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Johnson says turnout, not caucus snafu, is major Iowa story

Barry McNamara
02/05/2020
MONMOUTH, Ill. – A glitch in how Monday night’s Iowa caucuses were reported has dominated the headlines, but Monmouth College political science lecturer Robin Johnson said a lower-than-expected turnout was a bigger story that emerged from the Hawkeye state.

The host of Heartland Politics on KBUR in Burlington, Iowa, Johnson was one of three members of the College’s political science department to lead a group of 20 students to observe a caucus in Burlington.

“They had 250 at the 2016 caucus, and they were expecting 350 on Monday,” said Johnson. “But they only had 120. I thought that was a big surprise. To me, the low turnout there and in other river counties was the big story from Monday.”

Statewide turnout for the Democratic caucuses appears to have been about 172,000, about the same as it was in 2016. Democratic state leaders had hoped that at least 240,000 voters would caucus on Monday, which would have matched turnout in 2008.

One explanation for the lower-than-expected turnout is that voters thought there were several good choices among Democratic candidates, so they let other voters make the tough decision for them.

Johnson isn’t buying that.

“I think it was more about voters not liking any of the choices they had, or that there are a lot of Obama-Trump voters (people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016), and they’re staying with the president,” he said.

Neither possibility bodes well for Trump’s opposition.

“That’s not encouraging news for the Democrats,” said Johnson.

With 86 percent of Iowa’s precincts reporting, another faction that will likely not be encouraged is former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign. He sat in fourth place in Iowa with 15.9 percent of the vote. Johnson said that Biden cannot afford a similar showing in New Hampshire’s primary on Feb. 11.

“There’s no question that the results we’ve seen so far are bad news for Biden,” said Johnson. “He’ll likely do well in South Carolina (on Feb. 29), but you don’t want to be dragging in there with two fourth-place finishes. People could start falling away very quickly.”

And if voters peel away from Biden, they could find their way to the mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg, who is leading the Iowa vote at 26.7 percent.

“If he’s first in Iowa and second in New Hampshire, people could really start taking a second look at him,” said Johnson. “And he could improve among African Americans, which is a major handicap for him,” and a key to winning in South Carolina.

Although Johnson believed there was bigger news than the caucus snafu, he said it still represented “a huge black eye for Iowa Democrats.”

“In the immediate aftermath, you heard a lot of people saying, ‘We’ve got to take away this ‘first in the nation’ status from Iowa,’” he said. “We’ll see how it all plays out.”

But Johnson hopes the brakes get pumped on that idea.

“Let’s not go too far,” he said. “This became a bigger issue because all the cable stations had deadlines, and their talking heads were left twiddling their thumbs. Well, that’s too bad. Iowa didn’t compound the problem. It put accuracy ahead of expediency. It’s still a black eye for them, but I think that’s important to note. They’re working to get it right after problems – major problems – with the new app that was designed to quickly transmit the data.”