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Understanding Iowa

The two front-runners for their respective nominations, Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, walked away from Iowa on Monday night with victories. While Gore decisively defeated his sole opponent, former Sen. Bill Bradley, publisher Steve Forbes competed closely with Bush in the Republican caucuses.

With 93 percent of precincts reporting, Bush led Forbes with 41 percent to 30 percent. Alan Keyes took third place in Iowa with 14 percent (better than the single-digit showings in the polls leading up to the caucuses), while Gary Bauer took fourth place and John McCain, who did not campaign in Iowa, finished fifth ahead of Orrin Hatch.

WHY BUSH WON

In a state where more than a third of Republican caucus-goers consider themselves part of the conservative Christian political movement and nearly three-quarters are self-described ideological conservatives, Bush held his own against a field which struggled to characterize him as soft on conservative values.

His showing among conservatives helped him clinch first place. Forty-one percent of conservatives supported Bush, while only 30 percent threw their support behind Forbes. Among self-described conservative Christians, 33 percent supported Bush while 26 percent supported Forbes.

Bush enjoyed majority support from high-income and older Republican caucus-goers. He also benefited from the dependability of regular caucus-goers. Sixty percent of his support came from voters who had participated in caucuses before.

ISSUES THAT MATTERED MOST

Overall, moral values and taxes were Republicans' top concerns when choosing which candidate to support in the caucuses. Over a third chose moral values as their top issue, while nearly a quarter chose taxes. The issue of abortion was a distant third at 11 percent.

Among those choosing moral values as their topmost concern, Bush led all contenders. Thirty-seven percent of those Republicans supported Bush (and among this group Alan Keyes, not Steve Forbes, came in second). Forbes' recent offensive on the issues of taxes and abortion clearly resonated with Iowa Republicans. Forbes gained a majority of those caucus attendees most concerned with taxes. Among those caucus-goers who chose abortion as their most important issue, Forbes beat Bush by nearly three-to-one.

TOP CANDIDATE QUALITIES

In a demonstration of Iowa pragmatism, Bush supporters were most likely to point to the Texas governor's viability in a general election as the reason they were supporting him. Twenty-nine percent of Republican caucus-goers said they were supporting him because he could win in November. Other reasons cited by Bush supporters were his strong and decisive leadership qualities (19 percent) and his willingness to stand up for what he believes (16 percent). Forbes' supporters also cited their candidate's willingness to stand up for what he believes - 29 percent said this was their main reason for supporting him - an27 percent said he best represents conservative values.

THE DEMOCRATS

In the first competitive Democratic caucus in Iowa since 1988, Gore enjoyed a clear victory over Bradley. With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Gore held a 63 percent to 35 percent lead over Bradley in the race for Democratic delegates. Leading up to the caucuses, many statewide polls showed Gore with a comfortable lead over Bradley despite the fact that both candidates spent more than $1 million on ads in the state.

ISSUES OF IMPORTANCE

For Democrats overall, Social Security/Medicare, education and health care ranked as the top three of seven issues that mattered most in whom caucus-goers supported. Gore supporters picked Social Security/Medicare as their top issue (31 percent), followed by education (20 percent) and health care (16 percent). The economy ranked fourth (11 percent) among Gore supporters.

The issues of importance for Bradley supporters ranked differently. Education was the number one issue among Bradley supporters (23 percent), followed by health care (19 percent), Social Security/Medicare (18 percent), and campaign finance reform (13 percent).

CANDIDATE QUALITIES

The vice president's experience in office was the number one quality cited by Iowa Democrats as the reason they supported Gore. The second most important quality was that Gore is a strong and decisive leader (25 percent picked this). Standing up for what he believes ranked third as Gore's more important quality, chosen by 21 percent of caucus Democrats.

What Bradley supporters liked most about him is that he stands up for what he believes, picked by 34 percent as the quality that mattered most to them. Another 18 percent chose the fact that Bradley has new ideas, while 16 percent said he is not a typical politician.

THE CLINTON FACTOR

Many have questioned the possible negative effects of President Clinton on Gore's candidacy. However, Mr. Clinton enjoys an overwhelmingly high job approval rating among Iowa Democrats. Eighty-four percent of caucus-goers say they approve of the way Mr. Clinton is handling his job; only 13 percent disapprove. But the majority of those who don't approve of Clinton supported Bradley over Gore.

And while Iowa Democrats give the president a high approval rating, opinions of him as a person are not nearly as sanguine. By a small margin of 49 percent to 44 percent, Democratic caucus-goers say they have a favorable opinion of Bill Clinton as a person.

WHO VOTED

While there are little differences in the composition of Bradley and Gore supporters, Gore supporters are slightly older than Bradley's. On the other hand, Bradley supporters are slightly more liberal than Gore's. In fact, the overall makeup of Democratic caucus-goers is more liberal than the Democrats who attended 1988 (just as Republican caucus-goers are markedly more conservative than they were in 1988). This year, 49 ercent of Democratic caucus-goers describe themselves as liberal, compared with 31 percent who said this in 1988.

Half of the Democrats attending the caucuses described themselves as regular Internet users, and nearly half of those supported Gore. But for all of the vice president's self-proclaimed Internet savvy, only 41 percent of Gore supporters are regular Internet users, compared with 63 percent of Bradley voters who described themselves this way.

Other facts about the Democratic caucus-goers:

  • more than half had previously attended an Iowa Democratic presidential caucus
  • a third are members of union households
  • more than three-quarters claimed that they followed the Democratic presidential debates closely

METHODOLOGY

Poll results are based on entrance polls conducted by Voter News Service among random samples of Iowa caucus-goers. Some 1,700 Republican caucus-goers were interviewed in-person; 1,078 Democratic caucus-goers were interviewed. The error due to sampling could be plus or minus two percentage points for results based on the entire Republican sample and plus or minus three percentage points for results based on the entire Democratic sample. Sampling error for sub-samples is higher.

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