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Why the Iowa Caucuses are Overrated

Every four years the attention of the media and the entire political world is focused on Iowa and the results of the caucuses there are a huge factor in determining the presidential nominee from at least one of the two major parties (this year, only the Republicans because there is a Democratic incumbent without a serious challenger). The obvious question: Why?

Less than 100,000 voters in that state will attend the Republican caucuses next week and have a huge impact on the campaign. If Romney somehow squeaks out a win, or even a strong second place, he will be virtually unstoppable. If Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul wins, they will instantly become a more serious candidate and the race will likely become a battle between whichever one wins and Mitt Romney, who will almost certainly win in New Hampshire.

Why should that many voters, especially from such a small and unrepresentative state, have so much influence over the process? And why do both political parties appear to be so averse to doing anything to lessen that influence? When other states threatened to move their primaries up to compete with Iowa in 2008, the Democratic party got so irate about it that they decertified the delegates from Michigan and Florida (later allowing them back after a deal was brokered).

The same question can be asked about New Hampshire, of course. It doesn’t really make much sense to me. Why would the parties want it this way? What is the benefit to them? Wouldn’t it be better for party unity to have something like Super Tuesday as the first wave of primaries?

Comments

  1. jamessweet says

    My guess is that — in a naive short-term view, at least — it simplifies the logistics. The campaigns can concentrate their focus on one small state.

    It still all seems very silly.

  2. chilidog99 says

    The funny thing about the iowa caucuses is they have no effect on the voting of the delagates in the convention.

  3. matty1 says

    To me the whole idea of primaries seems silly. You ask the public to pick who will be campaigning for a party they (the voters) may have nothing to do with then wonder why so many fruit loops show up.

  4. subbie says

    Your point becomes even more salient once we consider that Iowa stands for either I Owe the World an Apology, or Idiots Out Wandering Around. Of course, this might provide an explanation why the Diwmitcrats and the Repugnantcans both want Iowa’s choice to play such a prominent role. It has seemed to me for quite some time that both parties are not only content with but are actually actively pursuing greater influence by the booboisie.

  5. says

    @1: I agree that is a secondary reason, derived from the primary reason: money. There aren’t enough political donations available to run a primary for 5-15 candidates from a single party in a multitude of states, or even a large, diverse state. So the parties start with small states to give lesser-knowns a chance to to compete. I just heard this morning Santorum is climbing the Iowa polls. What chance would he have had to get his message out if he had the same level of funding, but needed to spread it across 10 states?

  6. Dr. Elementary says

    As Tevye says, “Tradition”. Changing things is scary; it’s always been this way, and so it always will be this way, even though it is completely wacky.

  7. Aaron says

    Subbie: Why the Iowa Hate? I somewhat agree that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that Iowa gets the primary – but then again, what state IS deserving of this? Iowa is just a state with people in it like any other. Iowa has a lot of corn, pigs, and alfalfa… but it also has some great schools. The ATM was developed there. We had fiber-optic networks before most states. The Atanasoff Berry Computer was developed at Iowa State University (my Alma mater). Insinuating the place is full of hicks is just ignorant. If you are going to be a member of the Freethought Blogs, you may want to be a little more skeptical of your inherent stereotypes.

    That said, I think it would be interesting if the primaries changed location every election, like the Olympics. It would be neat to see them in Bismarck one election and Sante Fe the next and then maybe New York City followed by San Antonio.

  8. jameshanley says

    subbie,

    Why do the winds go south from Minnesota to Iowa? Because Minnesota blows.

    Seriously, you’re from the state that elected Michelle Bachmann, and you’re going to mock Iowa? Granted they’ve got Peter King, but all that means is Minnesota isn’t that much worse than Iowa.

  9. briandavis says

    Imagine what it would be like if the election season kicked off with the California and New York primaries. Very few unproven candidates would have the resources needed to mobilize the campaign workers and buy the advertising needed for such large markets. The race would be over before the first primary. You might as well just sell the party nomination on eBay.

  10. d cwilson says

    I think a lot of the reason Iowa keeps its first in the nation status is simply inertia. Everyone knows that Iowa is not demographically representative of the US population as a whole, but no one wants to open the can of worms that changing the system would entail. Something like a rotating series of regional primaries would make a whole lot more sense, but any proposal to go that route would unleash a shitstorm of protest and would probably end up creating something worse than what we have now.

  11. Jordan Genso says

    I would suggest that what we’ve seen so far this year indicates that campaign organization is no longer as important as it once was. The financial side is still required to run attack ads, but several of the bubble candidates didn’t have any actual campaign presence outside of the Tea Party Republican debates.

    When Cain and Gingrich can be frontrunners both nationally and in Iowa, without anything like Paul’s organization, shows that a multi-state first primary would not automatically eliminate candidates with smaller resources. With conservative media acting as the main source for voters getting to know the candidates, the “meet & greets” becomes less important. So while a candidate with limited resources may not be able to make appearances in numerous states, all they really need to do is put on a good show at the nationally-televised debates and get enough coverage on Fox News to have some viability.

    (this seems to at least be true in the Tea Party Republican primary system, with no way of knowing if the same could be said in a Democratic primary)

  12. says

    d cwilson says:

    “Something like a rotating series of regional primaries would make a whole lot more sense, but any proposal to go that route would unleash a shitstorm of protest and would probably end up creating something worse than what we have now.”

    Well, maybe not.

    It could be set up like the Olympic City Search. After lots of cash has changed hands the winner gets to host the (Insert name of Soulless Megacorp here) First In The Nation Primary 2012. With any luck Mitt Romney will hear about it and drop out of the race to stump for Salt Lake City or Boston or wherever the fuck he actually lives.

  13. heironymous says

    As a former denizen of the state of New Hampshire, the explanation that made sense to me was that in NH, the candidates actually have to spend time there and meet people. It’s less about how much money you have to bomb the airwaves with sound bytes and more about hand-shaking and explaining your position.

  14. slc1 says

    I think that One Brow @ #5 has it right. A strong showing in Iowa and/or New Hampshire can give a lesser known candidate without the resources to compete in, say, California, a leg up. Remember Jimmy Peanut in 1976 who was virtually unknown until doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire.

  15. coragyps says

    “You might as well just sell the party nomination on eBay.”

    That would certainly mean less wear and tear on my ears and eyeballs…….

  16. frankb says

    As an Iowan I liked being first last time when the Clintons and Obama were criscrossing the state. This time not so much. Romney and Perry and Paul ads are constantly scattered around freethoughtblogs articles and commentary. I assume other commenters aren’t seeing this.

  17. Michael Heath says

    One Brow writes:

    There aren’t enough political donations available to run a primary for 5-15 candidates from a single party in a multitude of states, or even a large, diverse state. So the parties start with small states to give lesser-knowns a chance to to compete.

    The problem with this explanation is that there is no strong correlation between the results in Iowa versus who eventually wins the nomination unless they are the presumptive favorite prior to the Iowa caucus. That’s why we’ve seen some candidates pose as if they care about Iowa while putting their energy and money elsewhere. Let’s recall that Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucus in ’08 which helped him none at all when it came to that campaign or this one; it did help him secure a job with a TV channel Iowa Republicans like to think is a news station.

  18. garnetstar says

    Sorry, Ed, you are applying reason and common sense. Stop doing that right now, it’s almost a felony these days.

  19. BRamsey says

    Another Iowan here. Sorry about Steve King (@jameshanley Peter King is the insane rightwing nutjob from New York. Steve King is the insane rightwing nutjob from Iowa). I’m in a different district, so can’t vote against him.

    The only thing that makes sense to me is that smaller states should go first because it gives lesser known candidates a chance to get out and actually talk to people. Our media buys are a lot lower than other parts of the country and it is easy to go to two or three cities and get 90% of the population. As others have pointed out, starting with NY, California or Texas would bankrupt smaller candidates. I think that having more voices heard, even the insane ones, is better than only one or two.

    But let it rotate. There are other small states that should have a chance.

    The other thing I like about the Democratic caucus(unlike the Republican) is that we are sort of like an instant runoff election. Any candidate with less than 15%(?) of the vote at the Democratic caucus is considered non-viable and his/her supporters have to pick another candidate. This also gives people a chance to argue for their candidate.

    I’ll never forget a kid who couldn’t have been more than 18 who stood up all nervous and spoke from the heart about his candidate. You don’t get that kind of passion and participation from primaries.

  20. otrame says

    Romney and Perry and Paul ads are constantly scattered around freethoughtblogs articles and commentary. I assume other commenters aren’t seeing this.

    No, I have a more or less permanent “Help stop Obama’s war on Texas” ads.

    Which brings up an issue that maybe you guys can help with. I know that FTB gets money for each page view with an ad on it. If you click on the ad, does that cost them more? If it does then clicking on the ads of people you don’t like puts money in FTB from bad guys. I like the idea.

  21. randyc says

    I actually think that blogs like “Dispatches from the Culture Wars” on the Internet – and even more so, 24-hour-a-day news channels – are responsible for inflating the importance of the Iowa caucuses.

    I’m in my 60′s. They had caucuses in Iowa when I was growing up. But you had to be a news groupie to know when they took place. The day after, you might see a mention of the caucuses on page 4 of the B section of the paper. That was it. No mention by Walter Chronkite. Certainly no mention on the local news.

    But NOW, in 2011, people have to find things to talk about. They have to talk for 24 hours about those things. On most days there isn’t 24 hours of news to talk about. So often you end up talking Paris Hilton or the Kardashians.

    While the Iowa caucuses are surely overrated, they are undoubtedly more important than Paris Hilton or the Kardashians. So if you have to choose between the Kardashians or the Iowa caucuses to talk about, you choose the caucuses.

    In fact, at that level, it makes sense to do so.

    But it is the Internet and the news channels that are responsible for the inflation of the importance of Iowa.

  22. says

    The only thing that makes sense to me is that smaller states should go first because it gives lesser known candidates a chance to get out and actually talk to people.

    That’s true as far as it goes; the problem, though, is that it’s the same small states going first every year. If you live in a smaller state that mostly goes last, like say Oregon (where I live), the nominations are invariably determined weeks or even months before you get to vote.

    They had caucuses in Iowa when I was growing up. But you had to be a news groupie to know when they took place.

    In those days, the bulk of the delegates to the conventions were not chosen in caucuses or primaries, but by state party organizations and by people like Richard Daley in Chicago. The primaries still had their use, as candidates would use them to show that they were capable of drawing support, running campaigns and winning elections, thus making themselves look good for the kingmakers. This really started to change after 1968.

  23. morris says

    Dear Ed and friends,

    I am motivated to comment for the first time by surprise that what seemed, to me, to be the obvious reason for the existence of these mini-elections was not alluded to in the post or comments.
    Perhaps, then I am too cynical; I see them as good, old-fashioned “rotten boroughs”.

    Both states have a small franchise for these votes and, with due respect to each, a less diverse electorate than the candidates will face later, motivated by a small subset of issues. (In Iowa, agriculture issues dominate to the exclusion of other policies whilst in New Hampshire, I am given to understand that the voters for each party belong to one of other of the largely homogenous social groups on the left and the right, with few contrarians taking part.)
    The result is that actual policies have a diminished role and the results of these votes is more likely to be decided by rhetoric, character and debate (or more likely by political shenanigans, mud-slinging and grandstanding.) These are areas where the political operatives believe they have power to influence the outcome by their skill and determination (as opposed merely to being seen to be the most capable person for the job – a category in which no truly self-aware politician can honestly place himself.)

    During primary elections the political party does not really exist as it divides into camps of followers (the rump of ‘party elders’ cannot act as any action is sure to be interpreted as support for one or other of the candidates) so decisions to change the way of things during this period fall to the candidates.
    The front runner doesn’t want to rock the boat and annoy his Iowa and NH supporters and he (or his electoral team, presumable the ‘A’ team of political operatives) are sure they will do the best under the status quo.
    A close-running second needs to one-up his main rival and his team of up-and-coming hacks may think they maybe have a slightly better candidate by they know that they are better political operators than the old-guard on front-runners team – if they get to work in an environment where their clever media strategies are not going to get overshadowed by real-world issues in Washington.
    Distant third and fourth placed candidates know that they must have an early upset to elevate themselves and their fund-raising; perhaps they might be able to upset the apple-cart of the traditional early elections and find an opening to embarass or up-stage their more illustrious competitors. They are though, at present, quite small voices in the party and a stand against the Iowa Caucus for example might just seem like a pre-emptive attack of sour grapes or worse still, be ignored altogether. In any case, their energetic, young teams of political advisors are just certain that they can run rings around the establishment flunkies on frontrunner and secondplace’s teams so long as they can’t bring their ‘Washington gravitas’ and ‘policy experience’ into play.

    In short, each candidate wants to have an early chance to leapfrog their competitors by using their real ‘political’ skills that they really believe in (the ability to entice or cajole the voters that have been naturally selected through innumerable elections while lesser hucksters and dissemblers were voted down and fell away) in order to be in the best possible position before they have to rely on the much riskier proposition of trying to persuade the diverse multitude of their character and capability as leader, diplomat and policy-maker.

    It’s the candidates best chance to use their true skills of manipulation, lying, schmoosing and belligerence before a captive audience, reality TV style, without the intrusion of all that confusing, incomprehensible legal, social and diplomatic policy stuff that no-one really cares about anyway.

  24. frankb says

    Dispite my age, I have only been to two Iowa Caucuses. Part of this was due to so little attention being paid to the caucuses years ago, and part was due to me working evenings (a disadvantage not shared by primaries).

    It is interesting how they work. Democrats go to one area and Republicans to another area. Democratic organizers would select one corner of the room or rooms for each candidate and participants would gather into each group. The organizers would count how many were in each group and the total. The counts had to be double checked and that could take a while. Then the calculation was made as to how many voters would equal one delegate. Small groups would disband to join other groups. Undecided’s would be lured into one group or another. When each group had the right number for one or two or three delegates, volunteers were selected in each group to serve as delegates or alternates. People could leave at that point and most people did. The organizers would talk to the delegates and others about the plateform and the state convention. That is my impression of what happens at a caucuse. There is no secret ballot and no assurance that a volunteer will vote the way they should. I imagine that there are handlers at the state convention to watch over the delegates.

  25. bananacat says

    To me the whole idea of primaries seems silly. You ask the public to pick who will be campaigning for a party they (the voters) may have nothing to do with then wonder why so many fruit loops show up.

    And what do you propose as an alternative the primaries? Have you never learned the history of why we have them? Sure, they’re not perfect but I never thought the very idea of primaries was still controversial.

  26. dingojack says

    Here’s an idea: why not let the parties decide who going to run?
    Yes, I thought you’d hate it. :)
    Dingo

  27. bananacat says

    Here’s an idea: why not let the parties decide who going to run?

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, but the obvious problem here is that women and minorities have no chance of being nominated here.

  28. Joshua says

    The obvious question: Why?

    The are first. Occam for the win. People seem to have social heard behavior to me. Anecdote for the meh.

  29. dingojack says

    bananacat – Yes, I was being sarcastic.
    It’s the way it works here (and in the Ol’ Dart too, I beleive).
    Dingo

  30. says

    Primaries seem weird to me, too. It’s oddly top down, while we choose people more bottom up manner in Australia.

    It mostly works here. Party members vote on policy and representatives in the Labor Caucus, with (of course) huge factional infights and wheeling and dealing. Libs argue more behind closed doors. But if you want a say in how a party is run, and who its leader should be, then you join that party.

    And the leader of whichever party wins is the PM (as long as they won in their electorate, but they usually run in very safe seats.) You don’t get a leader who’s grossly out of step with their party.

  31. matty1 says

    @26
    Maybe I should have specified that I’m English which means the system I’m used to is more like the Australians above describe, the parties pick their candidates and the voters choose between them.

    So no I don’t know the history of why you ended up with the primary system, can anyone point me to a decent explanation?

  32. dingojack says

    Matty1 – well yeah, exceept without the ‘first past the post’ thing*.
    Dingo
    —–
    * Instead – preferences (and Antony Green) :)

  33. says

    “It’s less about how much money you have to bomb the airwaves with sound bytes and more about hand-shaking and FABRICATING your position.”

    FTFY.

    “While the Iowa caucuses are surely overrated, they are undoubtedly more important than Paris Hilton or the Kardashians.”

    But not if the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Hulk Hogan and some other “famous” people show up AT the caucuses (caucausae, caucusii?).

  34. Michael Heath says

    Andrew Sullivan also provided some others’ attempts to rationalize the Iowa caucus over the past couple of days, especially yesterday. I think those and attempts in this thread has Ed’s question going unanswered. i think because there’s no rational reason for how the primaries play out where a very small percentage of Iowan voters get wooed first.

  35. dingojack says

    Demo – you intrigued me:

    cau·cus   /ˈkɔkəs/ [kaw-kuhs]



    Origin:
    1755–65, Americanism ; apparently first used in the name of the Caucus Club of colonial Boston; perhaps < Medieval Latin caucus drinking vessel, Late Latin caucum < Greek kaûkos; alleged Virginia Algonquian orig. less probable
    -Online dictonary

    but

    caucus
    1763, Amer.Eng., perhaps from caucauasu “counselor” in the Algonquian dialect of Virginia, or the Caucus Club of Boston, a 1760s social & political club whose name possibly derived from Mod.Gr. kaukos “drinking cup.” Another candidate is caulker’s (meeting). The verb is from 1850.
    - online Etymology

    If Latin: ‘cauci’, if Greek: ‘kaukoi’, if Algonquian: ???? (begins with gi- ?)
    Umm… OK – ‘caucuses’ (not the geographic region in Eurasia)

    Dingo

  36. Chris from Europe says

    Sure, they’re not perfect but I never thought the very idea of primaries was still controversial.

    Giving the results, I don’t understand how they couldn’t be controversial. For me, it gives too much power to enraged, underinformed people.

    I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic, but the obvious problem here is that women and minorities have no chance of being nominated here.

    That would depend on the party. And I don’t think there’s evidence for this. I would expect women to do worse in a primary system. The US Congress compared to parliaments in Europe seems to validate this assumption.

  37. Chris from Europe says

    then you join that party.

    Americans seem to have an irrational love for their loose party system. Because the Founders thought it could work without, or something.

  38. canadianchick says

    Canadian here -I also don’t understand the primary system – it seems to me to be little more than a system designed to ensure that nothing but campaigning and fundraising ever take place…screw actually doing any WORK (for those who are already elected officials)

    guess I’m spoiled here – party members elect leaders via delegates at a convention. Election campaigns last 6 weeks. Party leader of party with most seats is premier or prime minister (provincial/federal). Not to say I’m happy with current PM but at least I didn’t have to hear him campaign for a year!

  39. Rick Pikul says

    A correction for canadianchick:

    While the leader of the party with the most seats is usually the PM/Premier the actual rule is that the person who can demonstrate the confidence of the house by passing a throne speech gets the job. The leader of the largest party is just the second person with a right to try, (the first try goes to the current PM/Premier[1]).

    [1] Note that it is very rare for a defeated PM/Premier to even try. It only happens in minority situations where the incumbent is certain he will receive long term support from the third party. The most notable occurrence was with King in 1925, leading to the King-Byng affair in 1926.

  40. Chris from Europe says

    Well, the Canadian system isn’t something to emulate either. The voting system is also FPTP. Harper lost the election and still won it thanks to the voting system. Of course, the same happens in the US and the UK.

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