Iowa becomes the centre of the political world tonight - here's why

2016 sees the race to the White House move up a gear, and Iowa is the first battleground for the presidential hopefuls.

Donald Trump, Iowa, caucus,

Image: Patrick Semansky / AP/Press Association Images

This evening Iowa, the Midwestern state sitting plumb in the middle of America's corn belt, becomes the centre of the political universe.

From 7pm local time (that’s 1am Irish time) voters will gather at Republican and Democratic caucuses across the vast state to participate in the first vote of the 2016 White House race.

With months of campaigning and no action, the first vote of the election season is afforded significant importance.

A strong performance in Iowa could cement a candidate's validity, while a poor showing could be a fatal blow to long term ambitions.

In the latest polling Donald Trump leads the Republican field, on 30%, with Ted Cruz the nearest challenger on 24%. Marco Rubio follows on 15%.

Hillary Clinton is the leader in a tight Democratic race, with her 47% edging Bernie Sanders on 44%.

Forecasts of a blizzard this evening in the state will only add to the highly unpredictable nature of the Iowa Caucuses however.

While there has been wall to wall coverage of what’s going on in Iowa, the question of what role it plays in the process of naming a candidate for the Republican Party (Grand Old Party or GOP) and the Democrats, hasn’t received nearly as much attention. So we've decided to take a look at why tonight matters so much, and just what exactly a caucus is.

How does Iowa work?

The candidates are all endeavouring to get the backing of delegates that will vote for them at the Republican National Convention (RNC), which is set to take place in July of this year. Iowa is slightly more peculiar in that it is not a primary, like many of the states that will follow over the coming days and weeks, but takes the form of caucuses; delegates are selected for the local convention, where they will then select delegates for the state convention, who will then move on to the national convention. It’s a convoluted process, but it is important to recognise the difference in the setup.

Voters in different precincts turn out to events held in schools, community centres or town halls around the state (around 800 locations for the 1,774 precincts) and put forward their choice for the presidential nominee. Up until the summer of 2015, the results were not binding - a delegate could, essentially, name a different candidate to the one that had gotten the public’s support.

However, the GOP recently changed that (Article VIII, Iowa GOP’s bylaws), and the delegates now have to go with the nominee who gets the most votes. There is a flip side to this, however - the delegates are proportionally bound to the candidate, even if they should drop out of the race by the time the national convention rolls around.

Image: Republican presidential candidates, from left: John Kasich, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush. Chuck Burton / AP/Press Association Images

Its position as 'first in the nation' has been cemented as the result of a scheduling conflict that took place in the 1970s. The Democratic Party needed to ensure that a certain amount of time passed between the caucus and the district convention, and between the district convention and the state convention.

That rather roundabout process meant that the Iowa caucuses were pushed back to the end of January in 1972, and ended up getting a huge amount of press coverage. It was a simple enough decision then for the GOP to follow suit, and nobody involved in local politics in Iowa was about to complain about being in the spotlight, so it has stuck ever since.

Starting in a state with a smaller population like Iowa is an attempt to level the playing field somewhat; candidates with smaller campaign budgets can still get a look in, and impact the voting. Thus, it has a reputation for providing the odd surprise, throwing candidates into the ring who have focused a strong campaign there, such as unknown peanut farmer Jimmy Carter in 1976.

 

Image: Jimmy Carter with Wife Rosalynn Carter at the National Convention in Madison Square Garden in New York July 15, 1976. PA Images

Iowa also holds an important position as being one of a number of ‘purple states’. Generally, Republican candidates can expect to win the more conservative ‘red’ states (e.g.: Texas, Mississippi), while Democrats will similarly count on winning the more liberal ‘blue’ states (e.g.: California, New York), but the states where there is a closer margin and could go either way are known as ‘purple’ or swing states.

Iowa has gone to the democrats in three of the last four elections, but has a largely rural and homogeneous population. For that reason, there have been questions raised about what the results of the caucuses here really have to say about the nation as a whole.

Image: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks about rural issues at the Des Moines Area Community College. Charlie Neibergall / AP/Press Association Images

The “major role” of Iowa

It is important to note that it is usually only the most politically motivated and issue-focused voters who actually attend - last time turnout in Iowa hovered around 6.5%. It also has a patchy track record when it comes to naming the presidential nominee for either party.

The winner of the Democratic caucus in Iowa has gone on to get the nomination in every election since 1996, but back in 1992, Bill Clinton finished with a disappointing 3% of the vote, well behind runaway leader, and governor of Iowa, Tom Harkin (76%).

Image: Democratic presidential candidates, from left: former California Gov. Jerry Brown, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, pose at the studios of PBS station WETA-TV in Arlington Va., prior to their televised debate, Jan. 31, 1992. PA Images.

For the Republicans, the record lately hasn’t been great either; just ask President Mick Huckabee or President Rick Santorum. Even George H.W. Bush didn’t win Iowa, and he was vice-president at the time.

The other important thing to remember is the structure of Iowa. There are 30 delegates to be decided in a proportional vote - if it’s a close run race between three candidates, then you get a minuscule percentage of the 2,472 delegates that get sent to the RNC.  

In the build up to the caucus, the focus is on the leader in the polls and who will come out on top, but it is perhaps more important to look at those who surge or get a surprisingly high result to stay in the race until they can make it to the primaries. The poll of all the polls has Cruz and Trump picking up 42% and 40% of the vote respectively in Iowa, which would see them get around 12 delegates, 0.5% of the total up for grabs in the race.

The runners up and the also rans

Since the winners don’t necessarily go on to the get the nomination, the purpose of Iowa is simply to stay in the race. Finishing below third is essentially the death knell of a candidate’s campaign, with some notable exceptions: John McCain in 2008 and Bill Clinton in 1992.

While Cruz can get the evangelical voters behind him in Iowa and has seen his support swell there as a result, other candidates have started focusing on New Hampshire; the first primary and the place where McCain rallied in 2008. As another state that has gone to the Democrats three out of the last four elections, which way the public falls in this state can have more of an impact on the party’s thinking about how to win a general election.

Image: Chuck Burton / AP/Press Association Images

Marco Rubio, who is currently polling third, will aim simply to remain in consideration in Iowa, before moving on to New Hampshire, where Donald Trump has been dominant. However, there Rubio is polling in second, and Chris Christie has been rising thanks to the fact that he has been spending campaign dollars.

The issue for both Cruz and Trump is that they have made their names on being anti-establishment: Trump hasn’t been part of the Washington political system, and Cruz has consistently fought the party leaders on a number of issues. Although he’s ahead in Iowa, he came through as a prominent member of the Tea Party, an organisation whose very raison d’être is to nay say everything and anything about the current party political structure.

Rubio represents a genuine alternative; someone who has agreed on some of the issues that Cruz and Trump raise about Washington's problems and budget worries, but has done so in a way that hasn’t stepped on as many toes in the party or divided the public. 

He's not without his negative sides either: his poor voting record as a Senator may count against him. It’s something that has already been attacked by his fellow Republican party members in the debates so far, and will be the focal point of any possible Democratic campaign against him in an attempt to highlight his inexperience and impatience, qualities which are ill-befitting of the highest office in the land.

What will we learn?

The primaries that follow shortly after Iowa are New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which are perhaps more representative of the American population as they include a wider demographic, and look to be the ones that genuinely separate the wheat from the chaff.

Florida, which takes place on March 15th, has 99 delegates up for grabs in a winner-take-all contest. There, Bush has won two previous electoral campaigns for governor, and given that there is still money left in his campaign coffers, it could be the state where he launches a very late rally.

Image: Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush talks to supporters during an event at Art Basel in Miami. Luis M. Alvarez / AP/Press Association Images

Despite Rubio being a senator there also, his poor voting record is likely to crop up, with questions focusing on why he seems to be too busy to represent the people of the state that elected him. As another of the purple states, Florida is also a better indicator of which candidate can do well in a general election.

With more twists in the road to come, Iowa is more likely to determine which candidates are still in the race rather than which of them is the likely nominee. However, winning this battle may count for little in a long war.