How Iowa's Demographics Explain the Caucus Results

The state is racially homogenous but politically complex.

Image AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
Precinct chair John Anderson holds pencils and slips of paper to be used by voters to select their candidates at a Republican party caucus in Nevada, Iowa. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

This Monday, the Iowa caucus kicked off the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Within a few hours, Ted Cruz emerged the clear victor among Republicans, Donald Trump came in second place, and Marco Rubio finished third. Among the Democrats it was a tighter race, with Hillary Clinton inching ahead of Bernie Sanders in the final tally. For all intents and purposes, the Democratic caucus ended in a “virtual tie,” as Sanders said in his speech thanking supporters.

Why did Iowa vote the way it did? Some interesting demographic characteristics and trends in the state explain the results.

It’s racially homogenous but politically diverse

With a 92 percent white population, Iowa is one of the least diverse states in the country. After whites, the next biggest racial group, at 6 percent, is Latinos. Latino communities in the state have been growing where low-wage farm or industrial labor is required. In Denison, a town in the western part of the state, Latinos make up around 42 percent of residents. While still very rural, the state has also seen a significant rural-to-urban shift over the last decade or so.  

Politically, then, Iowa is a mixed bag. There’s a concentration of socially conservative, evangelical Christians in the western part of the state. Liberal voters, meanwhile, tend to be in the urban hotspots, as well as in the farmlands in the eastern part of the state, via The New York Times:

The eastern part of the state is more liberal, with cities like Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, which have relatively well-educated citizens, and liberal college towns like Iowa City, Ames and Cedar Falls. But what makes eastern Iowa so distinctive is the Democratic Party’s strength among rural, white voters. That’s because the eastern half of the state, especially in the so-called driftless region along the Mississippi River, has fewer evangelical Christians than just about anywhere in the country outside the Northeast. Nationally, Republicans lose among nonevangelical white voters, especially outside the South, and so they do here. Republicans fare far better in the rural, western part of the state.

But this broad political divide masks interesting complexities on the ground. When it comes to immigration, for example, many conservative Iowans have surprisingly lenient stances, despite the stark anti-immigrant rhetoric across the country. In fact, the GOP’s immigrant-bashing helped mobilized young Latinos for this year’s Democratic caucus.

A win for Cruz makes complete sense

It’s not surprising that Ted Cruz took the lead among the socially conservative evangelical voters in rural parts of the state (despite Trump’s edge over Cruz in polls leading up to the caucus). Four in 10 super-conservative voters, and one out of three evangelical voters, caucused for Cruz, according to entrance poll data cited by The Washington Post.

Trump’s supporters tend to be a more nebulous group, David Byler of Real Clear Politics explained yesterday. As some had predicted, his popularity in the polls didn’t translate to actual votes, despite the record-high GOP voter turnout this year that some pundits expected would favor him over Cruz.

Young people did come out in larger numbers than they did in 2012, and almost a third of their votes went to Trump, according to exit polls. But what hurt him was that Republican voters who were still undecided close to the caucus ended up voting for Rubio. (Rubio also won most of the urban conservative vote.) Nate Cohn of The New York Times explains:

[Trump] lost among voters who decided over the last month by a wide margin, and he took third place among voters who had previously participated in the caucuses. Mr. Trump fared especially poorly among voters who decided over the last week — since his decision not to participate in the final presidential debate before the caucuses.

The Democratic results are more complicated

That Sanders tied with Clinton in Iowa is significant because it makes clear that the democratic socialist (who many say is appealing but not electable) has secured a strong and serious voter base. The state was tailor-made for Sanders, Byler explained before the caucus:

Iowa has one of the most white and liberal Democratic primary electorates in the country. This is a big advantage for Sanders and a serious disadvantage for Clinton, who performs better with Hispanic and African-American voters and has positioned herself to the right of Sanders on some issues.

His supporters also skew younger and more male, while Clinton’s tend to be older and more female. And, sure enough, Sanders received a striking 84 percent of votes from young caucus-goers 17-to-29 years old in Iowa.

But fact that Sanders still didn’t win a state where demographics were in his favor suggests that Clinton gained an advantage over him in Iowa, Nate Cohn argues in the Times. Exit polls show that among white voters, Sanders (with 46 percent) lagged behind Clinton slightly (49 percent). Non-white Iowa democrats, many more of whom were Latino than in previous years, overwhelmingly voted for Clinton (69 percent).

So while the homogeneity of his voter base may not be a problem for Sanders in New Hampshire—another very white state where he’s projected to win—it could become a bigger obstacle in his path to getting the presidential bid.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.