Is it time to shrug at Iowa’s caucuses?

I’ve written a lot over the years about the weird nature of American presidential politics.

We are a profoundly urban, cosmopolitan, multiracial society.  Yet we allow rural, almost exclusively white states whose populations are much more traditionalist than the nation as a whole to vet our candidates.

Iowa may be the contest that warrants the most skepticism as a barometer for our political system.  The Iowa caucuses are hugely labor intensives, forcing participants to take part in lengthy debates and rituals that last hours.

As a result, only the most zealous — or underemployed — citizens can take part, meaning that usually only about 10% of registered voters managed to do so.

In Republican politics that means highly organized groups, like evangelicals or Ron Paul’s libertarian supporters, wield influence that is wildly disproportionate to their role in Iowa, let along the country as a whole.

The overall number of voters who cast ballots in the Iowa caucuses is also miniscule, numbered in the thousands.  As any pollster will tell you, when you get sample sizes that small, strange things happen.

One other dynamic has emerged that deserves scrutiny:  Iowa’s outsized role in the political process gives remarkable power to people and institutions that normally wouldn’t register on the national radar screen.

The Des Moines Register is a good, small-to-mid-size market newspaper.  Anywhere else, its endorsements would have local, perhaps regional interest.

But because of the early caucuses, the Register’s opinions are inflated to national prominence, resonating in news reports coast to coast.

You also find characters like Christian conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats, who endorsed presidential candidate Rick Santorum last week — and it now appears that he did so after asking for a large sum of money.

According to Santorum, Vander Plaats argued that the pot of cash — the figure of $1 million has been mentioned — would be used to “promote” the endorsement.

Some politicians have begun to balk at this tilted dynamic.  Jon Huntsman chose not to campaign in the state, which cost him the opportunity to participate in one of the big nationally televised debates.

There is also growing evidence that the old rationale of the Iowa political ritual — that it would sustain the idea of retail, first-person, one-on-one politics in an increasingly mass-media-internet-driven society — is no longer viable.

Iowa is flooded with big money, from campaigns, Super PACs, parties and activist groups.  The GOP primary has been driven not by door-to-door canvassing and baby-kissing, but by carpet bomb-scale media blitzes.

The bottom line?  It’s a great idea to have one of our early primaries in a rural state.

But the idea of having three early primaries in small-town tilted parts of the country — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina — needs a kick of the tires.

Why not lump New York state into the middle of that list?  Or California or Illinois?

And we should also cast a long, wary gaze on any states that engineer their primaries in such a way that average citizens, people with jobs, kids, and a life outside of politics, can’t participate.

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15 Comments on “Is it time to shrug at Iowa’s caucuses?”

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  1. scratchy says:

    How about this idea: One national primary sometime in June and candidates would be prohibited from forming campaign committees or raising funds any time prior to the start of the election year.

    I think those are two things that most Americans, regardless of their political affiliation, can agree would be good.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    And a very Merry Christmas to you too, Brian!

    I may be wrong but after the collapse of the Republican Party at the polls this fall, I’m guessing that the remaining party apparatus will start looking for a more viable way of selecting a candidate.

  3. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    The present system will continue to be used until it is perceived not to be in the interest of those who seek the nomination it, e.g., if and when someone ignores Iowa and goes on to win the nomination. Until then, all will be caught withing the self-fulfilling prophecy of Iowa and other rural primaries.

  4. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    Upon further consideration, it occurs to me that, per Knuck, above, the Republicans, should they tire of their ticket being determined by conservative, rural, elderly, fundamentalists, they might want to have their first primary in the state most ferociously fought over and campaigned-in in the general election: Ohio (or Ohio and Florida).
    Or maybe just make it a week after the (protected by law as First in the Nation) New Hampshire. This would force candidates to devote time and resources away from Iowa and New Hampshire, and into a state (or two states) that represents most accurately the nation’s economic, cultural, and political diversity. As goes Ohio, so goes the Nation.
    Fat Chance.

  5. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    Sorry, should have said “conservative, rural, elderly, CAUCASIAN, fundamentalists.”

  6. Mervel says:

    I don’t think it is a big problem, I think it should basically be ignored it is not even a real primary. Only recently in the last couple of elections cycles has it gotten that much attention. How much attention did Iowa get in the 68 election for example?

    But anyway I think Republicans have the right to define their party however they like. If they feel that Iowa works for them then go for it. Personally I find it boring and strange, I think New Hampshire and South Carolina are much more interesting.

  7. Wasn’t 9/11 Giuliani’s strategy in 2008 to ignore everything before Florida? How did that work out?

    There should be a national primary day.

    But journalists are complicit in this silliness by focusing so much on the polls and horse race aspect at the expense of real journalism.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    How about no primaries and no poll taking?
    How I vote will not in any way be the result of who won a primary or who stood where in what poll.
    Neither am I interested in who endorsed whom.

  9. Walker says:

    Pete, if they don’t win a primary, you can’t vote for them.

  10. Mervel says:

    It is very important to always lie to poll takers, seriously the worse and less accurate polls are the better our democracy becomes.

    Look at the history of the Iowa causes as a primary predictor they are very poor, the winner of Iowa in a contested primary does not usually win the primary.

    Iowa is a creation of hyper competition in media markets.

  11. Pete Klein says:

    Maybe I would be more interested in primaries if I could vote in both the Republican and Democrat primaries. Since you must be a registered whatever, forgetaboutit.

  12. jeff says:

    I heard a radio comment shortly before this was posted on essentially the same topic. They even threw in the comment that the meth labs resided in the rural areas.

    It is not a we thing. The constitution makes no mention of parties or how elections will take place except to change the selection of the presidency and that was by ammendment.

    The several states are free to set the dates of their primaries and accept candidates according to their guidelines. It is the political bosses who have arranged the primary dates.

    To adjust the selection process based on certain characteristics of the voters is prejudice. That is as wrong as gerrymandering to retain voters of a specific party. The first primary is merely the first and one of many.
    We are supposed to be judging on the content of character not of one’s skin. The concept of the question suggests the voters votes are not acceptable.

  13. Mervel says:

    Yeah totally agree, Iowa is one state out of many and to start talking about it not being a good place to start the primary season because of its racial makeup is pretty racist in and of itself. Iowa is representative of Iowa and there is nothing wrong with that!

  14. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    I think the entire way we elect the president and congress should change. Shorter election cycles, publicly financed elections (free Public radio and television air time) and also term limits for Congress.

    The problem, however, is that entire industries have risen up to generate millions in profit for the media, pundits, consultants, etc. off our current election process.

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