What Types of People Participate in the Iowa Caucuses?

Posted: August 14, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses

By Dennis J. Goldford, Harkin Institute Flansburg Fellow

My previous post discussed the number of people that turn out to participate in the Iowa caucuses, an important fact itself. Beyond this caucus factor, though, is the equally if not more important question of what types of people participate.

To understand what I mean by this, consider three progressively smaller groups of people. The first and largest group is eligible voters—those meeting all of the formal qualifications to vote, like age and residency. The second, smaller group of people is registered voters; though Iowans are pretty good in this regard, not all eligible voters actually bother to become registered voters. The Iowa Secretary of State’s website keeps very good records of the number of registered voters every month.

Finally, after eligible voters and then registered voters, the smallest of the three groups is the group of actual voters, i.e., registered voters who actually turn out to vote in an election.

The key point of these distinctions is that when political scientists compare the demographic characteristics of actual voters—sex, religion, education, income, race, ethnicity, etc.—they find that actual voters are not a mirror image of eligible voters.  For example, actual voters tend to have a higher level of education and income than nonvoters. (For a recent account of such factors, see Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States.)

The reason such differences are important is that, as in auto mechanics, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. The interests of those people who vote are not exactly the interests of those who do not vote, and it is the former that are heard.

I can illustrate this through a hypothetical example. Suppose there are two groups of people, the Jets and the Sharks, with opposing positions on issue X. The Jets are a smaller group, with 6 members, while the Sharks are a larger group, with 10 members. We might think, then, that in a democracy like ours, the Sharks’ position on issue X would be the winning position. However, because different groups of people vote at different rates, this might not be the case. If 50% of the Jets turn out to vote but only 20% of the Sharks, then instead of Jets 6 and Sharks 10, the actual deciders would be 3 Jets and 2 Sharks. Thus, even though there are more Sharks overall, their position on issue X would lose because the fewer Jets are more likely to make their voices heard.

In the real world, people who identify themselves as strong Republicans and strong Democrats tend to vote more regularly than those who identify themselves as weak Republicans and weak Democrats. (Strong partisans are those who would never vote for someone of the other party, whereas weak partisans are those who occasionally would.) Pure independents—voters not identifying with a major political party at all —tend to have less interest in and less knowledge of politics, and they tend to vote less regularly than those identifying as Republicans or Democrats.

As I noted in my last post, turnout always drops from a presidential-election year to a mid-term-election year, but it does not drop proportionately. We can compare the number of registered voters and the number of actual voters in Iowa, for example, from the Iowa Secretary of State’s website. Using 2008 as a baseline, the 2010 Republican vote in Iowa declined from 2008 by 14%, the 2010 Democratic vote declined by 24%, and the 2010 No Party or independent vote declined by 40%. The average independent and even Democratic voter in Iowa and nationwide tends to be a more marginal voter than the average Republican voter.

Most broadly, the 2010 Republican vote nationwide dropped by 16 million from its 2008 level, but the 2010 Democratic vote nationwide dropped by 30.5 million from its 2008 level. Because the average Democratic voter is a more marginal voter than the average Republican voter, mid-term elections tend to have a more Republican electorate than presidential-year elections. In Iowa, for example, since gubernatorial elections are held during mid-term elections, that tends to give an advantage to Republican candidates, because the average Democratic voter is less likely to vote.

Now, turning specifically to the Iowa caucuses, we can take a look at the kinds of people that turn out to participate in the process. In 2012 there was, in presidential terms, no meaningful Democratic caucus, so here is just the Republican caucus information:


  Iowa population (2013) 2012 Republican Caucus Participants
Male 49.5% 57%
Female 50.5% 43%

Republican participants thus skewed much more male than the general Iowa population.


  Iowa population (2010) 2012 Republican Caucus Participants
17-29 years old Unavailable 15%
30-44 years old Unavailable 16%
45-64 years old 26.7% 42%
65 and older 14.9% 26%

Over 2/3 of Republican caucus participants—68%—are thus 45 and older, whereas 2010 census data show 41.6% of all Iowans were 45 and older.

College degree:

  Iowa population (2013) 2012 Republican Caucus Participants
College Degree 25.7% 52%
No College Degree 74.3% 48%


Religion: born-again or evangelical Christian

  Iowa population (2013) 2012 Republican Caucus Participants
Born Again or Evangelical 28% 57%


Conservative Christians thus turn out at twice their actual 28% of the Iowa population.


  Iowa population 2012 Republican Caucus Participants
White 91.4% 99%


Iowa population 2012 Republican Caucus Participants
Average Income:  $51,843 67% earn $50,000 or more


2008 saw competitive caucuses on both the Republican and Democratic sides, though entrance polls did not ask precisely the same questions of each party.


2008 Caucus Participants:

  Iowa population (2008) 2008 Republican Caucus Participants 2008 Democratic Caucus Participants
Male 49.5% 56% 43%
Female 50.5% 44% 57%

Once again, Republican caucus goers skew heavily male, while Democratic caucus goers skew heavily female.

  Iowa population (2008) 2008 Republican Caucus Participants 2008 Democratic Caucus Participants
17-19 years old Unavailable 11% 22%
30-44 years old Unavailable 15% 18%
45-64 years old Unavailable 46% 38%
65 and older 14.9% 27% 22%

While all caucus participants tend to be older (45+ years old), Democrats tend to be younger than Republicans, 40% younger than 45 compared to 26% younger than 45. Much of this difference in 2008 was of course the Obama effect.

  Iowa population (2008) 2008 Republican Caucus Participants 2008 Democratic Caucus Participants
White 93.9% 99% 93%
Black 2.1% 0% 4%
Other 4.0% 1% 3%


As one of the whitest states in the nation, Iowa would naturally tend to produce overwhelmingly white caucus participants. Nevertheless, in 2008 white Democratic caucus goers were proportional to the state’s white population, whereas Republican caucus goers were even whiter than the state’s population.

If you have borne with me through these numbers, what can we conclude? As I suggested in my previous post, what matters in elections is both the number of people that participate in the political process and the types of people that participate in the political process. My previous post showed that, for all the hoopla, relatively few Iowans actually participate in the caucuses.

This post shows that the types of people who turn out are not quite demographically representative of the state as a whole. They are older and whiter—especially the Republicans—and they have higher income and more education than the population of the state as a whole.

As I said earlier, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, and not all wheels in the American population squeak equally—proportionately—loudly. Older, wealthier, more highly educated, and Republican Americans punch above their weight in electoral terms; they squeak loudly. Younger, poorer, less educated, and Democratic Americans punch below their weight; they squeak less loudly if at all. This is true for American elections generally, and it is certainly true for the Iowa caucuses.