Election 2016

Turnout Determined the Winner in Iowa, But Not in the Way Everyone Expected

The polls miss again.


Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

I was wrong, and so were the polls.

On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, surveys indicated that Donald Trump was likely to finish about seven percentage points ahead of Sen. Ted Cruz. Instead Cruz pulled out a solid win, and Trump finished barely ahead of second-runner-up Sen. Marco Rubio.

Add it to the growing list of times pollsters have failed us over the last four years. (Side note: Wondering what that suddenly keeps happening? Check out my feature from the February issue of Reason, "Why Polls Don't Work.")

Conventional wisdom had it that the determining factor last night would be voter turnout—and it was, but not in the way people were predicting. It's true that Trump supporters are concentrated among "irregular" voters like people who call themselves Republicans but are actually registered Democrats. It's also true that Trump's chances of winning Iowa turned on his ability to mobilize those supporters to show up and caucus for him.

But it turned out not to be true that record turnout necessarily meant good things for the reality star. What people overlooked, myself included, was that there are two ways to grow an electorate: from the ranks of demographic groups that vote in lower numbers, and from the outliers within demographic groups that vote in higher numbers.

Take evangelical Christians. According to Drake University, in 2008 they made up 57 percent of Iowa GOP caucusgoers—a majority. But fast-forwarding to last night, entrance polls found evangelicals making up 64 percent of the GOP electorate. That's a big increase for a group that already had a tendency to show up.

Some 180,000 Iowans participated in the 2016 GOP caucuses, a record high by an enormous margin. But instead of most of that increase coming from less-educated, blue-collar, and moderate voters, a lot of it came from college graduates and evangelicals.

Not coincidentally, these are the same groups Cruz and Rubio do well with.

The Floridian won college-educated caucusgoers, those whose top issue is the economy and jobs, and those who value electability. The Texan won people with "some college," those who prioritize that their candidate "shares my values," and born-again or evangelical Christians. Cruz took a third of voters in the last category, more than any of his opponents by double digits. 

There are a couple of explanations for how Cruz pulled this off. One was his larger-than-life emphasis on faith and conservative values, especially important in a place like Iowa. In his victory speech last night, he made a point of thanking the state "for welcoming my father"—a Christian pastor—"to preach from the pulpits of your churches." Cruz sought and received endorsements from a number of evangelical leaders. And as Scott Shackford wrote yesterday, he campaigned hard on his opposition to gay marriage:

This isn't a new or sudden gesture for Cruz. He staked out territory in opposition of the Obergefell decision long before the Supreme Court ever ruled, calling for legislation or even a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that states have the authority to decide whether to recognize same-sex marriage. At a rally in Iowa on Sunday, Cruz brought out Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson to call gay marriage "evil" and "wicked" and added "They want us to swallow it, you say. We have to run this bunch out of Washington, D.C. We have to rid the earth of them." 

The other explanation is that Cruz's meticulously targeted ground game made the difference. It's been widely reported that his campaign, unlike Trump's, has invested heavily in reaching persuadable voters. The businessman's supporters might be passionate, the thinking went, but Cruz's are organized. Wrote The New York Times on Saturday:

Mr. Cruz's campaign boasts a chairman or chairwoman for each of Iowa's 99 counties, captains in 1,537 of the state's 1,681 precincts, and 10,000 people from this state and beyond who have volunteered to help in the final push. … [His supporters] were making more than 15,000 calls a day, with a refined list of exactly which voters they have identified as up for grabs. 

That bet paid off, much as a similar one did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. As one consultant put it on Twitter:

But perhaps the most overlooked explanation for what happened in Iowa last night is that a lot of people really don't like Donald Trump. Way back in July I made the case that his high unfavorables and penchant for saying outrageously inappropriate things would be the reality star's undoing. It seems there was a stronger anti-Trump current in Iowa than the polls, for one reason or another, picked up on—strong enough to drive turnout to unprecedented heights and overwhelm any surge of Trump supporters that did materialize. Fully 70 percent of people who had never been to a caucus before cast their lot with someone other than Trump. Among late-breaking voters—those who only decided who they were supporting in the last few days—just 13 percent chose the real estate mogul.

Whether the same thing will happen in New Hampshire and on down the line remains to be seen. Almost nothing this cycle has played out how I thought it would this time last year. But it's telling that Trump's stock on the betting markets, which had been ticking up alarmingly over the last few months, plummeted last night. As of now, Rubio is seen as not just more likely than his competitors to be the Republican nominee, but as more likely than not.

NEXT: Georgetown Law School Won't Let Students Campaign for Bernie Sanders

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  1. Just tell me this, will we get “two for the price of one” in November?

    1. If you’re talkng about taking it in the ass, then yes.

      1. Dee Reynolds: [discussing high taxes] Why don’t you try voting for once?

        Mac: And what? Vote for the democrat who’s going to blast me in the ass? Or the republican who’s going to blast my ass? Either way, politics is all one big ass blasting.

        1. What episode is that?

          I was in tears last night. Wade Boggs episode.

  2. Whether the same thing will happen in New Hampshire and on down the line remains to be seen.

    Just some anecdotal observations from an NH resident.

    1.) I have yet to see one Cruz lawn/road sign. I see mostly Trump signs, with a scattering of Rubio, Rand, and Fiorina.
    2.) Also based on signage, Sanders will probably decimate Hilldog. NH Donkeys are eating his shit up.
    3.) However, Cruz’s performance in NH will probably not be indicative not the nation, as NH and VT have the highest percentage of atheists/non-believers/free-thinkers in the country. Even among NH conservatives, getting too “God-y” is seen as gauche. I suspect that might hurt Cruz here.

    Just my 0.0000536035 bitcoin.

    1. I’m still puzzled that there are people supporting Fiorina.

      1. You can only fight vagina with vagina.

        1. You are really stretching the definition of vagina.

          1. I see what you did there.

          2. Republicans have a big tent.

          3. You were keeping that one up your sleeve for just the right moment, I can tell.

        2. Scissor Fight!

      2. Fiorina is about the only one who paid even lip service to the fundamental GOP philosophy of “Fuck you, cut spending”. Has she suggested doubling the size of the military and the NSA so we can better monitor everybody’s activity, find out exactly where Edward Snowden is and throw his traitor ass in the dankest part of Guantanamo, praise Jesus, right before we go nuke ISIS and make them build us a wall to keep Chinese products from being smuggled into Mexico?

        1. Alas, “Fuck you, cut spending” hasn’t been a fundamental GOP philosophy since Calvin Coolidge was in office.

        2. No love for Rand?

      3. She’s good on some issues. Zero-based budgeting, and I think she’s relatively enlightened on MJ. Not so good on a host of other issues.

  3. high unfavorables and penchant for saying outrageously inappropriate things would be the reality star’s undoing.

    But, enough about Secretary Clinton.

  4. There are a couple of explanations for how Cruz pulled this off.

    There are several dozen explanations, and not a damn one of them from anybody who explained 24 hours ago why Cruz was going to beat Trump 28-24. All they’re doing is making up excuses for why they were wrong this time but we should definitely listen to them next time because they’re some kind of expert on this stuff. This site of all places is the last one you want to be trying to convince people you’re an expert whose opinion means something when the empirical evidence suggests otherwise and supports the philosophical belief that experts on human behavior are generally full of shit.

    Sorry, Stephanie, I’m sure you’re a nice person and all and you do at least admit that nothing has played out this election cycle like you thought it would, but please at least consider the possibility that people are endowed with free will and frequently do stuff for no reason whatsoever and are therefore more unpredictable than a lab rat or a chemistry demonstration. Sometimes there just is no “explanation” for why people do things beyond “shit happens” and explanations with no predictive ability are about worthless.

    1. I don’t think it’s such a big sin to attempt to describe the feathers of a black swan once you’ve found it.

      1. Australian.

    2. All they’re doing is making up excuses for why they were wrong this time but we should definitely listen to them next time because they’re some kind of expert on this stuff.

      But, enough about economists.

      1. “Economics is the art of mathematically predicting what a herd of cats will do next.”

        1. No, it’s the science of explaining tomorrow why the predictions you made yesterday didn’t come true today.

          1. Please, any good economist knows the correct answer is, “We’ll know more when we get the revised numbers.”

    3. I know why Cruz won = Jesus. Next question.

      1. No Glimore it was grassroots.

        Maybe it was grassroots Jesus.

        See, consensus !

        Just like climate change but better.

    4. I hate polls.

      Can anyone explain why the personality traits of people who will reply to polls and the people who just say, “fuck off!” are divided exactly the same as all the other differences in beliefs, parties, candidates issues, etc?

  5. Where are all the stories pointing out that the best-funded. “Big money” candidates – Jeb and Hillary – are a) in the former case, sucking wind at last-place, or b) in hillary’s case, barely holding onto her lead against a fucking SOCIALIST.

    All the people who routinely moan about how politics is over-run with corporate money, man, and how Citizens’ United destroyed democracy… should really have this shit rubbed in their face.’

    Yet i havent seen a single article pointing this out.

    1. “But, just think how poorly Jeb and Hillary would have done without all that money!”

    2. And you won’t see a single one at any point.

    3. Trump is a billionaire caricature of “Big Money,” so lamestream sort of conflates the two and…look, a squirrel.

      1. have you seen any pro-Trump TV ads?

        or anything? I’ve never seen a single trump promotion. I’ve seen Jeb ads running on prime-time at least a dozen times.

        Look at this shit “total spending” by candidate.

        Trump has spent $20 million.

        Jeb spent $130m.

        1. I didn’t say Trump purchased his big money caricature, but people see him and stop thinking about money because they see money so therefore derp. That’s about all there is to the perception I think.

  6. You’ll all be pining for a President Hillary when all is said and done. You’ll be rocking yourselves to sleep every night crying for what could have been, to a man you’ll be asking where your country gone, and the living will envy the Canadian.

    1. Well one Canadian here already obsessives over being an American, especially a soldier, so that makes us even.

    2. Not the Canadians!

    3. Where my country gone????

      *Pines for the tundra*

      1. i like that he rhymed “chuck mangione” with “gone”

  7. I know it’s shocking, but sometimes when a Democrat offers moar free shit than the other Democrat, they surge in the polls.

    1. Haven’t Hillary and Bernie already had one “Nuh uh! I promise more free shit than you do!” fight? I look forward to more. just to see how many moons each will promise.

  8. Trump and the Berninator are so far up in NH I don’t see how anyone beats either of them there. They are both up like 20 points. 20 points is hard to erase in that short of time.

    1. I once killed a buck with twenty points. Those points were real and totally not ephemeral, but when I got the buck back to the cabin, it turned out to be a female goat.

      1. You shouldn’t hunt drunk.

        1. Jebus HM, where is the fun in that?

      2. A female goat with antlers? That was some good shit you had that day.

          1. Hey, his term is almost up. It’s time to blame Obama. That should be good for the next 8 years, right?

            1. If President Hillary appoints him to the Supreme Court, we can enjoy blaming him for stuff for decades.

              1. I don’t think that gig is big enough for his ego. I think, and I’ve been saying this for years, he wants to be Secretary General of the UN, where he can pretend to be world emperor and work with the new proggie in chief of the USA to circumvent congress with all sorts of climate change action and gun grabbing bullshit.

                1. I don’t think that gig is big visible enough for his ego.

                2. You are correct, but the SC job would require too much actual work. He would have to argue with the other justices on equal footing, not exactly his forte.

                  I can only imagine the clap-trap bullshit he would write in his opinions, if he bothered doing that at all.

        1. Well it’s many a days I’ve traveled a hundred miles or more, but antlers on a female goat sure I never saw before.

    2. ” 20 points is hard to erase in that short of time.’

      Not really.

      I’m not suggesting either will lose, but you’re really underestimating the degree to which most people really make their minds up at the last minute.

      1. It’s truly mind boggling for anyone who’s even somewhat informed how a person could not make up their mind until the same day. What the fuck are they waiting for, one of the corrupt candidates to walk on the water and turn some water into wine? I’ve totally lost faith in the voters. We are so on our way to a totalitarian dystopia, there’s no way back at this point.

        1. The last person to walk on water and turn water into wine was executed for the crime of insurrection.

          Popular leaders since then have tended to shy away from such activities.

          1. Yeah, you have a good point. And I’m sure there’s several laws against that.

            1. Tax evasion on the water to wine transformation. Loaves and fishes? Where’s the food inspection stickers? The blind see, the lame walk, lepers cured? Practicing medicine without a license.

              And so on.

              1. Yeah, they’d fry the Jesus way faster than the Jews did. I’m sure the word ‘terrorist’ would be used.

    3. …and those 20 points are based on…polls. Did you miss the point of the article?

      1. Of course I didn’t miss the point. I’ve been watching polls for years, and although I was a little surprised by the Iowa results, Trump was only up on Cruz by about 4-5 points. 4 points is one thing. 20 is another. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone 20 points behind and then pull out a victory a week later.

        1. I’ve been watching polls for years


        2. How about the guy who beat Eric Cantor? 🙂

    4. And it doesn’t matter. After NH, it’s all downhill for Bernie. NH is like the ’90s for $FeelTheBern.

  9. But perhaps the most overlooked explanation for what happened in Iowa last night is that a lot of people really don’t like Donald Trump.

    I wonder why that is? He seems such a classy and personable fellow…

    1. Cruz pulled out de jeebus. That won’t work in NH. Maybe in South Carolina, he can pull out another jeebus, but not in NH.

      1. Cruz in New Hampshire: “Excuse me while I whip this out!”

        *Collective gasp*

        1. “Jesus!”

  10. My understanding here locally was Cruz did much better here on the eastern side of the state, which is more deere management, county club types. He got the jebus vote as expected but he out performed bc of places like quad cities. Didn’t beat Rubio here , but left a smaller gap than expected.

    1. So basically, it is precisely the non evangelical why he outperformed. The evangelicals were already baked in.

      1. Are there John Deere plants in the area laying off workers?

  11. I think its important while we consider the fallibility of polls to consider another very-important reality.

    = Irish is really racist.

    1. I have geard he is actually a member of the KKK.

      I heard it from him though so I don’t know if it’s true.

  12. So, this may have been covered already today, but there are a number of conservative pundits who are claiming that Rubio won by coming third in Iowa.

    1. I think this makes sense.

      he “gained” the most between his previous polling and now. Iowa tends not to pick the national winners, but rather flags the ‘most conservative’ candidate. The real winners are the ones who “do well” but not necessarily win. the fact his ground game generated results is also a sign that he’s a strong contender.

      1. Is the “Iowa doesn’t pick the winner” meme true of both parties, or of the GOP only?

        1. The last two GOP winners of Iowa didn’t win the GOP nomination.

          GWB did but I don’t know who else may or may not have.

          it’s a phony stat.

          1. According to Wikipedia, in non-incumbent years:

            1980: George H.W. Bush (+2% over Reagan)
            1988: Bob Dole (+18% over Bush, who finished third behind Pat Robertson)
            1996: Bob Dole (+3 over Buchanan)
            2000: W (+10 over Steve Forbes)
            2008: Huckabee (+21 over McCain who finished 4th)
            2012: Santorum/Romney tied

          2. “”it’s a phony stat.”

            I never intended it as a “stat”. I was just repeating the arguments being made as to why Rubio’s outperformance matters more than Cruz’ win over Trump.

    2. First and second place are for losers.

    3. I will say that as the field tightens up, I don’t see anyone else’s followers moving to Trump or Cruz.

      1. Well except Paul’s will probably move to Trump for the lulz. That’s what I’m doing.

        1. well good for you and your lulz.

          Why don’t you look into cruz who is the candidate with the most libertarianISH tendancies of any candidate in maybe ever who actually has a chance to win ?

          You can send out your social signals just like the progs do, and you can let prefect get in the way of good, your choice.

          Or you can look into a candidate with libertarianISH values who truely believes in constitutional values and the only politician in my lifetime who’s pre election rhetoric matched his post victory actions to a tee .

          It’s your lulz or the future of your country.

          It is of course your choice.

          1. Because ‘making the sand glow’ is totally in line with the NAP…

            1. The establishment counts both Cruz and Trump as radical isolationists. From their own perspective, they’re right.

            2. ” ‘making the sand glow’ is totally in line with the NAP…”

              According to some, yes.

              There are some objectivist-libertarians seem to think that total and complete annihilation of any self-identified adversaries – no matter how inconsequential – is a moral obligation.

              There are others who think that within the confines of a very-limited government that national defense remains one of its core-obligations…. and that while jihadists may not represent an existential threat, ignoring them and hoping they go away isn’t de-facto ‘the ideal choice’.

              this idea of the NAP as the sum-total basis of libertarian thinking – particularly in foreign relations, where there’s very little proper ‘libertarian’ theory* – has always seemed pretty stupid and conceptually clunky to me.

              *(excluding murry rothbard… who i don’t think any foreign-relations scholars have ever taken seriously. and i’m not sure there’s really anything “Libertarian” about his views so much as they were basically ‘pragmatic’ – e.g.

              “far better and wiser is the old classical liberal foreign policy of neutrality and nonintervention…Neutrality limits conflicts instead of escalating them. Neutral states cannot swell their power through war and militarism, or murder and plunder the citizens of other states.”

            3. He wasn’t being serious, and Cruz would probably be a lot less interventionist than the vast majority of the current crop.

          2. Hell, I’ll vote for Cruz if he can really get rid of the IRS – so what if he wants to “rid the earth” of me.

          3. What OneOut said.

          4. OneOut – It is worth mentioning that Cruz’s pre-election rhetoric defending civil liberties started long before this campaign season, before he decided to enter the race. He is of a handful of legislators, Paul being the first that comes to mind, that have stuck their necks out defending civil liberties. They were made a laughing stock for doing so but they endeavored to persevere.

            I think Cruz might just be the real thing, but I am afraid to get my hopes up too high.

  13. Cruz pulled out a solid win, and Trump finished barely ahead of second-runner-up Sen. Marco Rubio.

    Your a little late to the GOP establishment Team Red shill-party, Stephanie. 3rd isn’t the new 1st. The one-two finishers performed pretty damn close to the polling about 10 days prior to the caucus.

    1. LOL no Trump was not close to his polling.

      It appears your but hurts. You may want to do something about that.

  14. So who’s in and who’s out of next GOP debate? Rand finished ahead of both Jeb and Christie in Iowa. I assume that means they’re both in and Rand’s out.

  15. It’s really important to remember when Obama ran against Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. Oh wait.

  16. According to betting markets, Trump’s toast. Anyone seen Jackass Ace around lately? He was mocking Reason writers for predicting that Trump wouldn’t win the nomination.

    1. According to betting markets, Trump’s toast.

      Now poll an elementary school class. You’ll get better data.

      Prediction markets are useless for this sort of thing

      1. Now poll an elementary school class. You’ll get better data.

        Understanding How Elementary Students Think

        while the children often recalled a surprising amount of detail, they also exaggerated, invented facts, and blurred the line between fantasy and reality.

        So, pretty much like the electorate.

        1. Considering how much billionaires have poured into the coffers of establishment candidates, gaming the “prediction markets” for a little false pool boy-momentum is a drop in the bucket.

    2. perhaps he and tulpa are licking each other’s prediction wounds.

    3. From the “What CNN’s Polling…” thread

      Jackand Ace|2016/02/02 17:18:12|#|?|filternamelinkcustom

      So Ron Paul is able to generate 21.5% of the Iowa vote 4 years ago, and Rand only 4.5%.

      So yeah, they are different candidates at a different time, but maybe there is one important reason. Ron was very strong about his anti-war stance, and fiscal irresponsibility of the military. Rand is less so… He has tempered that message. In fact, Ron was almost “in your face” about those issues, particularly in the debates. Rand is more reserved about it, and even equivocates about it some.

      Ron was an outlier in the GOP and was rewarded for it in votes. Rand has stepped that back and was punished for it in votes.

    4. Trump is going to be relevant for a long time. He’s going to sweep southern states.

      1. After NH and the SEC Primary Trump is going to be sitting on the biggest pile of delegate momentum. As his national appeal skews secular and centrist expect him to rack up more as things move into the blue states. What’s Rubio polling in his home state of Fla. 3rd? 4th? The race is Trump’s to lose. I can’t wait for the GOPe shills to start publicly counting unpledged “super delegates” in Marcos favor. They’re dumb enough to do it. The blowback will be beautiful.

        1. “”the GOPe “”

          I’ve seen this used a lot by the same people who throw the “Cuck” term around. i deduced that the “e” means, “Establishment”?

          last i checked, the actual ‘establishment’- the lobbyists and the insiders who feed off of DC politics – was more pro-Trump than there were pro-Cruz. They seemed to think they could ‘do business’ with Trump while cruz would ‘bring his own people’ and try and re-order everything.

          1. That’s completely correct. You’ll find that like the word ‘neoconservative’, the more people use ‘GOPe’ the less they understand what the term means. SIV is a prime example of this.

          2. last i checked, the actual ‘establishment’- the lobbyists and the insiders who feed off of DC politics – was more pro-Trump than there were pro-Cruz. They seemed to think they could ‘do business’ with Trump while cruz would ‘bring his own people’ and try and re-order everything.

            Check the sources on that. It’s a Br’er Rabbit game.

    5. As Reason itself points, Iowa hasn’t had very good predictive value for GOPers lately.

  17. Evangelical, Iowa, Evangelical, Iowa, Evangelical, Iowa, Evangelical, Iowa…let me know when I’ve reached the Reason Quota..

    1. They can’t very well say da joos

  18. Cruz’s anti-gay marriage positioning and pandering as well as his association with the execrable Swain and Robertson are going to kill him in the general if he ever gets there. Doof move man. Just stick with defending Christian bakers.

  19. I said this before: Ron Paul’s ‘movement’ was a fraud. Few of those people understood freedom or much anything. They were there to ‘be a part of something’ and ‘rebel’ against the mainstream.

  20. Apparently Economic Roadkill doesn’t do caucuses.

    1. They do. Trump’s support was not as high as predicted but still disturbingly up there. Thing is, Trump pissed people off so much that he motivated people to come and stop him.

      1. Did you get the reference? That’s pretty sweet, if so.

        1. …no.

          1. Oh. Drat. I feel like, despite this site having a higher-than-normal population of Stephenson fans, there are still not that many that read Interface. It’s a damn shame. It’s more prescient than some of his other works, and has a lot to say about the nature of campaigns circa The Year of Our Lord 2016 despite being written in 1994.

  21. I’ll admit it. I was wrong too. I said loudly and repeatedly that “no one” was going to vote for Trump when it came time to actually pull a lever. A quarter of the vote is way more than zero.

    Unless you think that the Iowa caucuses still don’t really, really count as a final decision type vote. It is early enough and small enough that a good chunk of folks might think of it as similarly disposable as an opinion poll.

    And I don’t think Trump’s very low ceiling is due to his penchant for saying offensive things. That’s plausibly still a plus. His real problem, IMHO, is that he’s a moron. At least that’s how he’s always come off to me – going way back to the 90’s. There’s plenty of blowhards who are actually very smart. He just never seems to have a smart take on anything. In fact, he often seems to miss the point entirely.

    Which is why I don’t think anyone wants him to be the voice of America to the international community. There’s no way to trust that he can keep up with the conversation. And we all know what he does when he doesn’t like where things are going. He goes elementary-school ad-hominem.

    Despite my massively off-base prediction of “nobody will vote for this guy when it counts”, I still maintain that “nobody will vote for this guy when it counts”.

  22. “Wondering what that suddenly keeps happening?”


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