Low Turnout Ups the Stakes Even More
Will all the buildup, money spent and inundating media coverage, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the turnout for the Iowa caucuses is quite, quite low. In 2012, 19.76 percent of registered Iowa Republicans showed up to caucus, so it’s not much of a surprise that Rick Santorum won that night with only 29,839 votes, edging Mitt Romney by 34 votes.
Low turnout is one of the first arguments caucus critics will jump to first. How can the winner of our first contest in the presidential primary not even have enough votes to fill a Major League Baseball stadium? It’s obvious Iowa Republicans are not representative of the rest in the United States, especially not the 121,501 of them that showed up in 2012. One reason might be the format. It’s a caucus — where everyone has to show up at a certain time on a freezing cold night and very publicly show their support for a candidate — and not a come-anytime-and-punch-your-ballot primary, so some people are less inclined to attend because it’s too much of an investment in time, effort, etc. Some people might not show up because they’re at work or have another commitment.
But enough speculation about the reason for low turnout; let’s take a look at the numbers. On yesterday’s episode of “With All Due Respect,” hosts Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, co-authors of the Game Change books, visited with Sasha Issenberg about the Iowa electorate and how many votes it will take to win the Republican caucuses in exactly two months.
As you can see in the image above, the three of them entertained a pair of scenarios, one using the turnout number from 2012 (121, 501) and the other using 150,000. Each model uses the percentages from the latest Quinnipiac poll and arrive at each candidates’ hard count by multiplying a turnout number by that candidate’s percentage. So Donald Trump earned 25 percent of the support in that poll, and .25 times 121,501 makes his hard count 30,375 in the 2012 model. Ted Cruz, with 23 percent, trails behind him with 27,945 votes.
This is obviously not an exact snapshot of what will happen on caucus night. Quinnipiac only polled 600 likely caucusgoers, so the difference between Trump and Cruz is only 12 people — way too close to call. But both models, especially the second one with increased turnout, do give us an idea of the magic number campaigns are aiming for. With so many candidates, Issenberg said it’s possible that the winner could have only 24-25,000 votes once they’re all counted. He speculated that 30,000 would pretty much assure victory.
Back in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama rode the wave of a record-setting turnout (a 94-percent increase) to his caucus victory. He had a first-rate organization in Iowa that was able to mobilize first-time caucusgoers. While turnout probably won’t spike that much on the Republican side in 2016, Issenberg said Cruz has the best organization in Iowa right now, which is a good sign for when he will have to take on Trump in the coming days.
We can discuss all day why turnout for the caucuses is low; there are many factors. The biggest one, to me, is that caucusing requires effort. You have to go to a certain place at a certain time and spend an hour or so to make sure your vote is counted. You can’t just make a quick drive to your polling station at lunch, fill out a ballot and be on your way. My other big factor: You have to be registered as a Democrat or Republican to caucus. Independents or people who aren’t registered: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
I actually like the low turnout because the people who really care and take it seriously show up to caucus. It also raises the stakes even more. With only, say, 140,000 Republican votes up for grabs, each vote is vital. The large Republican field enhances the importance of each vote, too. With no clear-cut frontrunner, the votes will be spread out across the board. It might not be the 34-vote margin we saw in 2012, but it’ll still be a squeaker.
Not to mention, winning the caucuses puts a helluva lot of momentum behind a candidate (see Obama, Barack). I’m not saying we’re going to see the 2016 winner sprint to the nomination, but a victory at least keeps the winner in the race, energizes his or her base and attracts new supporters. It’s the first test, the first time the nation can see who really has a chance at the nomination. There’s a lot riding here. One can’t help but marvel like Halperin did on Monday’s show.
“Amazing how so few people here are going to decide a big part, an important part, of this.”
Cannon is a senior journalism and political science major from Kansas City. He interned this summer at the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S., The Hartford Courant, and he cares too much about the World Champion Kansas City Royals. Follow him on Twitter.