Iowa voters caucused Feb. 3, taking the first electoral step toward the 2020 presidential election. Oklahomans will vote March 3 in a Super Tuesday that could be up for grabs after Iowa's messy Democratic results.
The Associated Press declared Iowa’s Democratic caucuses too close to call, especially with state-wide reporting irregularities. Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were virtually tied in state delegate equivalents, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren came in third place, according to The New York Times.
Iowa voters who caucused Feb. 3 are somewhat similar to Oklahoma’s electorate — while Oklahoma is more diverse, both states hold a majority of white voters dispersed across a rural, midwestern area.
Dianne Bystrom, former director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University — who also worked at OU for 17 years in public relations and political communication — said early states usually narrow the field of candidates for Super Tuesday on March 3. Oklahoma voters will be among the more than one-third of the U.S. population to cast their vote that day, according to Ballotpedia.
“What I see, and that’s supported by some research, is that the result in the early states tends to influence what happens in other states on Super Tuesday,” Bystrom said in an interview prior to caucus night. “Oklahomans (may) have less choices than Iowa, but they'll still have a pretty robust choice because ... the differences in outcomes in those first four states will dictate how many people are still standing on Super Tuesday.”
Tyler Johnson, an OU political science associate professor with expertise in public opinion and elections, said in an interview prior to the caucuses that it’s difficult to “draw a direct line” between Iowa and Oklahoma.
According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2018 American Community Survey single-year estimates, Iowa’s population is about 800,000 less than Oklahoma’s population. The percent of Iowa’s population 65 years or older is 17 versus 15.7 percent in Oklahoma, and Iowa’s population is 90.2 percent white compared to Oklahoma’s 74.2 percent.
This lack of diversity in Iowa often prompts questions as to why Iowa has the privilege of going first, which it has held since 1972 simply for the sake of being the first state — and critiques increased after issues in the 2020 caucuses.
”One of the criticisms of the Iowa caucus is that the demographics of Iowa do not match the demographics of the Democratic Party nationally, and that's certainly true,” Bystrom said. “But I think what it does do is that Democrats in Iowa, although they’re mainly white, they do ... ideologically fit with the Democratic Party nationwide.”
If the results from the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada fall the same way, Johnson said, it may cause Oklahomans to decide to stand behind that front runner.
“If you get sort of a mixed bag out of those first few contests, then it's likely that Oklahomans are going to come into that primary on Super Tuesday sort of voting their conscience or their real preference,” Johnson said. “We'll have to see if the first few contests after Iowa fall in line ... or perhaps we get to Super Tuesday and Oklahomans are just as confused about what's going to happen.”
Voters choosing their “real preference” may have been fewer in number in this year’s Iowa caucus due to a rule change, Bystrom said. Typically, caucus-goers would enter the designated area and stand under a sign for their chosen candidate, and others could come by that sign and lobby voters to change groups — called the "first alignment."
This year, Iowa voters were locked in with their first choice if that candidate obtained viability, or 15 percent of the vote. The state also reported the results of the first and final alignments for the first time — rather than just the amount of state delegates each candidate is allocated. The change may have slowed down the reporting of results, according to a statement from the Iowa Democratic Party communications director.
As a result of the rule change, Bystrom said she saw more consideration for Democratic Iowans before caucus night — should they vote for the candidate they ideologically prefer or the one they think may be most electable against President Donald Trump?
“In the time I was in Iowa, I have really never seen more emphasis on really wanting to get rid of the Republican incumbent,” Bystrom said.
When talking to Iowa voters at Democratic events throughout the state, many echoed that the issue of beating Trump would be their main priority when they headed to the caucuses.
“I think that sentiment is heightened right now,” Johnson said. “Given the animosity between parties, given the dislike of Donald Trump that is clear within the Democratic Party right now, the sort of passionate dislike, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that that's at the forefront of people's minds and to a level that perhaps it hasn't been in past cycles.”
Iowa is more purple ideologically than Oklahoma, which has not voted a Democrat into the presidency since 1964. But in 2016, Oklahoma Democrats chose the more progressive Sanders by 10 percentage points, while Iowa chose Hillary Clinton by less than 1 point.
Johnson said, though Sanders galvanized Oklahoma support in 2016, the fact that this year’s Oklahoma primary will probably not be a clear one-on-one race like four years ago may change things.
“It's been argued that Oklahoma still has this sort of anti-establishment populist streak among some voters that might have made Sanders a more appealing choice,” Johnson said. “You have the interesting dynamic of Elizabeth Warren being from Oklahoma as well ... if she is still a strong contender on the time of that primary, that might win her some attention that would have gone to Sanders before.”
Since 1972, when Iowa started its tradition of voting first, the state has successfully chosen the Democratic nominee seven times out of 10 contested races. The state has only chosen the Republican nominee three times out of eight contested races since Iowa’s first Republican caucus in 1980.
Although this may seem discouraging, Bystrom said, the state is still crucial choosing the frontrunners for the nomination — with candidates rarely going on to win their party without finishing in the top three in Iowa.
Johnson said there’s still plenty of time for the dynamics to shift in the month following Iowa’s caucuses and Super Tuesday — but these results are still important because they are the first concrete measurements voters have of candidate performance.
“We’ll have some data, and some data that matters,” Johnson said. “I think everyone should be paying attention to Iowa, because we're actually going to have tangible information on how voters have reacted to the past year or so of campaigning.”