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December 31, 2007

Fund: Phooey On The Iowa Caucus

John Fund punctures the small-town Americana aspect of the Iowa caucuses and questions their actual worth in determining momentum for Presidential aspirants. Instead of allowing the voice of the people to be heard, the actual effect gives a minutely small sample an oversize impact on the election:

The trouble with the Iowa caucuses isn't that there's anything wrong with Iowans. It's the bizarre rules of the process. Caucuses are touted as authentic neighborhood meetings where voters gather in their precincts and make democracy come alive. In truth, they are anything but.

Caucuses occur only at a fixed time at night, so that many people working odd hours can't participate. They can easily exceed two hours. There are no absentee ballots, which means the process disfranchises the sick, shut-ins and people who are out of town on the day of the caucus. The Democratic caucuses require participants to stand in a corner with other supporters of their candidate. That eliminates the secret ballot.

There are reasons for all this. The caucuses are run by the state parties, and unlike primary or general elections aren't regulated by the government. They were designed as an insiders' game to attract party activists, donors and political junkies and give them a disproportionate influence in the process. In other words, they are designed not to be overly democratic. Primaries aren't perfect. but at least they make it fairly easy for everyone to vote, since polls are open all day and it takes only a few minutes to cast a ballot.

Little wonder that voter turnout for the Iowa caucuses is extremely low--in recent years about 6% of registered voters. Many potential voters will proclaim their civic virtue to pollsters and others and say they will show up at the caucus--and then find something else to do Thursday night.

Regardless of the turnout, the results are binding. The delegates get assigned, and the candidates get bragging rights going into the first real primary of the year, in New Hampshire. For some reason, both political parties have settled on a process that takes the candidates through two sparsely-populated states and in the first one uses town-hall formats that went out with the 19th century -- but it all still counts.

It's interesting to note the differences between the two caucuses and what it says about each party. Republicans still use a single ballot, privately created and discreetly submitted for a single count. That process not only protects the rights of the individual, but it provides a clear and rational process for the vote. It doesn't require do-overs, and it doesn't subject caucus-goers to ranting from partisans, intimidation, or corruption.

And then we have the Democratic caucuses, which look like one of those joke org charts where the secretary winds up secretly running everything. Caucus-goers have to stand in certain corners to cast their vote after a goodly amount of campaigning in the precincts. This means that partisans can harangue people for their choices, wheedle people to change their minds, or (possibly) offer incentives for walking into a different corner. When some candidates can't clear a changeable bar of viability, the process begins again after eliminating the unviable -- during which already-committed voters can change positions. It ends when the precinct captains say it ends, unlike the GOP process, where a single ballot signals a clear and understandable stop to the madness.

How well has this worked for both parties? Iowa Republicans have picked the nominee all but two times over the past 32 years, although three of the six picks came for incumbents. Democrats guessed correctly on non-incumbents in 2004, 2000, and 1984. In 1992, Democrats overwhelmingly picked Tom Harkin over "uncommitted", Paul Tsongas, and in 4th place, Bill Clinton with a meager 4%. In 1988, Dick Gephardt won with over 30%, while Michael Dukakis came in 3rd.

Anyone watching the primary process in this cycle knows that it needs serious reconsideration. The Iowa caucus is an anachronism whose time passed decades ago.


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» In Defense of the Iowa Caucuses from Adam's Blog
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» Iowa Caucus Turnout May Just Be Father and Son from Voters Write!
Much has been written about low voter turnout in the Iowa Caucuses. In previous years, turnout has been as low as 6% of all the registered voters in Iowa. Some prognosticators are worried that freezing temperatures and close proximity to [Read More]

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