Which Generation will show up at the Caucuses?

By Sarah Dutton

With the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses just days away, anticipation is mounting about which candidate will emerge as the victor. And as with any election contest, turnout will be a critical factor in the outcome – a reflection of which candidate was able to motivate their supporters to come out and caucus.

It’s always a challenge for pollsters to estimate turnout when they create their polling models of likely voters, and those turnout estimates may affect which candidate the polls show in the lead.  Just days before the caucuses, some polls show Joe Biden leading, while others show Bernie Sanders ahead. And the margin by which these candidates lead the field varies as well.  There is a history of surprises in Iowa as well, so no one should be counted out entirely. How many people turn out to vote, and who they are, will determine the winner.

As of this writing, many of those involved in the Democratic campaigns and Iowa election officials expect sizable turnout this year.  In 2016, participation in the Iowa caucuses was around 170,000 voters. But in 2008, turnout for the Democratic caucuses in Iowa reached record levels; 239,000 voters came out to participate in the caucuses that year. Some political observers expect even higher turnout this year than in 2008.

But which types of voters attend the caucuses – young or old; Democrats, independents or even Republicans (Iowa’s Democratic caucuses are open, meaning anyone can participate);  moderate or liberal; urban, rural – will also influence how well the candidates fare and who prevails.Past Iowa entrance polls conducted by Edison Research provide some helpful data – but keep in mind that past results aren’t necessarily predictors of future results, and turnout could differ this year.  In 2008, Barack Obama was the winner of the Democratic caucuses. That year, Obama won among liberals, but he also won moderates, who were 40% of the electorate. Young voters – nearly a quarter of the electorate – also helped propel Obama to his victory. And first-time caucusgoers made up more than half the electorate in 2008; Obama won a 41% plurality of them.

Overall turnout for the Iowa Democratic caucuses was lower in 2016, and Bernie Sanders ran a very close second to Hillary Clinton, the winner that year. Clinton won among women in 2016, and she also won among voters age 65 and over, who made up a greater share of the electorate in 2016 than in 2008.  Sanders’ strong showing can be attributed to the younger, more liberal faction of the electorate. Although there were fewer younger voters than in 2008, Sanders won them by a very lopsided 84% to 14% for Clinton. (By comparison, in 2008 57% of voters under 30 supported Obama.)  The 2016 electorate was also more left-leaning than in 2008; two in three were liberal, including 28% who described themselves as very liberal, up from 18% in 2008.  Sanders won the very liberal voters by nearly twenty points.

Turning Out New Voters

By Sarah Dutton 

Each election season there is speculation about whether new voters will turn out and which candidate will motivate them to do so.  New voters can contribute to a candidate’s bloc of voter support, and turning out first-time voters is often a sign that a candidate is generating enthusiasm. And while it may not guarantee becoming the party’s nominee, energizing first-time voters can provide a compelling campaign narrative for a candidate heading into and during the caucuses and primaries. 

During past Democratic caucuses and primaries, entrance and exit polls conducted by Edison Research showed both Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008 were able to energize and motivate voters who were attending a caucus or voting in a primary for the first time.   

In 2016, Sanders was best able to mobilize the support of newer voters. First-time caucus attendees accounted for 44% of Iowa Democrats in their caucuses, and Sanders won those voters handily (although Hillary Clinton won the caucuses overall). 

In 2008, Obama was especially able to energize and turn out this group; a 57% majority of Iowa Democratic caucus goers said they were attending their first caucus, and Obama won the caucuses that year. It is worth noting that Obama’s Iowa win in 2008 may have contributed to a shift in the Democratic race. In the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Clinton was ahead in just about every national poll that asked about the Democratic nominating contest. Later in January, after Iowa and New Hampshire held their contests, Obama began to lead Clinton in some national polls, perhaps because Democratic primary voters perceived him as more electable after his Iowa win. 

Turning to New Hampshire, in the past two Democratic primaries the Edison Research exit polls show fewer new voters compared to Iowa – less than one in five voters there were voting in a primary for the first time. But Sanders won them by a large margin in 2016, and Obama won a 47% plurality of them in 2008.  

Why were these new voters energized to turn out? The 2016 Iowa caucus entrance poll provides evidence of new voters’ connection with Sanders. They were twice as likely as more seasoned attendees to say that only Bernie Sanders represented their values, and less likely to identify with the values of Hillary Clinton. 

In the 2016 New Hampshire exit polls, Sanders’ support from new voters shows more clearly that many of these voters were motivated by support for him specifically. New Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire were more likely than those who had voted previously to say they were in tune only with Sanders’ values – 51% did so. 


While nearly nine in ten new Democratic voters in New Hampshire said they would be satisfied if Sanders won the nomination, a majority also said they would not be satisfied if Clinton won. By comparison, majorities of those who had voted before said they would be happy with each candidate as the nominee. (Overall, 62% of New Hampshire voters said they would be satisfied with Clinton as the nominee, and 79% said the same for Sanders.) 

Demographically, first time voters in Iowa and New Hampshire were significantly younger than voters who had caucused or voted before.  

In 2016, Bernie Sanders went on to win first-time caucus/primary voters in the next set of nominating contests after Iowa and New Hampshire as well – a clear demonstration that he had energized a newer, younger bloc of voters to come out and participate in the nominating process. In the Nevada Democratic caucuses, entrance polls show that fully 62% of caucus-goers were attending for the first time, and Sanders won them 53% to 44%. And while a much smaller 13% of South Carolina Democratic primary voters were new voters, Sanders won them as well, 63% to 37%, according to the exit poll. Of course, despite this support Sanders did not become the Democratic nominee that year. 

So, which candidate will generate enthusiasm among these newer attendees and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire this year? Will Sanders replicate his 2016 success?  Will first-timers be a determining factor in which candidate becomes the eventual nominee? These are among the key stories to watch for next month as the 2020 Democratic nominating contests get under way.

The Youth Vote

By Sarah Dutton 

Young people under age 30 seem highly politically engaged in the run-up to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. It is impossible to predict how they will vote or why, but a look at their voting behavior, political leanings and priorities in the 2016 Edison Research exit polls suggest some trends to consider for the 2020 Democratic primaries.  

Throughout the primaries and caucuses in 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders received strong support from voters under 30, according to the exit polls conducted by Edison Research.  In the 2016 Iowa caucuses, the first of the Democratic nominating contests, caucus-goers under 30 supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton by a very lop-sided margin – 84% to just 14% for Clinton.  Sanders won voters under 30 by similarly large margins in New Hampshire (83% to 16%) and Nevada (82% to 14%).  

In fact, Sanders bested Clinton among voters under 30 in all the 2016 primary contests covered by the exit poll except Alabama and Mississippi. Looking at exit polls from all the Democratic nominating contests in 2016 combined, Sanders won 71% of the vote from those under 30, while Clinton won 28%; a landslide for Sanders and the inverse of the vote among those age 65 and older. 


In addition to their vote choice, younger voters also differentiated themselves attitudinally from voters who were older. The 2016 exit polls reveal an under-30 electorate that identified as more liberal (and preferred more liberal policies), more concerned about income inequality and less interested in a candidate’s experience than older voters. 

Importantly, voters under 30 were more liberal than older voters. Combining all the exit polls from the 2016 Democratic nominating races finds that 35% of younger voters described themselves as very liberal – far higher than the 28% of voters age 30 to 44, 21% of those age 45 to 64 and 22% of 65+ voters who did so. And these young voters were far less likely to call themselves moderates. 


Unlike older voters, those under 30 wanted the next president to promote policies that were more liberal than those of President Barack Obama.  


Like voters of all ages, voters under 30 prioritized the economy and jobs as the most important issue facing the country.  But they differed significantly from older voters in their concern about income inequality; 34% chose that as most important, the largest percentage of any age group. Health care and terrorism ranked much lower. 


The qualities they looked for in a candidate differentiated them from older voters too. In 2016, voters under 30 were notably less interested than older voters in a candidate’s experience and more attuned to whether he or she cared about them and was honest. 


But generating turnout among young voters can be a challenge. According to the exit polls, voters under age 30 were just 17% of all those who cast votes in the 2016 nominating contests. The coming months will determine whether that holds true in the 2020 nominating contests as well. 


Looked at more broadly, young voters are reliably Democratic voters in presidential elections and have historically favored Democratic candidates. While they were Sanders supporters during the primaries, in the 2016 general election Democrat Hillary Clinton won among this group by 19 points: 55% voted for her, while 36% voted for Republican Donald Trump.  In 2008, Barack Obama was elected with strong support from voters under 30, winning this age group by 34 points.  If recent history is a guide, whoever wins the Democratic nomination should continue to enjoy the strong support of voters under 30. 

Since 2004, The National Election Pool (NEP) and Edison Research have conducted the only national exit polls in the United States. The NEP is the source for projections and analysis for every midterm election, presidential primary and presidential election.  



What really happens on Iowa Caucus night?

By Sarah Dutton

Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have represented the first presidential nomination contest and therefore receive a great deal of attention. They can provide surprises (Barack Obama, who trailed Hillary Clinton in national polls, won Iowa in 2008), catapult a nationally unknown candidate into the lead (Jimmy Carter in 1976) or be nail-biters (the 2012 Republican caucus was the closest in Iowa history with Rick Santorum edging Mitt Romney by less than a tenth of percentage point, and the 2016 Democratic caucus had Hillary Clinton defeating Bernie Sanders by a quarter of a percent). 

For those of us who don’t live in Iowa, the caucuses can be downright confusing; the caucus process is very different from a primary, which is what most voters are familiar with.  What is a caucus? Do voters cast votes? How does a candidate “win” in Iowa?  How are the results determined?  Here is a primer on the Democratic caucuses that will help explain what you’ll see, hear or read reported on February 3, and what it means.

The Democratic caucuses are essentially community meetings. They can be held in many types of places, including schools and churches.  Unlike in a primary, where voters can vote throughout the day and evening, caucuses begin throughout the state at a uniform time – 7 p.m. Central Standard Time.

When they enter the caucuses, many Democratic caucus attendees will have a candidate in mind to support.  Once the caucus has begun, voters divide into groups according to which candidate they support, often referred to as their “first preference.”  Undecided voters also form a group supporting “Uncommitted.  At this point, at least 15% of caucus-goers at that site must support a candidate for the candidate to reach the “viability” threshold.  Voters who support candidates receiving less than 15% must then realign themselves with another candidate, or they can try to persuade other voters to back their candidate until the 15% threshold is reached.  

For instance, if Candidate A doesn’t receive 15% support, then their supporters must choose from the other viable candidates in the race (Candidate B, C, D, etc.) or convince more voters to back Candidate A.  Since this is a fluid process, voters may end up supporting a different candidate than they did when they first entered the caucus. And all this occurs within the privacy of the caucus location.  

Once the final candidate groups are formed, support for each viable candidate is translated into “state delegate equivalents” – the number of delegates who will go to the Iowa state Democratic convention (and eventually the national Democratic convention) in support of each candidate.  

The process can throw a curve ball to pre-election pollsters in Iowa. Polls conducted before the caucuses may accurately measure the first preference of voters there, but not reflect the post-viability realignment that occurs during the caucus.  This is especially a concern when there is a large field of candidates running for the nomination, many of whom will not meet the viability threshold. 

In caucus states, Edison Research conducts an entrance poll, rather than an exit poll; voters complete the entrance poll questionnaire as they enter the caucuses. (By contrast, in states with primaries, voters are asked to fill out a questionnaire as they leave their voting place, after they have voted.)  That’s because caucus-goers all leave the caucus at the same time, when the grouping process is over; it would be challenging to sample voters as they all leave their caucus together.   

Edison Research has conducted the Iowa Caucus entrance poll since 2004. On Caucus night, Edison staff will be interviewing voters as they enter Caucus sites. Edison will measure caucus goer’s initial preference and will later tabulate both the pre and post “viability” vote in each location (also referred to as “first alignment and “final alignment”).  Also for the first time the Iowa State Democratic Party will be reporting three sets of results – the first alignment preference, the final alignment preference and the state delegate equivalents.  So be prepared for different candidates leading each set of results and possibly different orders of finish. 

That’s the caucus process in a nutshell. Enjoy watching or reading about the results! 


About Edison Research
Edison Research conducts survey research and provides strategic information to a broad array of clients, including Activision, AMC Theatres, Disney, Dolby Laboratories, Google, Oracle, the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, Pandora, Samsung, Siemens, Sony, The Gates Foundation, and Univision. Edison is the leading podcast research company in the world and has conducted research on the medium for NPR, Slate, ESPN, PodcastOne, WNYC Studios, and many more companies in the space.  Another specialty for Edison is its work for media companies throughout the world, conducting research in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. Edison is also the leading provider of consumer exit polling and has conducted face-to-face research in almost every imaginable venue. Since 2004, Edison Research has been the sole provider of Election Day data to the National Election Pool, conducting exit polls and collecting precinct vote returns to project and analyze results for every major presidential primary and general election.

Do Voters Consider Candidate Age?

by Edison Research Vice President Mary Meyn

When President Trump was sworn into office at the age of 70 on January 20, 2017, he became the oldest person to begin his first term as President. Previously, that record was held by President Ronald Reagan who was 69 when he was sworn in for his first term. With Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton also approaching 70, age was part of the political conversation, but not a significant factor during the 2016 campaign.

However, as the Democrats select their nominee, age has again become an issue in presidential politics. The three leading candidates according to recent polling – Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders – are all in their seventies.  If one of those candidates becomes the nominee, both of the major party candidates running for President will be more than 70 years old.

Age has been a campaign issue in other elections, and the Exit Polls provide a historical look back on voters’ opinions on the subject. (Click the following graphic to enlarge.)


At the time of the 2008 election, John McCain, the Republican Presidential nominee, was 72 and Barack Obama was 47.  Sixty percent of voters said that the age of the candidates was not a factor in their vote for president, according to the Exit Poll.  The 40% of voters who said that age was a factor in their vote, whether it was the most important factor or a minor one, voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. John McCain ultimately lost the national vote by 7%.

In 1996, Bob Dole was the Republican Presidential nominee.  Had he been elected President, he would have been 73 years old at the time of his swearing in.  The 1996 Exit Poll asked voters if Bob Dole’s age would interfere with his ability to effectively serve as President, and 64% of voters said no, it would not. Bob Dole lost the election to Bill Clinton by 9% of the national vote.

Age was also an issue in the political career of Strom Thurmond, who served as a US Senator from South Carolina until he retired at age 100, making him the oldest Senator.  In his 1996 reelection campaign, Thurmond was 93 years old.  While Thurmond ultimately won reelection in a landslide (by a 31% margin), 55% of South Carolina voters did think that age would interfere with his ability to serve effectively as Senator.

While we don’t know yet how much of a factor age will be in the 2020 Presidential election, we can look to exit polls in previous elections for a historical perspective.

About Edison Research 
Edison Research conducts survey research and provides strategic information in over 50 countries for clients including AMC Theatres, AMC Theatres, Amazon, Apple, The Brookings Institute, Facebook, The Gates Foundation, Google, the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, Oracle, Pandora, The Pew Research Center, Samsung, Spotify, and SiriusXM Radio. The national tracking study The Infinite Dial® and the syndicated Share of Ear® are two of the most widely cited studies in the audio space. Edison is also the leading podcast research company in the world and has conducted research for NPR, Slate, ESPN, PodcastOne, WNYC Studios, and many more companies in the podcasting space.  Edison’s network of more than 20,000 experienced interviewers allows the company to conduct research in almost any location. Since 2004, Edison Research has been the sole provider of Election Day data to the National Election Pool. For the 2020 U.S. elections, Edison will provide exit polls and will tabulate the national vote across every county in the United States for ABC News, CBS News, CNN, and NBC News.