Mommy, What's a Caucus?

If you want to challenge your pedagogical skills, try explaining the Iowa caucuses to a child. "You see, Billy, in America, we get to choose our presidents, and every citizen gets to participate. So to start the process off, everyone who wants to be president spends months in the state of Iowa, personally meeting as many Iowans as they can. And then one Tuesday in January, those Iowans go to their local schools and community centers, hang around for an hour listening to boring speeches, then cast their votes. Then the media tell us that the candidates who didn't come in first or second are unworthy of any more attention from people in the other 49 states, so those candidates drop out of the race. And then somebody gets to be the party's nominee, and that person will run against President Barack Obama in the fall. Does that make sense, Billy?"

Billy will quite reasonably reply: No. It makes no sense at all. But in case he has some follow-up questions, let's try to have some answers ready.

Why are the Iowa caucuses so important anyway?

The simple answer is, because the caucuses are first. For the last year or so, reporters have been waiting for something that actually resembles voting to take place, and the Iowa caucuses finally give them an opportunity to write about something that happened, as opposed to something that will eventually happen. So every four years they spend months talking about the upcoming caucuses. If the press wasn't paying attention, the candidates wouldn't either, but since the reporters are there, the candidates come, and since the candidates are there, the reporters come.

The caucuses in their current form date back to 1972, but their elevated media status really began in 1976, when former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter—who, unlike his competitors, didn't have a day job to distract him—basically moved to Iowa and met almost every single one of the state's Democrats. Though he came in second to that charismatic candidate known as "Uncommitted," who got 37 percent, Carter's 28 percent easily beat the rest of the field and he went on to win the presidency. Ever since, everyone has been convinced that the caucuses are the key to the nomination.

Needless to say, Iowans who are involved in politics—party apparatchiks, activists, state officeholders—think this state of affairs is just peachy. If you're a precinct captain in, say, California, you'll be psyched if you get to meet your congressman or the governor once a decade. The same person in Iowa gets to meet every single one of her party's contenders for president every election. They even know her name. Which is why the first-in-the-nation status of the caucus is written into Iowa state law (New Hampshire has a similar law insuring that they get the first primary).

So how does this work?

Voters will go their polling places at the appointed hour and listen to local representatives for each candidate give short speeches trying to persuade their neighbors to vote for their guy or gal. After some party business is conducted ("All in favor of moving next month's subcommittee meeting to Bob Gunderson's basement now that he put in that mini-fridge, say 'aye'"), voters will actually cast votes, in some cases with a secret ballot and in some cases by raising their hands. That's the relatively simple Republican version of the caucuses. Democrats, on the other hand, engage in a far more intricate and time-consuming process involving people standing in different corners of the room, groups negotiating and trading votes with each other, much more raising of hands, and possibly the blowing of a ceremonial steer horn followed by an anointing with high-fructose corn syrup (the Des Moines Register has an informative interactive presentation that explains it all here). And don't tell anyone, but this is actually a straw poll that doesn't choose delegates to the Republican National Convention. Instead, it elects delegates to county conventions, who then elect delegates to the state convention, who then ... well, you get the idea.

OK, so Iowa wields a lot of influence. But isn't it a good thing that there's an opportunity for "retail politics" to matter in such an over-mediated age?

Maybe, if you think that the ability to charm people in small groups is indicative of greater potential for presidential success than the ability to charm people in somewhat larger groups. But Iowa is hardly representative of the United States; for one thing, the state is 89 percent non-Hispanic white, compared to 63.7 percent of the country as a whole. Point this out and Iowans will likely shoot back that no one state is representative. Which is fair enough, but the caucuses can distort policy in some meaningful ways. For a long time they insured that anyone who became president took office having proclaimed his devotion to the absurdity of ethanol subsidies (those subsidies, by the way, have at long last been eliminated).

But Iowa isn't just a small, unrepresentative state—even most Iowans don't care about the caucuses. In 2008, 120,000 people turned out to the Republican caucuses, and people have been expecting a similar number this year. (This might be optimistic, though; 2008's turnout was a record, and the last time there was a GOP caucus with no Democratic one, in 1996, fewer than 100,000 Republicans showed up.) If this year's turnout matches 2008, it would represent just under 20 percent of registered Iowa Republicans. Or 5 percent of the voting-age population of Iowa. Or five one-hundredths of one percent of the American voting-age population.

You might be surprised that only one in five Iowa Republicans can manage to get themselves to the caucuses. After all, they happen only once every four years, and it's kind of a big deal. If a half-dozen presidential candidates literally came to your door to beg for your vote, don't you think you'd probably get out on caucus night? If you said yes, then you aren't the typical Iowa Republican (or Democrat, for that matter; their record turnout in the 2008 caucuses amounted to about 39 percent of registered Democrats). So solemnly do they take their responsibilities that most of them can't be bothered to haul their all-American heartland selves down to the junior high for this most basic of democracy's tasks.

So do the caucuses pick winners?

Not really. While there have been a couple of candidates like Carter who parlayed a surprisingly good showing into sustained momentum in other states, it's more likely that putting all your attention on Iowa leaves you unable to compete elsewhere. Consider the surging Rick Santorum, who has visited all 99 of Iowa's counties and conducted over 350 town hall meetings. He's finishing strong there, but he has little money and virtually no organization anywhere else, which will make it extremely hard for him to take on Mitt Romney, who has well-established organizations in multiple states. This has been the fate of many past candidates, most recently Mike Huckabee four years ago.

Keep in mind that those 20 percent of Republicans who turn out to the caucuses will be the party stalwarts—in other words, the most conservative of Iowa Republicans. If you want to know just how ridiculous this spectacle is, consider the fact that the big question approaching the caucus seems to be whether Ron Paul or Rick Santorum will emerge as Romney's main challenger. Yes, it could be a contest between, on one hand, an aging crank who may be America's least influential member of Congress (in 2009, he saw his first sponsored bill pass the House after 481 failed attempts) and who has published racist newsletters that he now claims to know virtually nothing about; and on the other hand, a singularly unpleasant culture warrior obsessed with all things gay whose moment of greatest national prominence came when he compared homosexuality to "you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be," and who always looks as if he's exasperated with whoever he's talking to.

Which is fine if you're a Democrat. Heck, let them go ahead and give a boost to a series of far-right nutballs, culminating in one or more of said nutballs appearing on a bunch of magazine covers next week. Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Santorum—by the time it's over, even if Romney ends up being the nominee, the Obama campaign won't have to work too hard to convince voters that this isn't exactly a party full of serious people you'd want governing the nation.

In any case, the results of the caucuses will dominate the news until around Thursday, when all eyes will turn to New Hampshire. As it happens, the winner of the New Hampshire primary is no more likely to wind up as the nominee than the winner of the Iowa caucuses (notable recent New Hampshire winners include non-nominees Hillary Clinton in 2008, John McCain in 2000, Pat Buchanan in 1996, and Paul Tsongas in 1992). But Iowa will have the effect of knocking out some of the people who underperformed. Look for Michele Bachmann and possibly Rick Perry to fold up their campaigns when they do poorly on Tuesday night. And that, if nothing else, is a great service Iowa will perform for America.

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