I’m not a political scientist, but I am a political junkie and a close watcher of polls, primaries, and elections. While I normally restrict myself to blogging about science, there is something that is bugging me and, in the off chance that I am right about this, I want to go on record.
Why is no one talking about how caucuses are different than primaries and why this could spell a big victory for Bernie Sanders on Monday?
The Difference between a Primary and a Caucus
Most states, like New Hampshire, have traditional primaries that mirror general elections. The voter goes to a private booth and casts a secret ballot. Polls are usually good predictors of elections and primaries because they operate on the same principle – the voter is acting alone and in private. (This is notwithstanding the Bradley effect, which may have been permanently broken by Barack Obama anyway.)
Caucuses, like Iowa, are quite different, especially for the Democrats. (Republicans and Democrats do this differently, but I am concentrating on the Democratic caucus because the GOP caucus seems locked up for Trump.) Instead, voters show up to thousands of small locations, often high school gymnasiums. Each campaign has a representative that gives one final speech and then the caucus begins.
When the time comes, registered Democratic voters have to join, or caucus, the group representing their preferred candidate. Everyone can see each other. Everything is public. In a big gym, there will be various huddled masses and people can watch as the various caucuses grow and shrink. After sizing up the room, people can (and do!) switch from one group to another. Then, the “votes” are counted. But we’re not done…
After one round of this, candidates with less than 15% of the caucus-goers in their camp are released, and the voters then move to other camps. Voters in the bigger camps can also switch at this point. Before the caucuses are declared to be final, lots can happen.
This is different than a primary for so many reasons. There is a whole science about how people behave differently in groups, rather than on their own, as well as how they act in public versus private. For example, people often shy away from caucusing with an obviously losing candidate. People like to pick a winner. Momentum is powerful and can turn on a dime.
Even more importantly, some candidates tend to draw more enthusiastic and persuasive supporters. These caucus-goers can generate a ground-swell of support just at the right moment. Enthusiasm is infectious. Peer pressure is powerful.
Past Caucuses Prove This
Does this really matter? In 2008, Senators Obama and Clinton were neck-and-neck going into the Iowa caucuses. Some polls had Obama slightly ahead; some had Clinton ahead. Consensus was that it was a toss-up. But what actually happened? Obama trounced Clinton by 8 points.
Many observers have attributed Obama’s win to the caucus effect. Obama was the candidate of hope, enthusiasm, energy, and youth, at least rhetorically. Clinton was the candidate of experience, knowledge, strength, and the establishment. Both would make history, but Clinton was much more familiar and many people had Clinton fatigue. No one had Obama fatigue. The “energy difference” was palpable. This matters in a caucus, much more than in a primary.
This was borne out in other states as well. Of the 13 states that used the caucus system in the democratic primary, Obama won 11 of them! In fact, if we consider only the 37 states that use traditional primaries, Clinton won easily. The Clinton campaign made a big point about this. Their candidate won in the setting that most closely mirrors the general election. That was a really good point, but voters rejected it and Obama won easily that November anyway.
What does this mean for Bernie and Hillary?
Bernie is the Barack Obama of 2016, and Hillary Clinton is still Hillary Clinton. It may seem weird that the crusty old white guy is the one with the young energetic supporters, but that’s clearly where his support is. Sanders supporters skew young, progressive, energetic, educated, and engaged. Clinton is clearly the “safe” candidate of the establishment. Often, that works well with the very sophisticated and savvy voters in Iowa. But it didn’t in 2008 and I don’t see why it would be different in 2016.
I predict that Sanders will win Iowa on Monday. His supporters are more likely to show up, will be more fired up to caucus, and will be pleading their case and pressuring their friends. Clinton supporters are the old, waspy, polite, serious, sober voters. That’s great in a primary, but boring in a caucus.
Bernie Sanders is the Barack Obama of 2016, not because of who he is, but because of who his supporters are. The young, idealistic, hopey-changey enthusiasm of 2008 has morphed into a more forceful and radical progressivism. That may be a tougher sell in November, but on Monday, it’s energy that matters and Bernie Sanders has it and Hillary Clinton doesn’t.
Sanders also has the come-from-behind underdog momentum that voters tend to like in any setting, but especially so in a caucus. The polls have Sanders and Clinton nearly neck-and-neck, but every single thing that makes a caucus different than a primary favors Sanders over Clinton.
I think that tips the scales and Bernie wins.
PS – This is not an endorsement, it’s just a prediction. I also predict a Trump win on Monday, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it.