You can’t predict a caucus

This essay was written in 2016. Change the names and it applies to 2020.

There’s a trite joke in Iowa – “Don’t vote for a candidate you haven’t met.” My city isn’t even in the top ten largest cities in Iowa, but there’s Mike Huckabee going from table to table at the coffee shop where I’m grading papers. There’s Hillary Clinton at the bike shop where we bought our daughter her two-wheeler. Last Saturday, Martin O’ Malley’s campaign office contained, in addition to file drawers and desks, Martin O’ Malley himself. Parking was tricky to find a couple of weeks ago when I went to practice, because Donald Trump was speaking in the building next door. Bernie Sanders was kind to my daughter, Jeb Bush is in town tomorrow, Rand Paul is as well. You get the idea.

So, who is winning? I don’t know. You don’t either. And the press and the pundits have NO CLUE. But they think they do, because they don’t know the difference between a primary and a caucus. Iowa caucuses are not primaries. They are nothing like primaries. Primaries are predictable; caucuses are not. To put it mathematically, caucuses behave like non-linear dynamical systems, or in lay-terms Chaos Theory, with a bit of Catastrophe Theory mixed in. When I teach statistics, we spend a lot of time on interpreting poll results. And I tell my students at University of Northern Iowa that there are two phrases that tell us to discount a poll entirely, without thinking any further:

  1. Online poll
  2. Iowa caucus

Even if CNN and FOX don’t understand why online polls are meaningless, you probably do. But you probably don’t know why Iowa caucus polls are meaningless, nor do your local reporters, nor do your national reporters, so let’s talk.

Let’s start with the Democratic caucuses, and then we’ll visit a Republican one.

Come caucus with me! But first – do you have three hours?
Before we get in the car, you need to realize that this isn’t as quick as waiting in line to pull a lever. We are going to hear speeches, go through round 1, then the caucus round, then round 2, then the delegate election. If you aren’t able to spend three mostly boring hours with us, you aren’t going be there with me. The sad thing is that even if you are going to stay home, pollsters will probably have asked your opinion more than once. It is easy to participate in a primary. It is a pain in the ass to participate in a caucus. The pollsters and reporters don’t understand this factor, yet this factor is crucial to the outcome.

I’m glad you made it! Look who else came! And look at the walls and the tables!
When you walk in the building, you notice that you are surrounded by people who live near you, what in Iowa we call “neighbors.” And they are feeling chatty about their candidate. As are we, actually. Those of us who braved the cold and the time commitment are interested in politics and usually pretty well-informed. That means conversation. There are also people here from outside Iowa, who are not allowed to participate, but may observe. They often are chatty as well. There is campaign literature everywhere, and posters. In 2004, I was ready to caucus for Edwards, and told pollsters that information. Lots of pollsters. They are everywhere, always calling and talking to you. But then when I got in the building, I saw a giant Why You Should Support Edwards sign, and it was awful, and it cost him my vote. There’s also food. In 2008, Hillary Clinton provided brownies, John Edwards provided cookies, and Barack Obama provided little sandwiches. In a primary, campaign literature and campaign staff are not allowed within (about) 100 yards of the voting location. In a caucus, they are all over the place, and they affect votes. The pollsters and reporters don’t understand this factor, yet this factor is crucial to the outcome.

Put that cookie down, it is time for Round One! Oh – you thought this was anonymous?
Here is where the Republicans and Democrats diverge. Each Democratic candidate is assigned a place in the room, and people literally stand for their candidate. The people who live near you (“neighbors” if you want to speak like an Iowan!) see who you are supporting. Your spouse sees. Your boss may see. Your pastor, church-buddies, childrens’ teachers, clients… they all see. You are the only African American in the room. Or the only Muslim. Or your Muslim best friend makes casual eye-contact with you as you are about to stand for a candidate who talks dirt about them. In a primary, your vote is secret. A caucus is a party meeting, and your vote is public. The pollsters and reporters don’t understand this factor, yet this factor is crucial to the outcome.

We haven’t even caucused yet! That comes next! Come with me; you will love it!
After Round One, there is time for people to… change each other’s mind. And this does happen, because Iowa caucus-goers tend to be informed and interested, and informed, interested people have good discussions. Which sometimes results in minds changing. I remember in 2004, the Howard Dean people had “specialists” for the other candidates. So one Dean person was prepared specifically to talk to Kerry people, another for Edwards people, another for Clark people, etc. This is my favorite part of the process. I’ve had some of the best political conversations of my life during caucus time. And even if it doesn’t affect your first choice, it will probably affect your second choice. “Who cares about your SECOND choice,” you ask? You, you tourist from a state that cannot feed itself like mine can? Well, funny you should ask, we’ll get to that next. But first: The polls take place before the discussion round of a caucus. But the discussion round is the soul of the caucus. The pollsters and reporters don’t understand this factor, yet this factor is crucial to the outcome.

Round Two! Oh, hey, quick, switch circles; I’ll tell you why…
The people running the circus do a head-count, and figure out how many people a candidate needs to have a delegate. Let’s say the number is 11. I see you are standing with Clinton, and she has 24 people. There’s no way you are going to get 9 more people to join you at this stage to make 33. So she gets two delegates. But look! Martin O Malley has 9. Two of your Clinton people can walk to that circle, to give him the 11 he needs to make a delegate! And it won’t hurt Clinton, but it will screw Sanders. Oh, the Sanders people don’t like that, and they are calling to you not to do that. The O’ Malley people disagree, and your best friend is giving you an imploring look. Everyone is arguing and stuff, and something will happen. WHAT will happen? I don’t know. You don’t know either. And I can tell you for sure the polls didn’t predict it.

What happens if your candidate doesn’t get the requisite 11 (in this case) supporters? That candidate is said not to be “viable” and his or her supporters… can go somewhere else! To their second choice! Or their third! I’ve been to caucuses where I wound up standing with my third or fourth choice. The pollsters never ask what your second choice is, because that doesn’t matter in a primary, but it is important in a caucus.

Oh, and the polls don’t tell you about the deals, either. “Hey, gang, Kucinich and Kerry have this deal where if he isn’t viable his people are supposed to go to Kerry, and in exchange, they will get to go to the regional convention where they will be free to stand for Kucinich there.” Yes, after the results are declared and the press leaves Iowa, there are regional and district conventions. And you are not bound to stand for the same person there. The polls don’t reflect these deals either. Most people outside of Iowa don’t know about them.

Once people have declared in round two, the arithmetic allows for strategic vote-switching. There are also deals between candidate organizations. Many peoples’ candidates turn out not to be “viable” at their location and they have to go with a second or third choice. Finally, the delegates can change their minds at the regional convention. The pollsters and reporters don’t understand these factors, yet these factors are crucial to the outcome.

So, get a babysitter for your small children, take the evening off of your second-shift job, reconcile yourself to missing your favorite show, and I’ll pick you up at 6:30… wait, where are you going?

What about the Republican caucus? Surely they won’t stand for that foolishness!
The Republican caucuses don’t have the circles. But they do have speakers first, trying to persuade people at the last minute. Then there is a paper ballot, counted by hand. After that, they talk about viability and have a second binding ballot round. So they are definitely less chaotic than Democratic caucuses, but still unpredictable.

I wrote this essay because reporters, candidates, and regular people keep talking about who is “winning Iowa.” Who is winning Iowa? I don’t know. You don’t know either. It is unknowable. When I moved to Iowa, I thought this was weird and crazy. Now? I kind of like it. It is archaic and unfair and undemocratic, but there is something about getting together with your neighbors and choosing your party’s candidate together that fosters a real investment in the outcome. And you know what? I kind of like that the outcome is unpredictable. Thanks for reading. Now tell your favorite journalist.