Iowans Won’t Vote For You Just Because You’re Their Neighbor

Want a secret weapon for succeeding in the New Hampshire primary? Be a politician from a neighboring state. Want a secret weapon for succeeding in the Iowa caucuses? I’m afraid it’s back to the drawing board; hailing from a nearby state doesn’t look like much of a help.

Historically, candidates from neighboring states have had a checkered record in the Iowa caucuses, in contrast with the clear home-field advantage that exists for candidates from next door to the Granite State. In total, I identified 17 “major”1 candidates from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota or Iowa itself who have run in the caucuses since the modern primary era began in 1972, but only six of them won at least 20 percent of the vote and finished in either first or second. The 11 other candidates flopped, receiving 11.2 percent of the vote or less. One candidate even finished in eighth. (For comparison, in New Hampshire, politicians from neighboring states have always finished in the top two.)

Iowa doesn’t care where you’re from

“Major” presidential candidates from Iowa or neighboring states who have run in the Iowa caucuses, since 1972

IA Caucus Result
Year Party Candidate Home State Vote Share Finish*
1972 D George McGovern South Dakota 22.6% 2nd
1972 D Hubert Humphrey Minnesota 1.6 3rd
1972 D Eugene McCarthy Minnesota 1.4 4th
1980 R Phil Crane Illinois 6.7 5th
1980 R John Anderson Illinois 4.3 6th
1984 D Walter Mondale Minnesota 48.9 1st
1984 D George McGovern South Dakota 10.3 3rd
1984 D Jesse Jackson Illinois 1.5 7th
1988 D Richard Gephardt Missouri 31.3 1st
1988 D Paul Simon Illinois 26.7 2nd
1988 D Jesse Jackson Illinois 8.8 4th
1992 D Tom Harkin Iowa 76.4 1st
1992 D Bob Kerrey Nebraska 2.4 4th
1996 R Maurice Taylor Illinois 1.4 8th
2004 D Richard Gephardt Missouri 11.2 4th
2008 D Barack Obama Illinois 37.6 1st
2012 R Michele Bachmann Minnesota 5.0 6th

“Major” candidates were those included in national polls

* Among named candidates — i.e., not counting “uncommitted.”

Sources: State of Iowa, Des Moines Register, CQ Press, New Hampshire secretary of state

Why doesn’t it help to be from next door in Iowa when it is such a clear advantage in New Hampshire? I have several theories, but first things first — it is probably in part because candidates from around Iowa are just weaker candidates overall than candidates from around New Hampshire.

For instance, I found that the national polling average of Iowa-native and Iowa-adjacent candidates in the 30 days leading up to the caucuses was 11 points, on average, but for New Hampshire-adjacent candidates, it was nearly double that at 21 points.

But that’s not all that’s going on here. New Hampshire-adjacent candidates also did much better (19 points better, in fact) in the New Hampshire primary than their national polling average in the 30 days leading up to the primary. In Iowa, local candidates overperformed, but not by nearly as much. On average, these candidates did just 6 points better in the caucuses than they did in an average of national polls conducted in the 30 days before the caucuses — and that includes one candidate, then-Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992, who improved upon his national polling average by 70 (!) points in Iowa. (Harkin is the only major presidential candidate in the modern era actually from Iowa, so it’s not necessarily that surprising that he basically scared the other Democratic candidates away from competing there.) If we remove Harkin from the equation, Iowa-adjacent candidates’ advantage falls to 3 points, on average. That’s barely any better than the 1 percentage point by which candidates not from the area overperformed their national polls in Iowa, on average.

The reason home-field advantage is weaker in Iowa than in New Hampshire may be that many of the factors that make local candidates strong in New Hampshire do not carry forward to Iowa.

  • Distances, for instance, are longer in the Midwest than in New England, so it is not as easy for candidates from neighboring states to just pop in to Iowa for a quick visit.
  • Additionally, whereas a majority of New Hampshirites were born out of state, 70 percent of Iowans were born in Iowa, according to 2017 estimates from the American Community Survey. Only 4 percent were born in Illinois, 3 percent in Nebraska, 2 percent in Minnesota and 1 percent in each of Missouri, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In addition, only 5 percent of Iowa workers aged 16 or higher cross state lines to go to work.
  • Most Iowans — 66 percent — live in a broadcast media market (either Des Moines-Ames or Cedar Rapids-Waterloo-Iowa City-Dubuque) that is wholly contained within the state, meaning there is no real reason for its news coverage or political advertising to feature politicians from neighboring states. Only 15 percent live in a media market shared with Nebraska, 12 percent live in a media market shared with Illinois and even fewer live in media markets shared with other nearby states. (For comparison, 84 percent of New Hampshirites live in the Boston media market.)

This is admittedly subjective, but I would also say that New England has a more uniform identity than the Midwest does. State borders seem to matter more in the Midwest (for example, most of New England roots for the same sports teams, but that is not true of the Midwest), and the Midwest is more heterogeneous. Perhaps this is why some candidates from neighboring states outperformed their national polls in Iowa, and others did not.

As for this year, the question of whether home-field advantage exists in Iowa might not matter much. That’s because there aren’t any candidates from Iowa currently running for president.2 There is one major presidential candidate from a state that borders Iowa: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. And she does appear to be putting a lot of her eggs in Iowa’s basket. But unfortunately for her, merely being from next door does not appear to give a candidate much of a boost in the Iowa caucuses. In fact, Klobuchar’s fellow Minnesotans (Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale and Michele Bachmann) have all done worse than their national polling average there.

Geoffrey Skelley contributed research.

Silver Bulletpoints: Iowans Seem To Like Warren And Buttigieg

We’re less than two weeks from the Democrats’ first debate in Miami on June 26 and 27. I’m looking forward to the occasion — not so much because I’m eager to hear Bill de Blasio trying to drop some too-clever-by-half insults on the front-runners, but because the debates should help us exit a doldrums phase of the Democratic primary in which not a lot has been happening.

Until then, we’re left with some pretty slim pickings for Silver Bulletpoints. So I want to focus this week’s edition around the recent Selzer & Co. poll of Iowa, which was conducted on behalf of CNN, the Des Moines Register and Mediacom. While I’m a little bit reluctant to give that much attention to a single poll, this is one of the only recent high-quality polls of Iowa — and Selzer & Co. is pretty much as good as pollsters can get.

Bulletpoint No. 1: Things are looking up in Iowa for Warren and Buttigieg

The Selzer poll shows a closer race in Iowa than what we’ve been seeing nationally, with Joe Biden on top with 24 percent of the vote, followed by essentially a three-way tie for second with Bernie Sanders at 16 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 15 percent and Pete Buttigieg at 14 percent. Kamala Harris is next at 7 percent, with no one else above 2 percent.

That’s already a pretty decent result for Warren and Buttigieg — but, in fact, the poll is a bit better than it looks for them on the surface. Selzer also asked voters for favorability ratings on each candidate; I translated those ratings to a 5-point scale in which 5 means “very favorable” and 1 means “very unfavorable,” throwing out voters who didn’t know enough about a candidate to formulate an opinion.

On average, Buttigieg had the highest favorability ratings on the scale (4.1), with Harris (4.0) and Warren (4.0) close behind him. Biden’s (3.8) and Sanders’s (3.7) favorability ratings were decent but behind the top three. Meanwhile, while Cory Booker (3.7), Amy Klobuchar (3.6) and Beto O’Rourke (3.6) have little first-choice support, they retain decent favorables.

Buttigieg, Harris, Warren are viewed most favorably in Iowa

Favorability ratings in the Selzer & Co. Iowa poll, June 2-5, 2019

Candidate Very fav. Mostly fav. Mostly unfav. Very unfav. Favorability score* First-choice support
Buttigieg 32% 29% 7% 5% 4.1 14%
Harris 30 33 8 5 4.0 7
Warren 37 34 10 7 4.0 15
Biden 36 37 14 9 3.8 24
Sanders 32 38 17 8 3.7 16
Booker 20 36 13 6 3.7 1
Klobuchar 12 32 13 4 3.6 2
O’Rourke 15 39 13 8 3.6 2
Castro 7 27 10 4 3.5 1
Inslee 5 16 7 3 3.4 1
Bullock 5 14 8 2 3.4 0
Swalwell 5 17 9 4 3.3 0
Gillibrand 7 31 17 6 3.3 0
Hickenlooper 6 18 12 4 3.3 0
Bennet 3 16 9 3 3.3 1
Delaney 6 21 12 5 3.3 1
Yang 5 14 10 5 3.1 1
Moulton 3 9 8 3 3.0 0
Ryan 2 14 10 4 3.0 0
Gabbard 5 18 11 9 3.0 1
Williamson 2 7 11 7 2.5 0
de Blasio 2 14 27 13 2.4 0
Messam 1 1 6 3 2.2 0

* Calculated based on a weighted average of favorability ratings, giving a candidate 5 points for a “very favorable” rating, 4 points for “somewhat favorable,” 2 points for “somewhat unfavorable” and 1 point for “very unfavorable,” and ignoring voters who don’t know or don’t have an opinion about the candidate.

Favorability ratings were calculated by a weighting of 90 percent of the responses from those who plan to caucus in person and 10 person of responses from those who plan to participate in the caucuses virtually.

I don’t have any hard-and-fast rule about how much to emphasize favorability ratings against first-choice support. It’s probably worth noting that President Trump’s favorables were often mediocre in polls of 2016 Republican voters, but he won the nomination anyway. Still, the Selzer poll is consistent with a story where voters who are paying more attention to the campaign are ahead of the curve on Warren and Buttigieg. And Warren and Buttigieg are good candidates for Iowa with a legitimate shot to win there.

Bulletpoint No. 2: Who makes for a good Iowa candidate, and who’s campaigning there?

What do I mean by a good candidate for Iowa? If I designed a candidate in a lab to win the Iowa caucuses, I’d want them to have four characteristics:

  • Perform well with liberal voters, since voters in the Iowa caucuses are pretty liberal.
  • Perform well with white voters, since Iowa is pretty white.
  • Be strong retail campaigners with good organizational skills.
  • Be from the Midwest.

Warren checks three-and-a-quarter boxes: She polls well among white liberals, she has a strong organization in Iowa, and she sorta counts as Midwestern if you think of her as being from Oklahoma rather than Massachusetts (and if you count Oklahoma as Midwestern). Buttigieg checks at least three boxes: He overperforms with white voters (and underperforms with minorities), he’s Midwestern, and by most accounts he’s a good retail campaigner. Sanders also checks three boxes (everything except the Midwest one).

But are the candidates who are the most Iowa-appropriate actually campaigning there more often? Last month, my colleague Nathaniel Rakich looked at which candidates have campaigned the most in Iowa and New Hampshire. I’m going to provide a twist by accounting for how long a candidate has been in the race. For instance, John Delaney has spent the most days in Iowa, but he’s also been campaigning for president since July 2017 (!).

Bullock, O’Rourke and Ryan are focusing the most on Iowa

Share of days with an Iowa event since campaign launch for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, through June 12, 2019

Candidate First day of CAMPAIGN No. of Days Days with Iowa events Share of days with Iowa events
Bullock 5/14/19 30 7 23.3%
O’Rourke 3/14/19 91 19 20.9
Ryan 4/4/19 70 12 17.1
de Blasio 5/16/19 28 4 14.3
Swalwell 4/9/19 65 8 12.3
Williamson 1/28/19 136 15 11.0
Klobuchar 2/10/19 123 13 10.6
Warren 12/31/18 164 17 10.4
Sanders 2/19/19 114 11 9.6
Bennet 5/2/19 42 4 9.5
Gillibrand 1/15/19 149 14 9.4
Booker 2/1/19 132 12 9.1
Hickenlooper 3/4/19 101 9 8.9
Delaney 7/28/17 685 57 8.3
Biden 4/25/19 49 4 8.2
Buttigieg 1/23/19 141 11 7.8
Gabbard 1/11/19 153 11 7.2
Inslee 3/1/19 104 6 5.8
Yang 2/10/18 488 28 5.7
Castro 1/12/19 152 8 5.3
Harris 1/21/19 143 7 4.9
Moulton 4/22/19 52 1 1.9
Gravel 3/19/19 86 0 0.0

The five leading candidates in the most recent Selzer & Co. poll of Iowa are highlighted.

Campaign launch dates reflect when candidates formed an exploratory committee, even if they hadn’t formally launched their campaign, since candidates generally do engage in campaign-style events during the exploratory phase. However, events only count if they occurred on or after the launch date listed in the table.

Source: Des Moines Register Candidate Tracker

Measured by the proportion of days with an Iowa event since their campaigns began, the most Iowa-centric candidates have been Steve Bullock, O’Rourke and Tim Ryan. Among the top tier, Harris has spent a notably lower share of her time in Iowa than the others. Perhaps that makes sense — she doesn’t check a lot of the boxes I described above. But it may also explain why she isn’t converting high favorability ratings into much first-choice support.

Bulletpoint No. 3: Biden is falling back to the pack

Six weeks ago, amidst Biden’s polling surge, I put him an extra step ahead of the other Democrats in my periodically updating, not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers, demoting Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris from tier 1b to tier 1c and leaving tier 1b blank to indicate the distance between Biden and everyone else.

But we’ve promised to make these tiers fairly polling-driven, and while the decline in Biden’s national numbers is predictable — pretty much all the previous candidates to get bounces have also seen them fade — I err on the side of paying more attention to Iowa and New Hampshire polls than to national ones. So that Selzer poll in Iowa is enough for me to repromote Sanders, Buttigieg and Harris back to tier 1b and to move Warren to there for the first time.

Nate’s not-to-be-taken-too-seriously presidential tiers

For the Democratic nomination, as revised on June 13, 2019

Tier Sub-tier Candidates
1 a Biden
b Warren ↑, Sanders ↑, Buttigieg ↑, Harris ↑
2 a O’Rourke
b Booker, Klobuchar
3 a Yang, Castro, Abrams*
b Inslee, Gillibrand, Gabbard
c Bullock, Hickenlooper, Ryan, Bennet, de Blasio, Williamson

* Candidate is not yet officially running but may still do so.

For Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, the case for promotion is reasonably clear. They’re all plausible Iowa winners — and if they win Iowa, they’ll have a pretty good shot at New Hampshire. I continue not to be super-duper impressed by Sanders’s polling, but he’s fairly consistently held on to second place nationally, and I’m not going to try to overthink things too much. Warren has some momentum, even if it’s a little overstated by the national media. Buttigeg’s modest name recognition could give him room to grow later, as he already seems to be doing in the early states.

Harris is the trickiest case, but her favorables remain pretty good, she’s a decent bet to do well at the debates, and it seems unlikely that a party in which 40 percent of voters are nonwhite is going to be entirely content choosing between three or four white candidates. All that said, Harris could also have a Marco Rubio-esque problem of being broadly acceptable but few voters’ first choice.


Biden’s Leading The Iowa Polls, But That Doesn’t Mean Much Yet

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

With the 2018 midterms (mostly) behind us, focus has shifted to the 2020 presidential election. The Iowa caucuses are usually the start of the presidential nomination process, and as of right now, they’re scheduled for Feb. 3, 2020 — just over 400 days from now. While we’re still more than a year out, two new polls found former Vice President Joe Biden in the lead in the race for the Democratic nomination. At least 30 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa listed him as their top choice for president.

The Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll from Selzer & Co.14 found Biden at 32 percent while a survey from David Binder Research on behalf of Focus on Rural America found Biden at 30 percent.15 In both polls, no other candidate cracked 20 percent. In an even earlier poll Biden led the field with 37 percent listing him as their No. 1 pick.16

Even though we’re still a ways from the caucus, these numbers could be read as a good sign for Biden. In the last four presidential elections where there was no Democratic incumbent running, the Iowa caucus winner went on to become the party’s nominee: Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Moreover, Biden has never polled this well in Iowa. In both his 1988 and 2008 presidential bids, Biden failed to hit the double-digits, and even when it seemed possible that Biden might run in 2016, his best Iowa marks were in the low 20s against Clinton and Sanders.

A good poll in Iowa doesn’t mean much … yet

Presidential aspirants that polled 30 percent or more at least one year prior to the Iowa caucuses

Year Party Candidate No. of Polls ≥30% Best poll result Iowa result Nom.?
1984 D Walter Mondale 1 58% 1st Yes
1988 D Gary Hart 2 59 7th No
1988 R Bob Dole 1 33 1st No
2004 D Al Gore 1 39 Didn’t run
2008 D Hillary Clinton 1 31 3rd No
2008 D John Edwards 2 36 2nd No
2008 R Rudy Giuliani 1 30 6th No
2016 D Hillary Clinton 1 48 1st Yes
2020 D Joe Biden 3 37 ? ?