The University of Iowa’s Shambaugh Conference on the 2016 Iowa Caucuses

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By Michael Ritter and Kellen Gracey, doctoral students, Political Science, University of Iowa

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, winners of the Super Tuesday presidential primaries, can trace their success to the Iowa Caucuses one month earlier. Tradition says there are only three tickets out of Iowa. On February 1st, Donald Trump took second place for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton won the Democratic Iowa caucuses. The “media expectations game” tells us the momentum candidates receive by meeting (or exceeding) media expectations in the Iowa caucuses (first event) and New Hampshire primaries shapes the course of the election and is critical in selecting the eventual party nominees (See David Redlawsk, Caroline Tolbert and Todd Donovan. 2010. Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process. University of Chicago Press). Candidates come to Iowa for the Big Mo (big momentum) to propel their campaign to victory. Thus it makes sense to look back to the Iowa caucuses to understand the historic events of the 2016 Super Tuesday primaries.TrumpCampaignRallyDubuque


The University of Iowa Political Science Department was fortunate to host a three-day conference on a very salient subject during election season – the 2016 Iowa caucuses and presidential primaries. From January 30 to February 1 political scientists from across the country came to Iowa City to share research on the party nomination process to select presidential candidates and the broader implications for the nation as a whole. Additionally, they came to partake in campaign events featuring Hillary and Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Rand and Ron Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christy and Donald Trump, among others, while witnessing campaign fervor and intensity among the electorate akin to Beatlemania in the 1960s. The experience was enlightening and stimulating, offering a bird’s eye view of the way in which Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status has the ability to direct national media attention, test the viability and electability of candidates, and influence upcoming contests.

Marco Rubio Supporters

The scholarly conference featuring experts in presidential campaigns and elections coincided with numerous nearby campaign events offering a unique combination of valuable intellectual discussion in addition to political fanfare. On the first evening Elaine Kamarck (Brookings Institution), David Redlawsk (Rutgers), Bob Boynton (Iowa), John Sides (George Washington), and Lynn Vavreck (UCLA) offered opening remarks. The panel discussion covered a range of subjects including electability, the influence of social media, Twitter and traditional media in campaigns, racial resentment and candidate support, and the history of the sequential ordering of state caucuses and primaries.

Following the panel, a number of conference attendees attended a large Bernie Sander’s rally at the University Field House, reveling in the campaign spirit alongside a mostly student audience to Feel the Bern.

Bernie Sanders Campaign Rally at University of Iowa
Bernie Sanders Campaign Rally
Bernie Sanders Campaign Rally
Cornel West speaking at Bernie Sanders Campaign Rally
Cornell West speaking at Bernie Sanders Campaign Rally

Music by artists such as the rock band Vampire Weekend and Foster the People topped off the evening. A Rand Paul event later that evening, as well as a trip to Bernie Sanders’ campaign headquarters in Iowa City, allowed Paul Gronke and other attendees to scoop up a few campaign t-shirts and buttons.

Paul Gronke, Professor of Political Science at Reed College and other attendees

The next day featured a series of panels covering a broad array of subjects, including “Parties and Picking Candidates,” “Race, Immigration, and Candidate Preferencesand “Predicting Primary Outcomes and Voter Preferences.” The day ended with a panel on “Partisans, Non-Partisans, and Campaign Mobilization. The presenters included John Sides, former APSA President, John Aldrich (Duke), Matt Barreto (UCLA), Todd Donovan (WWU), Alan Abramowitz (Emory), Siman Jackman (Stanford and University of Sydney), Hans Noel (Georgetown) Barbara Norrander (Arizona), Stephen Smith (Washington University St. Louis), Christine Grose (USC), Paul Gronke (Reed), Barry Burden (Wisconsin), Lonna Atkeson (New Mexico), Michael Lewis-Beck (Iowa), Wayne Steger (DePaul), Rob Richie (Fairvote), Andoin Phillip (App State), among others. Panel moderators included Rene Rocha (Iowa), Julie Pacheco (Iowa), and David Peterson (Iowa State). During coffee and lunch breaks, attendees kept updated on candidate movements and events, filling their schedules with as much of the caucus fanfare as possible.

The final day of the conference, February 1, fell on the day of the Iowa caucuses. The morning panel on “Money and Elections” featured David Magleby (BYU), Cary Covington (Iowa), and Hans Hassell (Cornell College). This was followed by David Karpf’s (George Washington) insightful keynote lecture on “Technology and Politics.” To close out the academic agenda of the day, expert roundtable opinions on the Iowa caucuses were given by Elaine Kamarck, David Ryfe, Simon Jackman, and John Aldrich. The closing roundtable was moderated by Sara Mitchell (Iowa) who spoke on gender and Clinton’s historic campaign to be the first women president.

Campaign Rally

Upon conclusion of the roundtable, hardly any time elapsed before two Suburban SUVs filled with professors and students drove via Interstate 380 to a Trump rally in Cedar Rapids. [A few days prior a number of faculty and students were part of a large Trump rally in an airport hanger in Dubuque Iowa, with Trump’s plane emblazed with his name in the background.] This was Trump’s final rally before voting began, and also included an appearance by Sarah Palin. Later in the evening Michael Lewis-Beck hosted a post-conference caucus party, where he and attendees kept close tabs on the incoming caucus results. It was a whirlwind of a conference, uniquely linking the study of politics with real politics on the ground during an active presidential campaign.

As the next morning arrived, and conference guests dispersed driven to the airport by the authors and the University SUVs, many conference attendees commented on how much they enjoyed the intellectual vigor of the conference. They said they were eagerly awaiting the next University of Iowa caucus conference in 2020. Everyone left pondering the implications of the results for the New Hampshire primaries, other state contests, and the November general election. Attendees made predictions on the Iowa caucus vote margin for the Democrats and Republicans. The conference host, Caroline Tolbert, came closest to predicting the final election result over drinks on the eve of the Iowa caucuses, measured by the smallest overall error in both Democrat and Republican contests (1 percent). The event was a unique blend of a high quality scholarly conference combined with on the ground campaign observation & hullabaloo.