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The Iowa Caucuses: Misreading the Results for Trump and Cruz February 7, 2016
Much of what is being said by commentators following the Iowa caucuses on Monday is based on a potpourri of misunderstandings about the purposes of the caucuses, playing the ground game, and polling. Just as important, the mechanics of the caucus are completely inimical to measuring voter preference. Caucuses are not secret; some voters must be pressured by their friends, neighbors, and employers. Caucuses are held in the evening for several hours; assuming inclement weather is not an obstacle, lack of babysitters and jobs may prevent some voters from attending. Caucuses are open-ended; the number of who might have supported a candidate is not known, and thus the percentage who did support the candidate cannot be determined. The Main Stream Media’s (MSM) attempt to use caucus results as a measure of voter preference is doomed to failure.
Like the break ball in a game of billiards, the Iowa caucuses do provide momentum for the New Hampshire primary election. There is nothing special about Iowa that makes it capable of providing momentum; it is simply a contest that precedes the next contest, and thus, is able to help set expectations for a candidate’s performance in that contest. Those expectations are based on the perceived performance of candidates and the media din surrounding the candidates’ performance and are not necessarily reality based.
Candidates play the ground game by using volunteers to persuade and move—physically, if necessary—voters to the polls. They must recruit volunteers to make telephone voters and knock on their doors; precinct captains to manage the volunteers; and state coordinators to plan and run operations requires a massive undertaking. To keep needed resources manageable while ensuring every effort has been made to maximize their votes, a candidate must identify voters who are most persuadable so that the issues they care about can be linked to the issues about which they care most.
According to widely accepted pundit knowledge, Cruz had the strongest ground game going into the Iowa caucuses while Trump and Rubio had the weakest on the Republican side; Hillary and Bernie both had strong ground games on the Democratic side. The metric used to assess the strength of the ground game was the number of telephone calls made, the number of precinct captains, and the coverage of the state with campaign offices. The accuracy of their data operations in profiling persuadable voters, however, was the key to President Obama’s overwhelming success in playing the ground game. How voter profiling was done, however, was not a consideration in the 2016 ground game assessments.
The MSM’s extravagant use of polls in the run up to the Iowa caucus and the failure of those polls to predict the Iowa caucus outcomes has led to old fashioned excuses, dirty tricks, and a generalized denigration of polls. According to the polls, Trump followed by Cruz and Rubio would win among Republicans; Hillary held a slight but persistent lead over Bernie.
As soon as polls pronounced Trump the likely Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses, validated by the supposed gold standard of Iowa caucus polling—The Des Moines Register, MSM pundits were quick to echo those results. At the same time the polls were predicting a Trump victory, they also predicted a win for Hillary over Bernie. A victory for Trump and a loss for Bernie contradicted the false equivalence between Trump and Bernie that the media had been selling for months. If Bernie and Trump both represented the extremist elements of their parties, then why was only one of them predicted to win?
Admittedly, most pundits did caveat the poll results by positing that Trump’s and Bernie’s supporters were new voters and wondering if these first time caucus goers would show up. In fact, the number of new caucus goers was not unusually high and they did show up for Trump and Bernie. Over 70 percent of Bernie’s support came from 18 to 29 year olds; most Hillary’s voters came from the older voters.
Wrong about the results, MSM pundits first resorted to the old excuse about the difficulty of polling for Iowa caucuses. The Des Moines Register and at least two of the candidates have raised questions about the propriety of the caucus process. They noted the lack of voting forms, the use of coin tosses to assign delegates, and complaints that different rules were used in different precincts.
Other MSM pundits and, at least two of the Republican candidates, attributed the unexpected results to the dirty trick perpetrated by Ted Cruz’ campaign. The Cruz campaign told Republican voters that Dr. Ben Carson had withdrawn from the race and urged his supporters to cast their votes for Cruz—propelling him to first place, Trump to second, and diminishing Dr. Carson’s percentage of the vote by 3 percent.
Several pundits, citing unpredictability of the Iowa polls, pronounced all polling to be unreliable. Despite the initial reaction of unexpected results from the Iowa polls, the MSM resurrected poll results within two days as new polls showed a decline for Trump and surges for Cruz and Rubio.
MSM pundits who misread the Iowa caucuses have attributed their incorrect predictions to malfunctions of messaging, playing the ground game, or polling. But, messaging, the ground game, and polling are all related. Trying to isolate the ingredient that brings most of the flavor to the Iowa caucus results is like trying to separate the melded flavors of a good stew. Whatever their original intent, the current purpose of the Iowa caucuses is to select delegates and provide momentum for candidates competing in the next caucus or election because the mechanics of caucuses are so different from elections, the results from them are not predictive of elections. An accurate reading of what the caucusesmean must start with what they are.