The Iowa caucuses. Every four years the participants are the first to choose in the presidential race, and while Iowans are always hard to pin down, this year has been an especially difficult.
But who are the midwesterners who will show up on Tuesday night, and for whom will they vote? TPM took a look through the most recent polling data to sketch out exactly what a participant in the Iowa Republican caucuses looks like this year.
First, despite countless references by pundits to the overwhelming influence of social conservatives in the state, the numbers show that Iowa GOP caucus-goers are, at least this time around, more moderate than conservatives nationwide.
A recent national Public Policy Polling (D) survey of Republican primary voters showed that 42 percent considered themselves “very conservative,” while the latest numbers from the Des Moines Register released Saturday night show that only 34 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers define themselves that way. There are the same amount of moderates in both sample sets, so data shows the Iowa group is tilted a little more to the center on the ideological scale. There is confirming data in other PPP numbers specific to Iowa.
The more precarious proposition is to try and make sense of political labels between the two groups, mainly because the caucuses are open — independents and Democrats can choose to go to cast their vote in the GOP race. NBC News and Marist College recently partnered to run a survey with a huge sample size of Iowans: they polled nearly 3,000 registered voters in the state and then whittled down to who would be voting in the Republican caucuses.
The result was a snapshot of an electorate that was conservative but not uniform: nearly a quarter of respondents described themselves as moderates or liberals, and only 46 percent said they were evangelical or fundamentalist Christians. A majority, 54 percent, said they were definitely not. The cross-party voting affects the numbers strongly on other labels: nationally, the PPP numbers show that 57 percent of Republican primary voters view themselves a supporter of the Tea Party. But NBC/Marist data from Iowa shows a 46 - 47 split against support of the conservative movement.
Where labels fail, some issue data can provide some insight. In late August, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was leading the Republican pack and making controversial statements on evolution and global warming, PPP polled different populations of Republicans on the issues, as well as a question about President Barack Obama being born in the United States.
The results showed that a Midwestern state like Iowa was less conservative than its counterpart South Carolina. Iowans were less likely to disbelieve evolution and a little more likely is disbelieve the existence of global warming. But on the issue of where Obama was born there was no question — South Carolina Republicans believed the President wasn’t born in the US by a nine point margin, while Iowan Republicans said that he was by 16 points.
The point is underlined by data from the Des Moines Register poll. On fiscal matters, 85 percent likely Iowa caucus-goers in 2012 described themselves as either “very conservative” or “mostly conservative.” But on social issues that number drops by 16 points, as nearly 30 percent of GOP caucus-goers say they’re in the “moderate” or even “liberal” category. This could partially explain the rise of Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) in the state, whose campaign touts support from wayward Democrats and independent voters as a strength — they hope to use the diversity of the caucus population to leverage a win on January 3rd.
From the numbers, it seems that Iowa Republicans like to define themselves as a conservative group. But when it comes to the actual caucus population, Iowans don’t seem to be as strident in their positions or ideology. And with a voting population that includes different partisan leanings, it’s no wonder that things have been so fluid this year — in some ways, the type of voter that turns out won’t even be clear until the caucuses begin on Tuesday night.
Kyle is the Editor of TPM Media’s PollTracker. He graduated from Beloit College (WI) and began working in politics before getting an M.A. in magazine journalism from New York University, where he interned at TPM and the website of The New Yorker.