Why Walker Is Surging and Bush Is Struggling in Iowa, in One Chart

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Why Walker Is Surging and Bush Is Struggling in Iowa, in One Chart

A new poll of Iowa Republicans from Quinnipiac has some terrifically good news for flavor-of-the-month Scott Walker, and though I know you're saying, "Who cares about a poll for an election that's 11 months away?" this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of just how unusual Iowa Republicans are. They have a terrible record of picking not just presidential winners but GOP nominees, and when you look at their demographics, you can see why.

We'll get to that—and a chart!—in a moment, but first, this poll's results. Walker has jumped in front of the field with 25 percent, well ahead of Rand Paul at 13 percent, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson both at 11 percent, and Jeb Bush at a mere 10 percent. Perhaps more notable are the favorability ratings. Walker stands at 57 percent favorable and only 7 percent unfavorable, with 3 percent saying they definitely wouldn't vote for him. But Bush's ratings are 41-40 favorable/unfavorable, with 26 percent saying they definitely wouldn't pick him. Chris Christie fares even worse; his ratings are unfavorable by 30-54, with 26 percent saying they wouldn't vote for him.

All of that could change, of course, and probably will in one way or another. Voters don't yet know very much about Walker. But Iowa is an unusual place. Yesterday, Alec MacGillis made an important point about Walker's Wisconsin: "Wisconsin is not politically purple because it is full of voters who straddle party lines and swing back and forth from election to election. It is purple because it is divided into two strikingly cohesive and fiercely energized camps." Something similar is true of Iowa, another "swing" state. Iowa Democrats are extremely liberal; it was a hotbed of opposition to the Iraq War, and they sent Tom Harkin to Washington for 40 years.

Iowa's Republicans, on the other hand, are extremely conservative and religious, which is why the caucuses are so friendly to candidates who appeal to that portion of the Republican electorate. Since 1980, there have been six contested GOP caucuses in Iowa; the eventual nominee won only twice, in 1996 and 2000. Candidates who focused on the evangelical vote have always found friendly territory there, either winning outright like Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, or doing surprisingly well, like Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Pat Robertson in 1988.

Walker could win over these voters—he's an evangelical himself, and the son of a Baptist minister—or Huckabee could hold the voters he won eight years ago. Right now we have no way to know. But understanding the Iowa caucus requires an acknowledgment of how different the Republican caucus-goers are. Which brings us to the chart, which I've made using entrance poll data from the 2012 caucuses and exit poll data from the 2012 general election:

It isn't just that these voters are different from the voting public as a whole; they're different from other Republicans. They're whiter, older, more male, more evangelical, and much more likely to call themselves conservative.

So yes, Jeb Bush isn't too popular with them, just as other front-running, establishment candidates weren't in the past. That didn't stop most of them from getting the nomination.  

Why Walker Is Surging and Bush Is Struggling in Iowa, in One Chart

A new poll of Iowa Republicans from Quinnipiac has some terrifically good news for flavor-of-the-month Scott Walker, and though I know you're saying, "Who cares about a poll for an election that's 11 months away?" this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of just how unusual Iowa Republicans are. They have a terrible record of picking not just presidential winners but GOP nominees, and when you look at their demographics, you can see why.

We'll get to that—and a chart!—in a moment, but first, this poll's results. Walker has jumped in front of the field with 25 percent, well ahead of Rand Paul at 13 percent, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson both at 11 percent, and Jeb Bush at a mere 10 percent. Perhaps more notable are the favorability ratings. Walker stands at 57 percent favorable and only 7 percent unfavorable, with 3 percent saying they definitely wouldn't vote for him. But Bush's ratings are 41-40 favorable/unfavorable, with 26 percent saying they definitely wouldn't pick him. Chris Christie fares even worse; his ratings are unfavorable by 30-54, with 26 percent saying they wouldn't vote for him.

All of that could change, of course, and probably will in one way or another. Voters don't yet know very much about Walker. But Iowa is an unusual place. Yesterday, Alec MacGillis made an important point about Walker's Wisconsin: "Wisconsin is not politically purple because it is full of voters who straddle party lines and swing back and forth from election to election. It is purple because it is divided into two strikingly cohesive and fiercely energized camps." Something similar is true of Iowa, another "swing" state. Iowa Democrats are extremely liberal; it was a hotbed of opposition to the Iraq War, and they sent Tom Harkin to Washington for 40 years.

Iowa's Republicans, on the other hand, are extremely conservative and religious, which is why the caucuses are so friendly to candidates who appeal to that portion of the Republican electorate. Since 1980, there have been six contested GOP caucuses in Iowa; the eventual nominee won only twice, in 1996 and 2000. Candidates who focused on the evangelical vote have always found friendly territory there, either winning outright like Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008, or doing surprisingly well, like Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Pat Robertson in 1988.

Walker could win over these voters—he's an evangelical himself, and the son of a Baptist minister—or Huckabee could hold the voters he won eight years ago. Right now we have no way to know. But understanding the Iowa caucus requires an acknowledgment of how different the Republican caucus-goers are. Which brings us to the chart, which I've made using entrance poll data from the 2012 caucuses and exit poll data from the 2012 general election:

It isn't just that these voters are different from the voting public as a whole; they're different from other Republicans. They're whiter, older, more male, more evangelical, and much more likely to call themselves conservative.

So yes, Jeb Bush isn't too popular with them, just as other front-running, establishment candidates weren't in the past. That didn't stop most of them from getting the nomination.