonstration of the ability of a candidate’s organization to convince caucus-goers to leave their homes to attend a political event — an ability that will be crucial Thursday night.
Although polling the Iowa caucuses is an incredibly difficult task, compounded this year by the caucus date’s proximity to the holiday season, it may have an impact on caucus-goers’ final decisions. Because caucusing requires more commitment than traditional voting, an Iowan may not wish to spend their time rooting for a losing team. A caucus-goer who has two favorite candidates may choose to support the one with a better chance of winning. Of course, this assumes that caucus-goers can make sense of the past week’s poll numbers, which have been wildly inconsistent from one another.
If one poll is going to make a difference on caucus night, though, it is the Register’s Iowa Poll, conducted by Setzer & Co. in Des Moines. The Iowa Poll is widely perceived as the most accurate pre-caucus poll, and the Register stakes its reputation on it every four years. It appeared on Tuesday’s front page, and reporters will continue to cite it in the paper’s caucus coverage through Thursday.
According to the poll, Obama holds a surprising lead over Clinton and Edwards, 32-26-25. And Huckabee leads Romney 32-26, with Sen. John McCain, Rep. Ron Paul, and former Sen. Fred Thompson all in contention for third place.
Significant questions exist about its methodology and its predictions for turnout (particularly on the Democratic side), but, if any one poll will make a difference in the outcome of the caucuses, it is the Register’s.
The Bottom Line
More than 1,700 precincts will host caucuses for both political parties Thursday night, and the dynamics in each room will be different. The factors listed above will not fully explain the results.
Still, the numbers do mean something. And, a day away from the free-for-all, cut and dry numerical comparisons provide a comforting (if ephemeral) sense of order amid the madness.