In Iowa, it’s all about who votes

Some Republican voters in Iowa have received an interesting piece of mail in the past few days. It comes in a large, official looking envelope. The paper inside is bright yellow and in a bright red box on the top of the page it reads “Voting Violation.” Under this header is the following ominous message:

“You are receiving this election notice because of low expected voter turnout in your area. Your individual voting history as well as your neighbors’ are public record. Their scores are published below and many of them will see your score as well. CAUCUS ON MONDAY TO IMPROVE YOUR SCORE and please encourage your neighbors to caucus as well.”

And then you see your name and your neighbors names and your failing voting score. This mailing was distributed by the Ted Cruz for President campaign. Photos are available here and here.

Some voters have been outraged by this heavy-handed tactic designed to get people to the polls and while it’s probably legal, sending out what looks to be your neighbors’ voting records will undoubtedly rub some the wrong way. But let’s leave that to the Iowans to sort out. The broader message is that, 24 hours from caucus time there is only one thing on anyone’s mind—who will show up.

There are several ways to look at this.

1. If more people than usual show up to the polls it will benefit Trump on the Republican side and Sanders on the Democratic side.

For all the attention it gets, Iowa turnout is very low, mainly because voters can’t just vote and leave—they need to hang around, discuss the state of the world and elect delegates to the county conventions. In 2012, 122,255 voters turned out in the Republican caucuses, only around 2,000 more than had turned out in 2008. That’s about what we’d expect in the Democratic caucuses too. In 2004, 124,000 voters showed up in the Democratic caucuses. But in 2008, enthusiasm for Barack Obama brought lots of new voters to the caucuses, nearly doubling total Democratic turnout to 227,000. If turnout in either caucus breaks 150,000, expect Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to have a good night. However, in 2008 voter registration increased dramatically in the weeks and months before the caucus. That hasn’t happened this year. And although, caucus goers can register to vote at the caucus site—some experts like Nate Cohn of Upshot at the New York Times think that this points to a lower than expected turnout.

2. If there’s a political revolution in either party it will be the result of voters coming out to caucus who don’t traditionally participate.

Latest polls show a very tight race between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the Republican side and between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side. Some piece of the Trump coalition consists of people who do not strongly identify with the Republican Party. Historically, weak partisan identifiers are also less likely to vote. In addition, part of Trump’s coalition consists of voters with less education. They too, are less likely to vote. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders seems to be surging among young people—a group that also, historically doesn’t vote very often, although they did turn out in large numbers to support Barack Obama. Both Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton appear to have the strongest on the ground organizations capable of turning out the vote. This could be a major advantage in a close race.

3. Hillary could beat Sanders based on geography.

Every four years the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City, Iowa runs the coffee bean caucus. There’s a jar out for every candidate and every one who comes in can put a coffee bean in the jar of their favorite candidate. But Iowa City is a pretty liberal place and home to the University of Iowa, so the fact that Bernie Sanders’ supporters have cast so many beans that he’s on his second jar, while Hillary Clinton is only on her first jar, may not mean much. In fact, there is some suspicion here among Iowa experts that while Sanders might have intense support in some of the liberal strongholds in the state, Hillary’s wide geographic support across the state will allow her to win the most delegates to the county conventions. It is important to remember that the Democrats in Iowa don’t report the raw vote totals, they report the number of delegates elected from 1681 precincts to county conventions.

4. Some new voters may be turned off from coming out on caucus night.

Caucuses are very different from primaries—mostly because they are much more public events. New research from Christian Grose at the University of Southern California asks voters how they feel about voting in a public meeting where everyone can see who they are and then about voting in a public meeting where they have to declare which presidential candidate they are for. On the basis of some limited evidence so far people who don’t want anyone to know who they vote for are less likely to show up and participate in caucuses. This and the constant drumbeat of news about how complicated it is to participate in a caucus may keep turnout low.