It’s less than three hours until caucus time in Iowa as I write, and perhaps it’s worth taking a look back at the 2008 Iowa Republican caucus results to get a sense of the field on which the candidates will play. I’ll make some random points.
Turnout. Just 119,000 of 3 million Iowans participated in the 2008 Republican caucuses—a turnout far below the 239,000 of 1.3 million New Hampshire residents who voted in that state’s primary five days later. I’ve seen some news accounts which describe the Iowa caucus electorate as predominantly rural, but that’s not really true. In 2008, 35% of the caucus votes—41,000 out of 119,000—were cast in Des Moines’s Polk County and the eight counties surrounding it. Or, to put it in political reporters’ terms, within an hour’s drive of the Des Moines Marriott and the 801 Chophouse.
Christian conservatives. In 2008, 60% of caucusgoers identified themselves in the entrance poll as evangelical or born again Christians, and they provided the bulk of the votes that gave Mike Huckabee a 34%-25% victory over Mitt Romney. But don’t think of this as necessarily a rural/small town vote. Huckabee carried eight of the nine counties in and around Des Moines, losing only the most upscale (and fastest-growing) Dallas County to Romney. He did especially well in heavily Dutch-American Sioux County (52%), whose county seat is Orange City, named for the Dutch royal family, and in also heavily Dutch-American Mahaska (60%) and Marion (56%) Counties southeast of Des Moines, where the best-known town is Pella, home of the windows company. Huckabee ran strong in the light-voting two southern tiers of counties, where you can catch hints of a Southern (or at least Missourah) accent, and in a tranche of counties in the north central part of the state. His worst county was Dubuque (15%), which is heavily German Catholic.
Is the Huckabee vote transferable to one or more of this year’s candidates? Probably not. Iowa-based pollster Ann Selzer, whose Des Moines Register poll was right on the mark in 2008, says that evangelical and born-again Christians are less likely to participate in the caucuses this year. Moreover, the one cultural conservative candidate who has been surging in Iowa of late is Rick Santorum, who as a Catholic is likely to do better than Huckabee in Dubuque County and other heavily Catholic areas, but may not have as great appeal in Dutch and Southern-accented counties.
Mitt Romney’s coalition. Four years ago Mitt Romney spent great amounts of money and time in Iowa and all he got for it was 25% of the vote, a second-place finish and a lousy T-shirt. Romney’s organizational effort was clearly weaker than Huckabee’s, particularly in the Des Moines area. Romney got 30% or more of the vote in 21 counties. Most of them were in eastern Iowa, where he carried the counties containing Dubuque (41%), Cedar Rapids (31%), Iowa City (31%) and Davenport (31%) as well as smaller rural counties. He also got more than 30% in six counties along or one county away from the Missouri River, which is the state’s eastern border. This geography suggests that he spent much more money on media markets which reach beyond Iowa’s borders (Omaha, Davenport, Dubuque) and on the Cedar Rapids media market than his rivals. But turnout in these areas proportionate to population was significantly lower than in the Des Moines area. Romney topped 30% in two more counties, the previously mentioned upscale Dallas County west of Des Moines’s Polk County (Iowa was admitted to the Union in 1846 when James K. Polk was president and George M. Dallas was vice president), and Decatur County down by the Missouri border. I have no idea why Romney was strong in Decatur County, where 348 votes were cast of which he won 123. I suspect there were a few individuals who worked it for him, and I suspect that the results in many other small counties have similar explanations.
The Ron Paul base. Ron Paul won 9.9% of the Iowa caucus votes in 2008 and polls suggest he will get about double that this time. Four years ago he reached the 20% level in only five of the state’s 99 counties. His best showing was in Jefferson County (36%), home of Maharishi University and a lively meditationist culture; the meditators evidently find Paul’s libertarianism and isolationism to their taste. One expects their influence extends to two adjacent counties, Van Buren and Davis, where Paul got 21% and 20%. I have no explanations for why Paul got 21% in Pocahontas County in north central Iowa or 26% in Osceola County in the northwest on the Minnesota border.
Will these patterns be repeated? Probably not. As I wrote above, it looks like no one candidate, nor even several of them put together, will reassemble the Huckabee coalition; this was the work of a particular candidate who ran as a “Christian leader” and, by eliminating Sam Brownback in the straw poll, managed to have the religious conservative field to himself. This time Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum have made reasonable though not explicit claims to that label. And, even though public opinion polls show Romney getting just a bit under the 25% he got two years ago, his coalition may look somewhat different and less regional.
As for Ron Paul, it’s not clear yet where his support is coming from—polling shows he’s getting a lot of votes from people who don’t identify as Republicans—but it’s a pretty sure thing he’ll carry Jefferson County again. It was one of two counties in the nation he carried in 2008; the other was Nye County, Nevada, home of the proposed (but now apparently cancelled) Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository and the Nevada Test Site, where the Air Force used to detonate atomic bombs. An intriguing pair.