Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Iowa and reality

There were two things about the Iowa results that were surprising. First, and most obviously, it was surprising that anyone was surprised by the results. But even more surprising is that anyone takes any notice of Iowa at all.

Iowa is the first selection contest in the USA’s insanely stupid process for selecting the presidential candidate of the two main parties. But the fact that it’s first is the one and only thing that’s even remotely interesting about the Iowa Caucuses. No one should pay it any attention beyond it being a quaint curiosity, a bizarre sideshow on the road to selecting presidential candidates.

Iowa is not in any way representative of the USA generally—not even remotely. It has no cities of any size: Its largest, Des Moines, has fewer than 210,000 people, according to the US Census Bureau—not even enough people to make a decent county population in many small states. In fact, Iowa ranks 30th out of the 50 US States in population, and its 3 million people are only a third as many people as are living in the Chicago metropolitan region.

Only about 61% of Iowa’s population is urban, as compared to 82% in the USA generally. Iowa has a population density of about 54.8 people per square mile, while the USA is 84.54.

Moreover, Iowa is over 90% white (USA: 72%). It’s less than 3% African American (USA: 13%), and less than 2% Asian (USA 5%). Its Hispanic population is negligible, while the USA is 17% Hispanic/Latino (of any race).

Iowa is more Christian than the USA generally (around 85%, according to one survey, as opposed to 71% of the USA). However, the relative ratio of Protestant to Catholic is roughly the same at 2:1, even if the percentages themselves are someone different (more of each in Iowa).

Clearly the people of Iowa aren’t very representative of the USA generally. But Republicans are even less so.

According to AP “entrance polling” on the night, two-thirds of Republicans attending their party caucuses identified as born-again Christians, easily two or three times the percentage of Iowans generally. Some 40% of the Republicans also said that the quality that mattered most to them was that the candidate shared their values, and most of them chose Cruz.

Given the fact that Republican caucuses are overwhelmingly dominated by rightwing Christians, how could ANYONE have been surprised that Cruz—who based his entire campaign on how fundamentalist he was—won?! I knew he would just by looking at the demographics—it was THAT obvious all along. The radical Christians who control the Republican Party in Iowa back their own. Old news, and totally predictable.

On the Democratic side, which has a slightly fairer caucus process, the results were more interesting: According to the AP, Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favourite of caucus goers who called themselves Democrats, while 70% of independents favoured Bernie Sanders. Not surprisingly, 60% of moderates backed Clinton, while Sanders was backed by 60% of those who said they are very liberal.

The demographic differences in their support are striking: 80% of caucus goers under 30 supported Sanders, as did 60% of those between 30 and 44. But nearly 60% who were between 45 and 64, as well as 70% of those 65 and older, backed Clinton. Women were more likely to support Clinton, men supported Sanders. 60% of non-white participants backed Clinton—but they made up only about 1% of caucus attendees.

On the Republican side we saw a totally predictable result, on the Democratic side a result that mirrored demographic data in opinion polls. But all of that happened in Iowa, one of the least representative states in the USA.

Here are some specific points about the results: No Republican got even a third of their Caucus votes: Cruz “won” with a mere 27.6%, Trump came in second with 24.3% and Rubio got 23.1%. Cruz won a plurality of the votes, and, so what? Huckabee won in 2008 and Santorum won in 2012, so coming in first in Iowa doesn’t mean anything for Republicans, and that’s because of how totally unrepresentative Iowa Republicans are in a state that is unrepresentative.

For the Democrats, it’s a bit different: The eventual Democratic nominee has come in first in the caucuses for decades, except in 1988 and, interestingly, 1992. What does this tell us? Nothing. Coincidence is not causality, so this pattern could continue, and Clinton may be the nominee, or it could be like ’88 or ’92 and Sanders may get the nomination. In any case, what happened in Iowa is not an indicator.

New Hampshire, the next state on the list, is no better than Iowa to be such an early state. South Carolina after that certainly isn’t, either. But this season in particular, the unrepresentativeness of the early contests will give the next tier of states—including my native Illinois—greater prominence than they’ve had in many years, so there's that.

The bottom line is that Iowa is entertaining, but little else. New Hampshire is important only because people get to actually vote in a real election for the first time, but otherwise it, too, gets far too much attention. And all of that means that this story has a LONG way to go before it’s over.


Jason Peaco said...

I completely agree. And on top of it Iowa is a caucus. That means if you work late or second or third shift you can't participate. Have kids but can't get a baby sitter, you can't participate either. Or maybe you just don't want to give up three or four hours on a Monday night.

At least in New Hampshire, it's a primary and an open primary at that. It makes it just a little bit more democratic.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I agree, though I need to add that primaries aren't very democratic when "Superdelegates" can cancel out the delegates chosen by popular vote. It might be a step in the right direction, by only just.