The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses were historic.
They look to be the first caucuses in which at least four candidates reached or exceeded 15% of the vote. In fact, they mark the first time in any Democratic primary or caucuses that at least four candidates reached or exceeded at least 15% since all caucuses and primary contests became proportional with a 15% threshold to earn delegates in 1992. It’s also the first time since 1992 in which the leader of the Democratic caucuses received under 35% of state delegates.
The Iowa results point to a potential primary mess in which no candidate wins a majority of pledged delegates before the convention.
Now, a contested convention is something that political junkies constantly dream about, but it hasn’t happened in the modern era. And it’s still early — there is time for candidates to break through in the upcoming early state contests and head into the more delegate-heavy March primaries with the momentum to sweep the race.
Still, the sample size that we are working with historically under the Democrats’ current delegate rules (see above) is very small. You have 1992, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2016. That’s it. This year has the added twist of no superdelegates on the first ballot to push someone over the top if they have a plurality (not a majority) of pledged delegates.
These rules make it difficult to compare 2020 to other years in which there was no one close to a majority. This isn’t a Republican primary like 2016 in which many of the later contests became winner take all. This isn’t a primary like 1984 when Walter Mondale won with less than 40% of the national vote. It’s proportional all the way.
And right now, there’s no sign that anyone is running away with the primary. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are the nominal national frontrunners, though their positions are quite weak. Both are at less than 30% nationally, even when we allocate undecided voters. Since 1992, the Democratic national frontrunner post-Iowa was at 35% or greater in every cycle.
The Iowa caucuses may have made the picture even more muddled. Across all the polls I could find post-Iowa in different states and nationally, there was only one consistent trend that matters for a contested primary: Biden was falling. Sanders went up in a few polls, though not by a substantial margin on average. Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is gaining, but he’s so far behind nationally.
Part of the reason no one is dominant is how many candidates are running. Democrats enter the New Hampshire primary with 11 active candidates. No other year since 1992 comes close to that. There were 5 in 1992, 2 in 2000, 7 in 2004, 6 in 2008 and 2 in 2016. Even if one of the frontrunners falls, there’s no guarantee another one at the top of the polls will gain that support. It could go to one of the many other candidates running.
Perhaps the most important question of all is money. A lack of it is really the only thing that ultimately kills a presidential campaign. We know Sanders is going to have enough money to compete. So too will former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and businessman Tom Steyer, who are both billionaires. Buttigieg also seems to be raising a lot of money after Iowa.
Beyond those three, there are no guarantees. The money well may dry up for most of the other candidates.
Still, even if there are four candidates with money to compete onward in the primary, that is enough to keep votes splintered. In fact, it could actually strengthen the chance of a contested convention because it makes it more likely that each of the candidates remaining will hit the 15% threshold compared to if there were six or seven viable candidates.
The bottom line is that this primary doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon.