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Luck of the Draw in Iowa

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UD political science chair provides perspective on the Iowa caucuses

Iowa Votes graphic: hand drops ballot shaped like Iowa into ballot box

By Justin Richards, University of Delaware junior and intern for the University of Delaware's Center for Political Communication

JANUARY 30, 2020―With a just a few days left before the Iowa caucuses on Monday, February 3, David Redlawsk, the chair of University of Delaware's Political Science & International Relations Department, has seen the ebbs and flows of candidates and campaigns. While on sabbatical, Redlawsk has spent the last six months in Iowa, studying and reporting on the Iowa caucuses. He tweets regularly about the caucuses @DavidRedlawsk.

As candidates enter the final week, Professor Redlawsk has noticed that they are making “the ask.” “It is partially the stump speech and really now it is the close—‘why me and here is what you should do.’”

In recent weeks, some have questioned the effectiveness of personal attacks made by Sen. Bernie Sanders against Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Redlawsk remarked, “I will admit that I am surprised that candidates haven’t been more negative than they have been. It is usually more negative than this by now, it looks like it is not going to get terribly negative.”

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Breaking into the pack

David Redlawsk take a snack break while attending a campaign event in Iowa.

​David Redlawsk take a snack break while attending a campaign event in Iowa. 

While the national media has focused on the four front runners―Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg―other candidates have tried but yet failed to break into this pack. Redlawsk viewed the most likely candidates to succeed are Sen. Amy Klobuchar and businessman Andrew Yang. “I do think Klobuchar has some potential in certain parts of the state and may do in fact better than expected.” Redlawsk called Yang a “wildcard,” saying he was surprised by the crowds that have turned out for him. “The bottom line to do better than expected—like Yang—is to get people to caucus who often don’t show up to caucus,” said Redlawsk.

He has heard Klobuchar discuss her rising momentum in some of her speeches. “I am never sure that is a great idea. Generally you are better off with trying to minimize expectations, I think," said Redlawsk. "One of the reasons to do what she is doing is to make the claim to get attention and to get people to think, ‘Hey, there is a chance for her, maybe I should really support her.’ It kind of cuts both ways.”

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Impeachment impact

Redlawsk described the impact of the impeachment trial on the four senators who will not be able to campaign during the final days in Iowa: Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, and Sen. Michael Bennett. “It is certainly limiting their ability to be here. Right now it is wide open for [candidates] in Iowa who are not the senators.” The senators currently impacted are using surrogates in their place, but “that is still not the same thing as having the candidate on the ground,” said Redlawsk. He believed Warren and Sanders have the best organization and “real strong ground games,” to go on without much impact. But there is still a cost. “It is certainly more difficult for them and does put them I think at little bit of a disadvantage,” said Redlawsk.

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Caucus night survey

As he did in 2008 and 2016, Redlawsk will once again conduct a caucus night survey , distributing the survey through the Democratic Party to the 1,681 precincts throughout Iowa. He explained the step-by-step process of it. “The survey will be given out by the caucus chair using a random process. The one person in the precinct will be asked to fill out the survey. Assuming they do, it will be returned to the State party and I will be able to pick it up after.”

Redlawsk talked about the different questions that will be asked of caucus goers. “We ask people who they are supporting. We also ask them why. Which issues do they care about? We also ask what they think about the caucus process.” He hopes to receive a 65% response rate with the survey and use it to update his Why Iowa? book, published in 2008, with new data.

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Why do the Iowa caucuses matter?

The caucuses force candidates to learn, meet, and address voters' concerns. “Candidates can basically meet everyone who is going to caucus for them, and I think that it’s incredibly valuable. It ultimately means that candidates can’t just run TV ads, they can’t just hold giant rallies and never answer questions. I do think it matters.”

Redlawsk addressed the demographic limits of Iowa, but argued, “If you take Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada together, then the first four early states, then you have a nice representation of at least the Democratic Party and is what you need in this kind of process.”

He described what differentiates successful campaigns from failed ones. Campaigns need not only a clear and consistent message and candidates that connect with voters, but also a successful organization and money to fuel a campaign. They need to “build a complicated organization to try to get people out to a caucus on a cold winter night.” Failed campaigns—like those of Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris—that lack in one of these aspects ultimately can't get the media attention to be successful. The whole process sometimes is simply the “luck of the draw.”

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With a just a few days left before the Iowa caucuses on February 3, UD's political science chair has seen the ebbs and flows of campaigns.
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Luck of the Draw in Iowa