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The 411 On Iowa Caucus Night


With the Iowa caucuses right around the corner, let’s take some time to reacquaint ourselves with the scene of this primary season’s first electoral contest.

First, what is a caucus? PBS Newshour explains: “The Democratic and Republican parties hold their caucuses at the same time — this year starting at 7 p.m. CST on Feb. 1 — at spots in all of Iowa’s 99 counties…. Voters from some small precincts meet in homes, but most join in schools, veterans’ halls and other large venues…. The parties hold their caucuses simultaneously, but they operate differently.”

What happens there? At the precinct phase of caucus night, Democrats gather themselves into groups in support of their respective candidates. There, the size of a candidate’s group determines how many delegates that candidate will send to the county conventions, which is the next phase in the process. The candidate with the most county convention delegates wins the Iowa caucus.

Republicans first hear speeches from candidates’ supporters making their final appeal, then caucus-goers privately vote. The votes are tallied and reported to the party headquarters via an app designed specifically for this year’s contest. Candidates are assigned delegates based on vote totals, with the overall winner being the candidate who received the most votes.

Although the caucus process is more complex than the primary election method, the idea is fundamentally the same: most support = winning.

Evangelicals Who Don’t Predict Victory

Let’s take a closer look at the demographics on the Republican side of things.

Iowa, as is well-known, is evangelical country. In 2012, evangelicals made up nearly 60 percent of Iowa’s GOP caucus-goers. That year’s caucus, the closest Republican race in Iowa’s history, showed Rick Santorum narrowly edging out Mitt Romney by the impossibly thin margin of just 34 votes.

In 2012, evangelicals made up nearly 60 percent of Iowa’s GOP caucus-goers.

Riding a wave of last-minute support from prominent evangelical groups, and relying on abortion-as-a-single-issue voters—60 percent of evangelicals who cited it as their most important issue backed Santorum—the former senator from Pennsylvania managed to outduel the former governor of Massachusetts for Iowans’ support.

But it’s not just the most recent race that bears this out. In 2008, Iowans supported Mike Huckabee, himself an evangelical. Incumbent president George W. Bush ran unopposed in 2004, and even though Iowa supported Bush in the 2000 caucuses, the most interesting result on that day was that Alan Keyes, the fiery social conservative with strong anti-abortion credentials, finished third with nearly 15 percent of the vote, a far higher level of support than he got nationally (5 percent).

While it’s commendable that Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers prioritize their political convictions above less ideologically pure considerations such as electability, Iowa is not an accurate gauge for determining the eventual nominee on the Republican side. Since 1980 there have been six Republican contests (there have been nine election years in that time span, but 1984, 1992, and 2004 featured incumbents who ran unopposed), yet only twice has the Iowa winner on the GOP side gone on to win the party’s nomination (Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000).

Some People Will Believe Anything

One seriously baffling aspect is the credulity of some of these voters. A Quinnipiac poll from October registered 32 percent of likely Iowa participants expressing their belief that Donald Trump is a committed Christian. But just because Trump insists he prefers the Bible to his own “The Art of the Deal” doesn’t mean anyone should believe it. In fact, “The Art of the Deal” predicted Trump would cite a preference for the Bible over his own work, writing “I play to people’s fantasies.” Many evangelicals want to believe Trump is one of them, but taking his claims at face value represents a stunning measure of political naiveté and spiritual gullibility.

Machiavelli counseled future princes to project Christian identification because harnessing the power of religion can be politically advantageous.

One of the reasons Machiavelli counseled future princes to project Christian identification is because harnessing the power of religion can be politically advantageous. From the days of Martin Van Buren on, posturing has been a presidential pastime. I speak as an evangelical myself: we need to stop allowing identification with a candidate to disarm us of our critical faculties.

But the point isn’t to debate whether Trump is a Christian—the answer doesn’t even matter. When in late October Ben Carson surged past Trump in Iowa polls, voters cited his commitment to being guided by God as a major reason for Carson’s attractiveness as a candidate. In a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll from mid-October, voters were asked to rate the attractiveness of ten of Carson’s traits, such as “he is not a career politician,” “he was highly successful as a neurosurgeon,” and “he has an inspirational personal story,” to list just three.

The range of possible answers were: very attractive, mostly attractive, mostly unattractive, very unattractive, and not sure. The trait that read “He has said he would be guided by his faith in God” received the second-highest aggregate score of “attractiveness” out of all ten questions, registering a whopping 89 percent attractiveness rating.

A Candidate’s Religion Is Less Important Than His Policies

Is it silly to appreciate deep religious commitment in a candidate? Not at all. What’s problematic is prioritizing it as one’s main criterion in selecting a candidate. If your hierarchy of political values places religious commitment atop the list, this will obscure and even diminish more politically relevant metrics that should be used for projecting presidential success.

Fred Greenstein, the Princeton political science professor who has written voluminously on the presidency, suggests in his book “The Presidential Difference” six qualities to use in evaluating presidents. He writes:

The first, which pertains to the outer face of leadership, is the president’s proficiency as a public communicator. The second, which relates to the inner workings of the presidency, is the president’s organizational capacity — his ability to rally his colleagues and structure their activities effectively. The third and fourth bear on the president as political operator — his political skill and the extent to which it is harnessed to a vision of public policy. The fifth is the cognitive style with which the president processes the Niagara of advice and information that comes his way. The last is what the German sociologist Max Weber called ‘the firm taming of the soul’ and has come to be referred to as emotional intelligence — the president’s ability to manage his emotions and turn them to constructive purposes, rather than being dominated by them and allowing them to diminish his leadership.

If Greenstein is right that these qualities determine presidential success, the responsibility falls on Christians, and other religious voters, to judge the relative strength of candidates based on more than considerations of piety.

Kick the Farmer Stereotype

Aside from heavy evangelical participation, other demographically interesting features of the Republican caucuses include how disproportionately white, male, and old (okay, old-ish) Iowa caucus-goers tend to be. Although the male and female population in Iowa is basically split down the middle (49.7 percent male, 50.3 percent female as of 2014), the 2012 Iowa Republican caucus participants were 57 percent male and only 43 percent female.

The total number of Iowans primarily employed in farming has been steadily diminishing since the early 1980s.

Despite Iowa being (only!) 92 percent white, whites made up 99 percent of the Republican electorate during its 2012 caucuses. The 2010 census records that 40 percent of Iowa’s population is aged 45 and up, yet this same age range is responsible for nearly 70 percent of the Republican vote during the 2012 caucuses.

What is the Iowa caucus-goer on the Republican side likely to do for a living? In the popular imagination, Iowa’s economy is dominated by the agricultural sector. Some are aware that Iowa is our nation’s top corn provider and that Iowa produces a quarter of our country’s ethanol. Yet as of 2012 there are not quite 50,000 workers whose primary occupation is farming.

Although that might sound like a lot—and it kind of is—the total number of Iowans primarily employed in farming has been steadily diminishing since the early 1980s (for example, in 1987, the number was 75,000). Iowa’s largest industry is actually manufacturing (admittedly, some of the manufacturing sectors are agriculture-related), and as a whole its economy is more diverse than generally thought. As of April of last year, Iowa’s unemployment rate was at 3.8 percent, substantially beating the national average, which was at 5.4 percent.

What does all of this amount to? That Trump will win, apparently. He’s currently more than 5 percentage points up on his nearest rival Ted Cruz, per the Real Clear Politics aggregate poll (though Trump’s lead is even greater if you only factor last Thursday’s CNN/ORC poll, and last Sunday’s Fox News poll, which both have Trump up 11 points on Cruz).

Whatever ends up happening in Iowa, the Hawkeye State has already provided us with good political theater, and since these caucuses kick off the electoral season, we should embrace them as a fascinating moment in our political calendar.