How Bad Weather Could Impact the Iowa Caucus

February 1st 2016

Kyle Jaeger

DES MOINES, Iowa — An impending snowstorm that's currently rolling through the Rockies, bound for the Midwest, could have a significant impact on voter turnout at the Iowa Caucus on Monday. While the storm is not expected to hit Iowa until late Monday afternoon, experts say that the prospect of a blizzard could keep voters away from the caucuses and affect the outcome of the electoral event. It could also benefit some presidential candidates more than others.

Iowa weather

"The blizzard will rage across northern and western Iowa on Tuesday with snow totals expected to approach or top a foot in many areas," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Kristina Pydynowski said. "Travel will become extremely dangerous, if not impossible, with near-zero visibility and blowing and drifting snow. The strength of the winds could also lead to sporadic power outages."

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Snow, rain, and a wintry mix of both will likely affect travel conditions throughout the state, with a dangerous blizzard developing into the night, hitting a number of major cities and counties in Iowa. Because voter turnout naturally varies and different regions will experience different levels of rain or snow, it is difficult to anticipate exactly how much of an impact the weather will have on this caucus, but previous studies offer some insights into the issue.


The impact of weather on voter turnout.

A 2007 study published in The Journal of Politics looked at the effect of weather on voter turnout between 1948 and 2000 and found that, yes, bad weather can make voters less inclined to take to the polls. The researchers speculated that, in extreme cases, weather may have even influenced electoral votes in presidential elections, offering an advantage to Republicans in particular. That's because Republicans are more likely to vote in the general election in the first place, and so those who were on the fence about voting might have decided against it in light of bad weather.

What does this mean for the Iowa Caucus?

But the Iowa Caucus is another matter. For one, people in Iowa are used to wintry conditions this time of year. (Although, since I arrived last week, it's been quite sunny and temperate.) For two, Republicans and Democrats hold separate caucus events, and one of the main points of this electoral event is to determine who the party's presidential nominee should be, meaning that bad weather will have a greater influence within each party, benefiting or disadvantaging individual candidates.

Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, told ATTN: that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Republican front-runner Donald Trump will probably benefit most from the unfavorable weather conditions. Their supporters are both younger and more impassioned, he said, and that type of voter is less likely to be turned off by icy or wet roads.

"Hillary Clinton has older voters and more regular caucus-goers supporting her, and they might find it more difficult to negotiate really bad weather," Schmidt said. "If anything else, young people, they love shitty weather. You can go out and throw snowballs and generally create chaos. But older voters know that you can go in the ditch and die, so I definitely think it benefits Bernie."

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"In the case of Trump, I think his supporters are total, complete passionate — I don't know what to call them — but they're certainly completely passionate and ideological, and so I have a feeling that his supporters are not going to be very intimidated by snow and stuff," he added.

On Tuesday night — at an overfilled stadium at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa — I asked some Sanders supporters what they thought about, well, the weather. Their responses were unanimous: they were going to caucus no matter what the weather produced.

Sanders rally

"No, no," Iowa resident Mary Caponi said definitively when I asked if she thought bad weather would hurt Sanders in the caucus. "On others it might, yeah. There's a lot of old folks that aren't going to get out if its stormy." But that would not apply to Sanders' supporters, she hoped.