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.