By Sarah Dutton
The Iowa caucuses are over (ish) and the candidates have moved on to New Hampshire, the next contest in the race for the Democratic nomination. But as the first nominating contest, the entrance polls from the Iowa caucuses can offer some insights into potential trends among the electorate. How did electability factor into vote choice? Did voting patterns match assumptions about which demographic groups back each candidate? Did last minute campaigning have an impact on vote choice? Here are some takeaways from the Edison Research entrance polls, completed as voters went into their caucus locations.
Electability mattered to nearly two in three caucus goers. These Democratic voters clearly prefer a candidate who can beat Donald Trump in November (61%) over one who agrees with them on the issues (37%). But Iowa voters who prioritize beating President Trump did not coalesce around one candidate who they view as most electable; similar percentages chose Buttigieg (24%) and Biden (23%). Among the smaller percentage of voters who prefer a candidate with whom they agree on the issues, 36% chose Sanders.
Moderates and liberals support different candidates, continuing a trend observed in Iowa in 2016. In 2016, Clinton won moderate and conservative voters by 20 points, while Sanders won most of those who described themselves as very liberal by about the same amount – 19 points. This year, very liberal voters once again supported Sanders (43%), followed by Elizabeth Warren (28%), while moderate and conservative voters evenly split their votes between Joe Biden (25%) and Pete Buttigieg (25%).
There is also a gap between moderates and liberals on health care policy. While all three ideological groups chose health care as the most important issue in their vote, they disagreed on how health care policy should be structured. Nearly nine in ten very liberal caucus goers support replacing private health insurance with a single government plan for everyone, and a majority of voters who are somewhat liberal agree. But support drops to only 35% of moderate/conservative voters.
Sanders’ supporters overwhelmingly back replacing private health care with a government run system (92%).
Late deciders broke for moderate candidates. Voters who decide on a candidate just before an election can make a difference in the results; “late deciders” helped elect Donald Trump in November 2016, and gave Hillary Clinton a boost before the 2008 New Hampshire primary. In the Iowa caucuses this year, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg benefitted from the support of these late deciders; among those who made up their minds who to support on the day of the caucuses, Biden received 24% of their support and Buttigieg 21%. Sanders’ voters had made their minds up much earlier in the race; 64% of Sanders’ voters say they made up their minds before January.
The age gap that was evident in pre-election polls was confirmed in the Iowa entrance polls. Voters under 30 backed Sanders (48%) over the other candidates by a sizable margin, and while his support was larger among this group in 2016, there are far more candidates in the race this year. Voters age 65 and over backed Biden. And at 24%, these under-30 voters made up a larger share of the vote than in 2016 (18%) and 2008 (22%). Four in five Sanders’ supporters were under age 45.
First–time voters weren’t the force they have been in the past. There were fewer new voters, that is, those participating in a caucus for the first time, this year compared to past Iowa caucuses. Only 37% said this was their first time caucusing, down from 44% in 2016 and 57% in 2008. And while first-timers heavily supported Sanders in 2016, this year he wasn’t the only candidate who brought first–time voters to the caucuses: 31% supported Sanders, and another 25% supported Buttigieg.
Pete Buttigieg, who spent large blocks of time campaigning in Iowa, had a good night. While Buttigieg won few demographic groups outright, he ran well among many of them. He won among women (24%), and came in second to Sanders among men (21%). He came in second – again to Sanders – among voters under 45 and won those age 45 to 64. He won college graduates with 23% of the vote, and came in second among those without a college degree. Buttigieg tied Biden for the top spot among moderate/conservative voters (25%), and tied Sanders (24%) with those voters who said health care was the top issue in their vote choice.
The Iowa caucus process benefits candidates who can hit the 15% threshold in the most precincts, and Buttigieg’s broad appeal among various demographics in the entrance poll helped him here too. According to the latest results from the Iowa Democratic Party, Pete Buttigieg reached the 15% threshold in more than 80% of the precincts across the state, more than any other candidate.
Next up – New Hampshire, the first primary, to see whether these trends continue.