STAR PREVIEW: Iowa Democratic Caucuses

The road to the White House is arguably the longest and most arduous in Western Politics, and for the Democratic contenders seeking to overturn Donald Trump, we have the first real step towards November with tonight’s Iowa Caucuses, where the attention of America – and much of the watching world – turns onto the rolling plains and cornfields.

How does it all work?

Most states hold have ‘primary’ elections, which are contests run by the state where which voters go to a polling place, vote remotely, or mail in their ballot, like a standard election. Caucuses are different, however.

Firstly, only registered Democrats can vote in their caucuses.

Voters have to go and stand in the area where their candidate is represented – so the supporters of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren will all be in their own corners. There’s also a section for “uncommitted” — people who choose not to pick a candidate.

Everyone is then tallied. These tallies are then counted and state delegates are awarded to each candidate proportionately. Those results then decide how many national convention delegates each candidate receives.

Looking ahead to tonight, second choices are also very important. If a particular candidate does not attract 15% of total voters present, they are not seen as “viable” and are taken off the ballot, leaving their voters free to throw their weight behind another candidate (but any candidate above 15 percent is deemed viable, and their supporters are locked in. So turnover between candidates is a key area to watch tonight, as well as going forward.

How will the Star markets work?

We’ll pay out on the winner for vote totals. After an incredibly close result in 2016 between Hilary Clinton and Bernie sanders, the Democratic party made changes to the reporting of the results to increase transparency. This year, the state Democratic Party will be releasing all three of the metrics that make up the result: The raw votes from the first and final alignments, and the state delegate equivalents too.

Polling & Forecasting

The polling has centred around two candidates – Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s Vice-President. FiveThirtyEight has them neck and neck in an average of pledged delegates – Sanders averages 13.3, and Biden 12.2, with Pete Buttigeg third with 7.1 and Elizabeth Warren with 5.9.

The polling average as of today, taken from FiveThirtyEight has Sanders (22.2%) just ahead of Joe Biden (21.0%) with a gap to Pete Buttigieg (15.4%) & Elizabeth Warren (14.7%). Amy Klobuchar (10.1%) is the only other contender in double figures. That’s a pretty clear hierarchy but it’s vitally important to remember that the polls only measure voters’ initial preferences and there are big margins of error – around 10% or so. Also, as said above, caucusgoers are allowed to realign if their candidate doesn’t meet the viability threshold of 15% and then the delegates awarded are based on that post-realignment total, meaning that even the highest polls can’t really tell us exactly how votes will translate into delegates.

2020 Iowa Democratic Caucuses
Democratic Party Presidential Primaries
Monday 3rd February
Live on CNN from 1am (TV) and live coverage online

Contenders & Tactics

A surge in the polls has given Bernie Sanders’s campaign the best momentum coming into the caucuses, and his prospects for another bold bid to become the nominee look strong. Sanders’ message from four years ago, perhaps with more urgency now as Donald Trump seeks a second term, have become more powerful if anything amongst his supporters and the urgency to defeat Trump looks to be a benefit.

Sanders is one of four Senators who has had to split his time with Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, but the energy support of surrogates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and an army of volunteers and donors has kept the atmosphere red-hot at his campaign rallies and events. His massive ground game, which he used in 2016 to great extent – Sanders claims that his team has knocked on 500,000 doors in the last month – is a particularly useful asset here.

However, it’s worth wondering if the 4/7 on him winning tonight is value. Few could doubt Sanders being a worthy favourite, but the polling averages are within the margin of error and so are the delegate counts – in other words a closer gap than the market, and the polls can only track first intentions too.

Joe Biden’s name recognition and connection with the electoral collation that voted for Barack Obama as President twice was always going to give him a strong platform, although his campaign hasn’t caught fire in the way that Bernie Sanders and before him, Elizabeth Warren’s had.

Transfers, as described above, will be crucial to the final votes tonight. The Biden camp should be more hopeful of getting transfer votes from Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar in districts where they fall short. Using polling averages as a loose guide, that means he has more votes up for grabs in the switches than Sanders, who could expect plenty of crossover votes from Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard, both of whom come to about 6% or so (combined) in the polls – Buttigeg and Klobuchar’s rough averages are 24% – which in theory could give him a shot at upsetting Bernie Sanders in the market; In a Monmouth University survey, Biden surpassed Sanders (29% to 25%) in their polling when participants were asked how they’d caucus if Klobuchar and Yang fell short.

Elizabeth Warren could be the x-factor here. Feuds between her camp and Bernie Sanders have come admits a slump in the polls – she’d led the Iowa polls through much of October – but she has one of the largest and most organized political operations in Iowa. She was also named the top second choice of Democratic primary voters nationally, in a recent Quinnipiac University poll – and it’s worth noting that the same aforementioned Monmouth survey saw upto 45% of voters making their caucus choice tonight. The feuds between the Warren and Sanders camps have definitely bled into their supporters and that could lead to Biden taking the majority of Warren switchers, which would be a gamechanger if the margins are tight.

Past Winners of Iowa Caucuses
(Both major parties)

1992
Democrats: Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa
Republicans: President George H.W. Bush (unopposed)
1996
Democrats: President Bill Clinton
Republicans: Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas
2000
Democrats: Vice President Al Gore
Republicans: Texas Gov. George W. Bush
2004
Democrats: Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts
Republicans: President George W. Bush (unopposed)
2008
Democrats: Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois
Republicans: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee
2012
Democrats: President Barack Obama
Republicans: Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania
2016
Democrats: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Republicans: Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas

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