Going Deep on the Caucus: An Interview with U. of Iowa Political Science Professor Tim Hagle

Politics Features
Going Deep on the Caucus: An Interview with U. of Iowa Political Science Professor Tim Hagle

NOTE: This is Part Three of the Iowa Caucus Dispatches.

Part One: What the HELL are the Iowa Caucuses, and How Do They Work? An Angry Q&A

Part Two: Fear, Apathy, Passion, Hope, Hate: The American Spirits Rise in Iowa

University of Iowa Political Science professor Timothy Hagle has forgotten more about the Iowa caucuses than most of us will ever know, so I was glad to grab an hour with him this afternoon before the biggest day on the state’s political calendar. It won’t surprise you to learn that experts like Hagle are in high demand around caucus time, and mine was not the only media request he fielded this week. We met in his office on campus to chat about his history in Iowa politics, who he expects to win on both sides, and why the Iowa caucuses aren’t as absurd as they might look on the surface. The interview has been condensed for space.

(Check out Hagle’s book on the 2012 Repoublican caucuses, Riding the Caucus Rollercoaster, follow him on Twitter, and read his official predictions for tonight over at Medium.)

Tell me about your experience in politics, and Iowa specifically.

Well, I guess I got my start in politics back in high school, and as much as I hate to date myself, my senior year of high school was at the height of the Watergate stuff, and my government teacher absolutely hated Nixon. So I kinda got involved, but I less so in law school and grad school. But obviously as a political science professor when I came to Iowa, I started to get more involved with student groups, being their faculty advisor, and that got me into doing more active stuff with the county party and all that. And I’m a Republican, so that’s why I was a little quiet about it at first and waited until I had tenure, but since then I’ve worked on some campaigns, worked on Bush campaign in 2000, 2004, doing volunteer stuff, but now more have stepped back after a couple years. At this point, I’m doing more of the analysis thing in terms of looking at not just the Republican side, but the Democrats too, but I’m still chairing a caucus tonight in Iowa City’s 16th precinct on behalf of the Republican party.

Where was high school?

Bad Axe, Michigan.

I like that. Very close to badass.

I got called that a lot. And just so you know, when I actually started out in high school, I started working for Democrats. There was a switch along the way.

You’re like a reverse Hillary Clinton.


She was a Goldwater person.

I switched pretty quickly, because I’ll admit that as early as ‘76, I voted for Reagan.

What’s your area of research?

My main area of research had always been the Supreme Court. I’m a judicial politics person, and I’m also an attorney, so I study the Supreme Court and its decision-making, and got into studying elections and the caucuses once I got to Iowa and got involved in this. I actually wrote a book that was published this past summer called “Riding the Caucus Roller Coaster” which was my description of what happened in the 2012 Republican race here. Every week I’d write this long post, and eventually I wrote the book. But getting involved with student groups is what got me into it, and then I started doing a lot of the media stuff, but I also wrote a series of papers on voting demographics in Iowa—who votes, based on gender and age, because the Secretary of State will release that information. So I looked at patterns over the last 15, 16 years.

And you kept the politics quiet at first? Republicans are not the favored sons at the university?

That’s part of it, and usually when you come in you have to focus on publish or perish, so it wasn’t really a time when I was going to be interested in the political side too much. I missed the ‘88 caucuses because I came in the fall, and in ‘92 the Republicans already had a candidate, so there was a big nothing on that side. And the Democrats had an open race, but Tom Harkin, who just recently retired a year or two ago, decided to run for president, and that pretty much meant that all the Democrats stayed away, figuring he was going to win. So nothing was going on there. The first year I really caucused was in ‘96, but first got involved in the process in 2000 when one of my students came to me and said hey, I know you’re a Republican and you need to get on board. And I did, and it took off from there. So now it’s at the point where I can tell people about it with hopefully some modicum of expertise.

And how long have you been a chair at the caucuses?

What happens is, technically I’m a temporary chair. They basically have to train somebody to say okay here are the forms you have to fill out, here’s how you get the meeting started, and at that meeting you elect a permanent chair for that meeting, so it’s not like some long-term official thing. It’s somebody who has participated, usually knows the process and gets the training for whatever differences there are this year. And most of that doesn’t change.

What has changed, particularly on the Republican side this time, and the Democrats have it too, is that Microsoft has developed this app where you can call in the results, and basically make it go much faster. On the Republican side, you may not be aware, there were some counting issues we had last time with Santorum and Romney, that because some precincts came in really late, they initially called the race for Romney by eight votes, but then once the certified results came in—and some of those went missing, too—but the ones they got it ended up Santorum won by 34 votes.

We got a lot of criticism, not surprisingly, because the goal of the caucuses is to give somebody a bounce going into New Hampshire, so if you have to wait two weeks before you get the certified results, but on the other hand when the race is that close, you have to expect there will be some issues, and usually it’s not that close. 122,000 votes were cast and the separation was 34 votes? That’s pretty darn close.

And will you be the permanent chair?

You would hope so. The chair is really just the person that facilities the meeting. It would be exceptional if I wasn’t, but it has happened. The last caucus I was in, the Ron Paul folks were very, very well organized and they took over a lot of caucuses and they understood the process. Prior to this year, the delegates that we send to the national convention on the Republican were not tied to the caucus results, and the Ron Paul people understood that, so they took over the caucuses to make sure that they did get most of the delegates instead of Santorum or Romney, but they decided to out-vote or put up their own person for the caucus chair. And that didn’t go over very well, because the person didn’t understand he had to run the meeting, and was like, “what am I supposed to do?” And the temporary chair still had to help him. Luckily, it wasn’t me.

Going back to Romney-Santorum…when you say votes, do you mean precinct delegates, or do you mean actual individual votes?

Individual votes, and this is where Republicans and Democrats do it differently. With the Republicans, basically after you start the meeting, you do some adminstrative stuff, you elect the permanent chair and all that, then the Republicans basically you have reps from each candidate get up, give a two-minute speech for the candidate, then you hand out ballots, write your name on it, then you tally them up. Then you move on to other party business, electing delegates, committee platform, all that. Democrats, it’s a little more complicated (read that explanation here).

So on the Republican side, it’s not possible to win the caucus but lose the popular vote? Where you could on the Democrats’ side?

Right. And that’s one of the concerns of the Sanders campaign, they’re worried they’re going to have so much concentration in the student precincts around the colleges, here in Iowa City, in Ames for Iowa State, and Cedar Falls for UNI, that they want to spread it around a little bit so they have a better shot. I don’t know if that’s going to work, but that’s something they were considering. But for the Republican side, they’ll announce who won the precinct, and they’ll count them up by county, but the overall winner for the Republicans is who gets the most votes state-wide. You don’t lose any votes.

So it’s interesting that it’s still called a caucus on the GOP side, it’s called that because it is a meeting where people can talk, but it’s still essentially a secret ballot, unlike the public vote on the Dem side.

That’s the difference. In terms of being a caucus, I heard a good line by the Iowa Republican party chair Jeff Kaufmann, he said that a primary is a vote, a caucus is a conversation and then a vote. And so Democrats certainly have a conversation, Republicans do too, although it’s not quite as involved.

And I’ve seen studies where the public aspect of the vote has a quieting effect on turnout.

It always varies based on how contested an Iowa primary is. In New Hampshire folks said they’d expect over 50 percent in their primary. For us, when the Republicans had their record in 2012, it was about 122,00, and that was about 22 percent based on the voter registration at that time. In 2008, the Democrats’ had their high of about 240,000, which was pretty close to 40 percent. But that was an unusual election because of Obama. It could have been historic, and it was, and Clinton and Edwards were also involved. That was an unusual high for them.

They usually have a decent turnout, in that 20-25 percent range, despite the fact as you said that you do have to publicly declare. And I know that some people don’t like that part of it, and that’s sort of a plus I suppose on the Republican side in the sense that you can just quietly write down your ballot and you don’t have to declare publicly who you’re for, but yeah, for the Democrats, I know there are business people around town who would just as soon not do that. You might have hardcore supporters going at each other, and there could be some ill feelings. Hopefully that doesn’t happen too much, but it can be a worry for some people. But often times the tension pre-exists. It’s not the caucus that causes it.

Let’s get into this year’s race. Break down the Republican race for me. Is it true that it will split into evangelical/suburban demographics?

I usually tell folks that the way the Iowa Republican electorate is divided up is broadly into three categories. Social conservatives, a little broader than evangelicals, is one, the establishment lane, and a Libertarian lane. And because there’s so many candidates on the Republican side, they had to sort of have a broader appeal, they couldn’t just run in one lane. Some ended up doing so, and ended up dropping out early as a result. Trump is kind of a whole different lane, and that’s even more of an outsider lane. Governors can be in an outside lane because they say, I’m not tainted by DC politics. And then Cruz, Carson, and Fiorina are outsiders too. Cruz is running in the social conservative lane with leanings in the Libertarian lane, he’s been appealing to the Paul people for a long time, which is one of the reasons Rand Paul isn’t doing as well as his father did four years ago.

Trump is appealing to those people too, taking a different approach and playing off the concern and frustration about the lack of progress nationally. You see this on the Democrats’ side too. They want different things, but they still want government to do whatever it is they want them to do. So you’re seeing those outsiders, Sanders on the left, Trump and Cruz on the right, gain traction. With Cruz, you’re right, he’s appealing to social conservatives, he did get some endorsements from strong social conservatives in the state, including our representative Steve King, Bob Vander Plaats, who’s head of this group called The Family Leader.

But Carson’s appealing to them too, Rubio to a certain extent, Santorum and Huckabee too. I would put the suburban folks in the establishment lane, but it depends where you are. Here in Johnson County Republicans voted for Romney in 2008 and 2012 but they didn’t go for Huckabee and Santorum, so I’d think they’d go again more toward the establishment, someone like Rubio or Christie. But the Trump folks are probably coming from all over. Maybe not the rural northwest, because that’s where you find the concentration of social conservatives.

I keep hearing that Trump’s organization isn’t good here, and people don’t trust the polls. Is he going have a bad night?

Yes. The big key is turnout, and I’ll mention that I posted my predictions on Medium, and this is the short version. The big question, and it’s been a big question all along, is what’s the turnout for Trump going to be? He’s appealing to a lot of people who haven’t caucused before. You have to be a Republican to caucus and we have a lot of independents in the tate—about 38 percent of voters are what we call “no party.” And they’d have to re-register as Republicans to vote. You can do that, but it’s harder to get those people out to caucus.

That’s why you have to have a good ground game, canvassing and calling and giving precinct directions, and offering rides, and everything like that. Those contacts matter, and he doesn’t seem to have that. He says it’s good, and I know they’ve made some calls, because I’ve gotten some of them, but it’s not clear that he has a good ground game. So that’s why the turnout is a big question. Enthusiasm can count for a lot, and can make up for a weaker ground game, so maybe they’ll turn out regardless. But the question is how much?

Cruz, on the other hand, has the best ground game on the other side. He’s had a couple missteps in the past week with the chain mailer and a poor debate, but he’s got a strong organization and aside from the social conservatives who do come out to caucus, he’s got a lot of volunteers doing the hard work of door knocking and calling. So my feeling is that Cruz will probably win unless turnout is very high. But then there’s been some flocking to Rubio. He’s aspirational, he appeals more to young kids, he’s more moderate. Here at Iowa you see a much larger Rubio support group compared to Cruz. He’ll be at least a solid third, and I think he could slip ahead of Trump. It’s going to be tight.

Does anyone stand a chance outside of the top three?

No. I was waiting to see if there would be any separation, but at this point it doesn’t even seem like Carson has much of a foothold.

And the Democrats?

That one, you know surprisingly, even though there are only three candidates, and only two that have a shot, I don’t know. It’s just that close.

And the reason is, and it goes back to the Trump-Cruz situation, and that is that Sanders has got momentum, he’s got the enthusiasm, but Clinton has the stronger ground game. Sanders’ isn’t bad, though. It’s not as good as Clinton’s, but it’s pretty good. And he’s worked the young people hard, and young people tend not to turn out as much, but they will if you work them hard enough. And I’ve seen that.

The first caucus I worked with was students for George W. Bush on campus, and man, they worked hard, and they got a huge turnout here on campus with young people. Ron Paul, Obama, all these folks understood how to turn out young people to get them to vote. That’s the question for Sanders: Is he doing what he needs to do? And if he does, he’s got a chance to beat Clinton. The other concern is, we’ve already kind of mentioned this, okay, he gets the young people to turn out, but if they’re concentrated in the college precincts and college towns, what then? What about Clinton? She has the broader support across the state, and in terms of those delegates that’s probably going to be the winner for her. So I came down saying it was probably going to be Clinton. But I wouldn’t be overly surprised, especially with a big turnout, that Sanders could have a shot at it at least.

What have you seen on campus? I assume the biggest group is for Bernie Sanders, but how does it compare to other candidates, and Obama in ‘08?

Bernie has the biggest group. Most elections, there’s usually somebody that really captures the imagination of younger folks. And usually when you have a change type of election, after a party has held the White House for two terms, it’s usually somebody in the other party. And that’s what we saw in large measure in 2000 with George W. Bush after eight years of Clinton, and it’s what we saw in 2008 with Obama. He just had a better ability to communicate that aspirational kind of message. Clinton, even in 2008, was seen as having been around a long time, and is not an inspirational public speaker. People that like her will say otherwise, but on the whole, just not so much. Howard Dean got people excited in 2004, but nobody quite like Obama, and he actually turned it into something. The young people didn’t really turn out for Dean.

And right after, he had his scream.

You know, I defend him on that scream. Of course, I do weird stuff like that in class, so maybe that’s the thing. But I didn’t think it was that bad! You’re trying to pump people up and say we didn’t have a great night, but hey, we’re going to go on to these other states. But the media didn’t like it, I guess. In 2012 it was Ron Paul, and you think, yeah but he’s an older guy, why is everyone so excited? But it’s not so much age. Somebody like a Bernie Sanders or a Ron Paul, it’s the idea that young people think that this is somebody who is authentic, and isn’t giving them the political double talk they get from most politicians. And that’s the key: That authenticity. And the aspirational message, as opposed to the doom and gloom. And that’s what Bernie Sanders has going for him, and it’s why I think Marco Rubio might have a shot on the Republican side.

And Sanders this year vs. Obama in ‘08?

Not quite as much. But he’s got the problem of coming off eight years of a Democratic president. And he’s got a good message, but Obama didn’t fulfill all the promises he made, which is why enthusiasm was down in 2012, so Sanders has great enthusiasm under the circumstances, but certainly not Obama levels. And partly because you don’t have the historic nature of the nomination. You don’t have that desire to go, wow, the first black man to be president!

Let me finish up by asking you a broader question. As a non-native Iowan, the idea that Iowa has such influence, despite being 30th in population, and the fact that turnout isn’t even very good, and yet it has such an outsized effect on everything that follows…there’s a bit of absurdity there, in my head. So if I asked you to defend Iowa, what would you say?

Gee, I’ve never had to defend Iowa before! But yeah, we get this a lot, and I even got sandbagged on a national radio show where I was expecting to talk about the process, and i twas like “why Iowa? It’s this, it’s that…”

The thing is, it’s not just what happens on caucus night. That’s the culmination, but we’ve been seeing candidates here for two years, in some cases, where they’re coming in and trying to make those connections. It’s that whole process, especially in the last year or so, it’s a time for the candidates to find out if they’re a reasonable candidate. Some people come in and you go, are you kidding me? You want to be president? But sometimes that happens, someone like a Jimmy Carter from Georgia, who basically nobody knew, but ended up getting the nomination and the presidency.

And he was the first one to really take advantage…

And that’s what really put us on the map. And we had many more candidates come in for the 1980 caucuses. The thing is, it’s that process. It’s good for the candidates to listen to people, to talk to them in small town halls, one-on-one settings, it helps them to strengthen their campaign, and it’s good for them to understand what regular folks are thinking. Not this political bubble you get in with office-holders in DC or state capitals. You have to understand what’s on their minds. One issue that Democrats try to emphasize a lot is climate change, but when you look at the issues that are important to people, not so high on their priority list. A lot of times people are saying, look, my wages haven’t increased in eight years. The economy may be recovering, but I’m not seeing it. Or look, we’re getting all these terrorist attacks, I want to know if my family is going to be safe.

You’ve got those issues that are more immediate for a lot of people, and as a candidate you need to understand that and be able to address those kinds of issues that people are concerned about. So yeah, Iowa’s small, it’s rural, it’s agricultural, but it’s not like our people don’t understand the process. And quite frankly, after 40 years, we’re pretty good at it in terms of really closely looking at the candidates, vetting them, making sure this candidate is strong. Our role is not to pick a winner. Our role is to separate the contenders from the pretenders, winnow the field. And we’re going to do some of that this time around.

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