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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The Crazy Iowa Caucus

Since we have been talking about Iowa a bit here, I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a quick review of how the caucus functions. You might be surprised by its...uniqueness.

The GOP caucus is pretty straightforward in that everybody votes by secret ballot. The Democratic caucus, however, is not at all straightforward. Wikipedia does a sufficiently good job of summarizing the process:

Caucus-goers form into "preference groups," where their candidate preferences become public. For roughly 30 minutes, attendees try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site.

After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the number of votes for each candidate is counted. The supporters of any candidate who doesn't have enough supporters to be "viable" will then have to find a viable candidate to support or simply choose to abstain. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the "viability threshold" can be anywhere from 15% to 25% of caucus attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least that many caucus participants in that precinct.

From here, the caucus-goers have roughly another 30 minutes to support one of the remaining candidates or choose to abstain. When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct proportionally apportions county delegates for each candidate. These numbers are reported to the state party, which calculates their overall state value and reports that to the media.

What is interesting about this is that candidates with supporters whose preferences are weak are punished. This is unique in American elections. Normally, it does not matter how strongly you support your first choice: he is the guy in first so he gets your vote. Here, the guy (or, in this case, the gal) whom you prefer when you walk into the caucus will only get your vote after you have resisted social pressure to switch. Social pressure is costly. Personally, I have paid more than a few dollars to avoid it [e.g. If I am browsing in a store for a long time and receiving assistance from a clerk, I feel pressure to buy something regardless of whether I want an item or not]. So, to stay with your preferred candidate, that candidate must be worth more to you than the cost of being cajoled by the organizers from one of the other campaigns. Thus, the caucus awards strong preferences.

It also favors the popular. Candidates are severely punished in a caucus if their number of supporters is small. That "viability threshold" is harsh. If your candidate does not meet the threshold, you must select a new candidate. So, presumably, you move to your second choice.

However, there is a catch - you again must withstand the social pressure of the caucus to select your second choice. When you get to your second and third choices - it is probably more likely that your marginal benefit from choosing the highest candidate still on the list decreases. Thus, you become more susceptible to social pressure. Suppose, for instance, that your first choice gets tagged as not viable, and you must then select your second choice. But your second choice candidate does not have a very good organization, while your third choice candidate does. This organization is now applying pressure upon you, cajoling you to join with them. What do you do? Is the marginal benefit you get from your second choice, rather than your third choice, so great that it is worth putting up with this harassment? Do you feel a strong distinction between your #2 and #3 candidates? Maybe, maybe not. My guess is that a lot of people would be almost indifferent between their #2 and #3 candidates; they are therefore more susceptible to social pressure. Thus, the caucus awards strong organization.

The key to success in Iowa is therefore a loyal following of sufficient size, and a strong organization. A loyal following means that your supporters are not going to be swayed by the social pressure applied to them by other candidate organizations. A strong organization not only induces people to come to the caucus, it also applies social pressure upon people to change their votes at the caucus.

N.B. I think that this means that I was incorrect earlier in the week when I argued that our primary polls are efficient only in Iowa. They clearly are not for the Democrats. The polls do not repoll everybody based upon a "viability threshold." And, what is more, they do not do a sufficient job of gauging strength of preferences. Basically, all they do is tell us who is in the lead when people walk into the caucus. If people were walking into a voting booth, where they have no pressure, and they can freely support anybody - the polls would be good enough. But that is not how a caucus works. There is a great deal of pressure, and halfway through all but a handful of the candidates are excised from consideration.

-Jay Cost