The race for the Democratic nomination will officially begin in Iowa on Monday, February 3rd when Iowans head off to caucus. Iowa determines who gets to spin a positive narrative early in the primary process, and that can be instrumental in swinging undecided voters in later states. While Mike Bloomberg is putting that notion to the test this year — he’s not even on the ballot in Iowa and is currently campaigning in other states — just about everyone else is putting their best foot forward in the Hawkeye State.
The Iowa caucuses have been unpredictable. In the 2016 Republican race, polling averages put Donald Trump ahead of Ted Cruz by five percentage points — only for Cruz to beat Trump by four percent. And although polls correctly predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the state that year, Bernie Sanders brought things a lot closer than pollsters anticipated. And that’s just 2016! Rick Santorum pulled off a stunning upset back in 2012, and Barack Obama swung enough voters late in 2008 to top Hillary Clinton.
Part of why Iowa is so unpredictable is because it’s a caucus, not a primary. While voters simply cast ballots in primary elections, caucusgoers engage in multiple rounds of voting in which they can change their preferred candidates. After an initial round of balloting, supporters of candidates with less than 15 percent of the vote can choose to support another candidate — or to sway others to get their candidate over 15 percent. It’s like a live-action ranked-choice ballot.
However, 2020’s caucuses should be less chaotic than those of previous years. In the past, supporters of a given candidate could change their votes even if their candidate had reached the 15 percent mark, but they can no longer do that. This change adds significance to first-round balloting, and while the results are yet to be seen, I suspect that it will help keep the results closer to the polling averages. Hypothetically, at least, it would prevent supporters of a successful candidate from helping their less-successful second choice reach viability.
RealClearPolitics’ polling average puts Bernie Sanders in the lead over Joe Biden by a modest 2.8 percent. The two men are the only candidates with polling averages above 20 percent, and Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren follow them at around 15 percent. Amy Klobuchar is the only other candidate to earn double-digit support in recent polling, as her stock has risen since she won the New York Times’ endorsement. She’s also a Midwesterner from nearby Minnesota, which may help her case here as well.
Should these polls hold up, it looks like a two-way race for the win between Sanders and Biden. Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar should be competitive in all districts, while supporters of Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, and Tulsi Gabbard will likely end up backing others before the caucuses conclude. According to the Washington Post, supporters of both Biden and Sanders have reached out to the Yang campaign to court their backing, while the Buttigieg campaign has reached out to Steyer. Fortunately for Sanders, Andrew Yang expects his supporters to swing for the Vermont Senator.
“I think that Bernie and I do have a lot of overlap in support,” he told a Bloomberg News roundtable. Yang’s consistent block of voters could help give Sanders a small edge over Biden on Monday.
Another factor acting in Sanders’ favor is the likelihood that his supporters will show up. New York Times polling shows that Biden’s supporters are less likely to caucus than those who backed Sanders. While Biden leads Sanders in support among those who voted in Iowa’s 2018 primary elections, Sanders leads Biden among self-reported 2016 caucusgoers. Since caucuses tend to attract younger voters, according to the Times’ Nate Cohn, Sanders’ popularity among younger voters may give him an advantage.
However, FiveThirtyEight’s polling average doesn’t favor Sanders as heavily.
Nate Silver’s website considers national trends in statewide polling, corrects for “house effects” — or individual pollsters’ results skewing toward certain candidates, and uses objective data to weigh pollsters’ results against each other. Although Silver was subject to ridicule after FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary Clinton a 71.4 percent chance to win the 2016 election, those were much worse odds than others in the media had given her. Also, the failure spurred enough introspection from Silver to restore some of my confidence in his modeling.
His lesson for us: don’t write Biden off just yet.
As of publication, the sportsbooks favor Sanders in this one. Let’s take a look at PointsBet’s odds for Iowa:
They’ve got Sanders listed as a heavy favorite to come out ahead on Monday night. A $10 bet on Sanders would earn you $6.29, which honestly seems like a bad deal, given Iowa’s past unpredictability. Meanwhile, a bet of the same amount on Joe Biden would earn you $22.50 should it hit, and that’s not a bad profit for a guy who is second in the polls.
The polls suggest a two-way race between Sanders and Biden, and FiveThirtyEight gives one of them a 73 percent chance to end up on top. Backing from Yang supporters, and from Warren or Klobuchar supporters where those candidates fail to reach viability, could play a determining factor in Iowa this year.
Fortunately, PointsBet’s odds make betting on both candidates a viable option. If you put two units on Sanders and one on Biden, you’re almost guaranteed to come away with a small profit. That said, I’d recommend that you plug Sanders in as a three or four-unit play and place one unit on Biden. That way, you’ll win more from a Sanders victory without losing it all should Biden have an unexpectedly good night.