The armies of the media are gathering in the American heartland. With each new poll come shrieks of joy, or panic. When Monday night finally arrives, this first test of the candidates will be treated as an immeasurably consequential event, honored by column-miles of type and pixels, and uncountable hours of analysis—almost all of which will conceal the cold, hard reality: The Iowa caucuses have become a blight on American politics.
For 40 years, a state with an otherwise admirable civic life has been the scene of a quadrennial exercise that is the antithesis of a rational, accessible democratic process. By any measure—participation and representativeness, to mention two—it fails the most basic test of what you would want in an exercise that so dominates the attention and resources of campaigns and the media.
Iowa looks nothing like the rest of the nation, and its wintry, time-consuming caucuses make participation difficult, if not impossible, for much of the citizenry—especially those with limited economic means. The Democratic caucuses in particular take two of the core principles of a free system—the secret ballot and one-person-one-vote—and throw them away.
Indeed, if you look beyond the color and the pageantry, beyond the county fairs and butter cows, and appreciate the real workings and impact of the caucuses, you realize that Iowa is neither a useful bellwether or an important test for candidates. Moreover, there are baleful consequences of the inflated status of Iowa: It distorts the political process and leads to bad public policy.
Iowa survives and flourishes as a political ritual for the same reason that bad people remain in power and bad policies remain in place: those who benefit from it can make the cost of challenging it too high. If there is no hope of unseating the caucuses from their privileged perch, it’s at least worth understanding how we got here—and at what cost.
Iowa isn’t an immutable fact of American political life. It began its rise to outsize importance only a few decades ago, through mere happenstance. In 1968, opponents of the Vietnam War, looking to mount challenges to the policy and to President Lyndon Johnson, discovered in state after state that they were effectively shut out of the process of choosing delegates. Primaries were few, and in many states, delegates had been chosen months before, with little or no public notice. In the wake of the tumultuous, divisive Chicago Democratic National Convention, a commission was formed to propose ways of opening up the process. Many states chose the primary route; Iowa chose a different path.
For decades, Iowa parties had used a multistage caucus process to choose the state’s national convention delegates; part of a system that was also designed to let party members debate and discuss party platforms and other matters. After 1968, with national mandates requiring greater representation, Iowa Democrats changed their calendar to provide more time between each stage. Since the 1972 caucus was scheduled for May 20, that meant the first stage—precinct caucuses—had to be held four months earlier, on January 24. There was no intent to turn these caucuses into a major event on the presidential nominating calendar, but that’s what happened. Suddenly, Iowa was first. And one campaign was quick to see the possibilities.
In 1972, George McGovern, the long-shot antiwar candidate for president, was looking for a way to demonstrate that he had more support than the national polls suggested (3 percent according to a January 1972 Gallup poll). Rallying antiwar Democrats, McGovern managed to win a bit less than a quarter of Iowa’s “delegate equivalents” (a number designed to reflect a candidate’s strength at the next stage of the process, one that still sows confusion four decades later), finishing behind Ed Muskie and “Uncommitted.” Following McGovern’s eventual nomination victory, the potential power of the caucuses drew the attention of the next long-shot contender—and that’s where everything changed.
In the 1976 cycle, the cash-strapped, much-mocked campaign of Jimmy Carter targeted Iowa as the place to demonstrate early, surprising support—and it paid off when Carter won a straw poll at the Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Ames. The next day, R.W. “Johnny” Apple, the star political reporter of the New York Times, filed a story headlined “Carter Appears to Hold a Solid Lead in Iowa.” On caucus night, Carter won more “delegate equivalents” than any other candidate at the caucuses. Though he actually finished second, behind “Uncommitted,” he instantly turned from “Jimmy Who?” into the front-runner.
In the decades since, potential candidates have signaled their intentions by visiting Iowa at the pre-larval stage of the election calendar. Rep. Dick Gephardt, a 1988 contender, made his first visit on March 25, 1985—barely two months after Ronald Reagan’s second inaugural. This year’s current Iowa leader, Ted Cruz, made his first trip to Iowa more than two years ago, in August 2013, seven months after taking his seat as a freshman in the U.S. Senate. And unlike in the Carter-era experience, the media are now there to detect the first, faint signs of campaign activity.
For its part, while Iowa did not set out to make itself the 800-pound gorilla of presidential politics, it quickly embraced the benefits—financial, political and otherwise. This is fully understandable. What Iowan wouldn’t want the perks that come from being first? Local party officials are courted for months; local reporters are showcased in and on national media. Tens of millions of dollars pour into local radio and TV stations, hotels, restaurants, car rental offices and retail outlets, always happy to supply foul-weather gear to clueless operatives and media types who seek to navigate the elements in unlined trench coats and loafers. While the defensiveness can be grating, it’s no more so than a Kentuckian’s insistence that coal is a healthy fuel, or a New York hedge-fund big shot embracing the “carried interest” rule. It usually comes with a suggestion that critics of the caucus are contemptuous of smaller “fly-over states,” though they do not explain why the same smaller, fly-over state gets to be first every time.
Well, you might ask, what’s wrong with Iowa as the starting point of the process? It’s a state with a high literacy rate, an exceptionally high turnout rate in general elections, an un-gerrymandered congressional map, and a reputation for clean government. Its population of 3 million-plus and its location put it more or less in the middle of the country by size and site. Doesn’t it make sense to have a venue that doesn’t require millions of dollars’ worth of campaign contributions to be competitive?
To begin with, there’s the uncomfortable fact that Iowa is not really a representative state. The most obvious is demographic: It is 94 percent white, 2.8 percent black and 5.5 percent Hispanic, making it one of the five whitest states in the nation. It’s also the fourth oldest state in the union. This is one reason why a victory by Bernie Sanders in Iowa and then in New Hampshire—another very, very white state—may signal much less about the state of the Democratic Party race than first appears. As longtime Democratic operative Joe Trippi notes, “After Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic Primary race the rest of the way is an electorate that is 54 percent white and 46 percent minority.” Thus, a victory in Iowa (and New Hampshire) is about as unreflective a measure of Democratic sentiment as imaginable.
When it comes to the Republican side, Iowa is similarly out of phase. Some 57 percent of GOP caucus-goers consider themselves “evangelicals,” higher than any non-Southern or border state. That goes a long way toward explaining why the Rev. Pat Robertson finished ahead of the sitting vice president of the United States in 1988, why ordained minister Mike Huckabee beat Mitt Romney in 2008, and why Rick Santorum narrowly bested Romney four years ago—all candidates with scant national appeal.
Demographics, however, are the least of it. It’s the process and the timing of the caucuses—particularly the Democrats’ process—that demonstrates why this is so unsuited to the outsize role it has assumed. Together, those two factors combine in a toxic blend.
Adherents of the caucuses extol their open, freewheeling nature, where civic-minded Iowans join with each other in a celebration of democracy. But the central fact about the Iowa caucuses is that they inherently, inevitably, lead to very low turnout. Back in 2008, the last time both parties had contests, the coverage, particularly on the Democratic side, centered on Barack Obama’s ability to draw first-time participants, with much talk about the record-breaking number of participants.
And, after years of focus on Iowa, after a historic effort by the Obama campaign to draw new participants to the caucuses and a major push by evangelicals on the Republican side for Huckabee, what were the numbers? According to Thomas Patterson of the Kennedy School of Government, the combined two-party turnout amounted to just 16.3 percent of the eligible electorate. While the turnout of 350,000 was widely touted as a record-breaking showing, a Harvard Kennedy School study put that figure in context. “In percentage terms, Iowa’s turnout was hardly earthshaking—only 1 in 6 of the eligible adults participated. The Democratic winner, Barack Obama, received the votes of just 4 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters. Mike Huckabee, the Republican victor, attracted the support of a mere 2 percent of Iowa adults,” the study said. By contrast, take a look at the other massively covered early contest: The combined turnout in New Hampshire, the first primary state, was 51.9 percent.
This should surprise no one. In New Hampshire, as in any primary state, the polls are open from morning until night. You can vote on your way to work, on your lunch break, on your way to pick the kids up at school, on or way home from work; and the process will take about 10 minutes. In Iowa, you must attend in person, at night; a night that is usually freezing, if not blanketed in snow, with roads that would make the Michelin tire man quake. If you’re working the night shift—as a firefighter, waitress, nurse, maintenance worker—or if you’re a single parent of limited means, you are effectively shut out of the process. (There are no absentee ballots in a caucus). You must show up and sit through either a half hour of speeches, or—if you’re a Democrat—a process that takes hours. Why is the turnout so low, compared to a primary? Because the people of Iowa are not damned fools. They calculate the cost-benefit ratio, and the overwhelming majority of eligible participants stay home.
After all that attention, all the ads, all the visits, all the massive focus on Iowa, the actual participation rate is, or should be, an embarrassment to both parties. When it comes to the actual process of the caucuses, however, the two parties diverge sharply; and that divergence makes the Democratic Party look particularly bad.
The Republican Party from the outset recognized that the traditional purpose of the caucuses—attending to party matters—had become completely overshadowed by the presidential campaign. So it decided that the caucuses would begin with a straw poll; after listening to speeches on behalf of the candidates, attendees would scribble the name of their favorite on a piece of power, and the results would be phoned into state headquarters. It was sloppy—to this day, there are those who insist that Reagan in fact got more votes than George H.W. Bush in 1980—but it’s how we know that Huckabee outpolled Romney in 2008 by 40,481votes to Romney’s 29,949.
But the Democrats? Ah, nothing so simple, thank you. If you ask anyone, even the most esteemed Iowa expert, how many votes Obama got in 2008, that expert cannot tell you. Nobody can tell you, because the Iowa Democrats don’t count votes. Instead, they break out into candidate support groups. If the chair determines that a candidate does not have 15 percent of the caucus, that candidate is “not viable.” His or her supporters can either leave, or join another candidate’s group, whose backers importune the “non-viables” with offers of food, drink, a slot at the next convention or a bushel of corn. (A recent episode of “The Good Wife” had a colorful rendering of the process.) When the evening ends, the candidates are allotted “state delegate equivalents”—an estimation of how much strength they will have at later stages in the process. That’s why the only numbers you will find in the records of 2008 reveal that Obama got 37.58 percent of “state delegate equivalents,” John Edwards got 29.75 percent and Hillary Clinton got 29.47 percent. Did Clinton actually get fewer “votes” than Edwards, thus consigning her to third place with its attendant shame? No one knows.
Those who’ve studied this ritual are at pains to explain why the Democrats have chosen this bizarre method.
“The Democratic caucuses were never intended to be elections or straw polls,” says Hugh Winebrenner, a Drake University professor who aroused the ire of his fellow Iowans with a 1987 book that concluded that “the public interest is not well-served” by the caucuses. Winebrenner explains today: “Their purpose was to develop platform issues, select precinct officials, and select delegates to the county conventions. When the caucuses emerged as the first nominating event, the Democratic Party had to come up with ‘results,’ but they did not want to turn the event into a straw poll, so they came up with the ‘delegate equivalent’ as an outcome.” Put less kindly, Iowa Democrats lack the Republican Party’s candor in recognizing that the caucus process is not equal to the demands of presidential politics.
For anyone who persists in the Democratic caucuses seriously, three aspects of the process deserve particular scrutiny. First, it does not measure the actual level of support from living, breathing Democrats. If Martin O’Malley somehow managed to win the support of 14 percent of Iowa Democrats at every precinct caucus, he would still remain below the threshold and wind up with, literally, zero “state delegate equivalents.” Second, imagine a caucus that’s been allocated eight delegates. Under the rules, a candidate garnering 85 percent of that caucus’ participants would get all eight delegates. So if, say, 100 people show up and 86 of them back Clinton, she’d get all the delegates. But suppose she’s generating a wave of enthusiasm, and 500 people show up and most of them support her.
That’s a huge difference, but it wouldn’t change the results in the least: Unlike the GOP, there’s no individual head count. If you think this is merely hypothetical, take a look at last week’s POLITICO piece by Gabriel Debenedetti that lays out how Sanders’ huge support in college towns may do him less good than the numbers suggest, because their individual votes won’t be tabulated.
Third, it’s true many caucus-goers find the whole process of standing up for a candidate and beseeching others to join them “exciting and fun,” in the words of one academic study of the process. There are others, however, who might not want to let their political views be known to their boss, or their shop steward, or their overbearing brother-in-law, or the banker who holds their mortgage. Every genuinely free society in the world has solved this problem with a secret ballot. Today, it would be hard to find any political theorist who did not recognize the potentially chilling effect of requiring someone to publicly declare his or her political choice. If you’re an Iowa Democrat, though, you have no choice: Speak up or stay home.
OK, so the Democratic caucuses are a mathematically bizarre, anti-democratic exercise. But surely the Republican caucuses have some value?
Not so fast. For the Democrats, Iowa has had clear political consequences. John Kerry’s first-place finish in 2004 re-righted his campaign, and put him on a path to virtually unbroken primary success. (Howard Dean’s infamous “scream” happened late that night, after his collapse into third place and after he had begun cratering in New Hampshire.) In 2008, Obama’s victory shattered any notion of Clinton’s inevitability. As for the Republicans … here’s the truth that dare not speak its name: The Iowa caucuses have never had had any serious impact on the ultimate outcome.
In 1980, George H.W. Bush’s win over Reagan in Iowa was followed by a Reagan landslide in New Hampshire and then his nomination. In 1988, Bob Dole beat Bush in Iowa—before going down to defeat in New Hampshire and the subsequent nomination. In 2000, George W. Bush’s caucus win in Iowa was eclipsed by John McCain’s New Hampshire win; it took an ugly Bush victory in South Carolina to reset his campaign. And in the past two elections? Those were won by Huckabee and Rick Santorum, candidates whose victories served to demonstrate the outsize power of evangelicals in Iowa, and little more.
This year, however, may reverse the political polarities. Given Clinton’s strength in minority communities, a Sanders win in Iowa—and New Hampshire—may not produce much down the primary road, other than hysteria in some Democratic circles. As Trippi noted, her strength among minorities means that she could well become the second Democrat to lose both early contests and prevail—and the second Clinton as well. As for the Republicans, there may be an analogy to what happened in 2008 with Democrats. The most significant impact of Obama’s victory was that he showed that a black candidate could win in a virtually all-white state.
This year, the remaining skepticism about Donald Trump centers on his supporters: Will they show up? The fact that they will wait for hours in freezing weather to attend his rallies is not necessarily decisive; the question is whether they are also voters. If they turn out in Iowa, a state where logistics and the weather make participation a burden—and if they demonstrate that their intensity equals the evangelical fervor of Cruz’ supporters—that will very likely inspire Trump voters in the primary states, where participation is far less burdensome.
However February’s caucuses change the historical pattern,there is one thing that will not change: The Iowa caucuses will continue to remain the first, deeply flawed stop on the presidential campaign trail. The state could solve its quadrennial weather problem by moving the caucuses to, say, April. But then it wouldn’t be first. It could change to a primary. But then it wouldn’t be first. (Bill Gardner, who has been New Hampshire secretary of state since Daniel Webster was defending Dartmouth College, has in past cycles cheerfully announced he would move his primary to the preceding year to preserve its position.) And being first is worth tens of millions of dollars and the far more significant political benefit to Iowans of being courted for years by potential presidents. Back in 2007, Joe Biden—who did not fare well in Iowa—observed tartly: “This isn’t a caucus—it’s an industry.”
Iowa will retain its privileged position because neither major political party wants the headache of battling for a calendar change, and risking losing the state’s six competitive electoral votes. It will remain a process that persuades potential presidents to bend the knee to corn-based ethanol. (The New York Times suggests this may be changing, but Cruz, despite modifying his opposition by calling for a five-year phaseout, still faces the hostility from Gov. Terry Branstad, who wants him defeated solely on the ethanol issue. Hillary Clinton, who in 2002 called the subsidy “an astonishing new anti-consumer government mandate,” now cheerfully embraces it.) Most important, the Iowa caucuses will continue to be celebrated as a colorful, all-American exercise in democracy—an exercise that in fact is a lot closer to a political Potemkin village.
Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/how-iowa-hijacked-our-democracy-213557#ixzz3z2MteXJL