I Hate Iowa
The first contest in the US presidential primaries is a perversion of democracy that does not deserve to be taken seriously
If a gaffe, as Michael Kinsley defined it, is when a politician tells the truth in public, then Ohio's Governor Ted Strickland's recent comments fit the bill. In an interview in the Columbus Dispatch newspaper, Strickland said the upcoming Iowa caucus "makes no sense," and that he would "like to see both parties say, 'We're going to bring this to an end.'"
The reaction was swift and brutal. Strickland had been campaigning on behalf of Hillary Clinton, and competing campaigns sent the interview to reporters, hoping to get a bounce from the governor's perceived disdain for a holy institution of the Hawkeye State. By late Sunday night the Clinton handlers had issued a statement distancing the candidate from Strickland's remarks: "Senator Clinton has worked her heart out campaigning in Iowa because she knows it plays a unique and special role in the nominating process and that process must be protected," it said. "On this issue Hillary and Governor Strickland strongly disagree."
Strickland was, of course, 100% right. The Iowa Caucus makes no sense. And in a year in which the state is poised to play a bigger role than usual - a role the Washington Post calls "wildly disproportionate" to its size - it's worth considering just how silly it is that we take tomorrow's caucus seriously.
The silliness starts with the caucus's lack of democratic credentials. On the Democratic side of the race, the candidates aren't competing for votes; they're competing for "delegate equivalents", 2500 of which are spread across the state's 99 counties and 1784 voting precincts. There wouldn't be a problem with this if the delegates were distributed proportionally, but they aren't - they're distributed based on an abstruse and semi-proportional formula that creates big differences in the number of voters each delegate represents. This is not a minor issue. In 2004, there were 79.21 voters per delegate in Johnson County and 22.29 voters per delegate in Fremont County (the state average was 40.73). This means that the preference of a voter in Fremont is almost four times as valuable as the preference of a voter in Johnson.
Then there's the fact that a candidate needs to have the support of at least 15% of the voters in a precinct before qualifying for any of its delegates. Backers of a candidate who doesn't receive the requisite support become what are artlessly referred to as "spare voters" - that is, voters who are free to throw their support behind a second candidate. Caucus goers can make a plea for their support, but most of the wheedling takes place between candidates themselves: they cut deals promising hand over their spares (in exchange for god-knows-what) if they don't reach 15%. (Dennis Kucinich just urged his supporters to do this for Obama.) This creates an orgy of possibilities for how a candidate's statewide support could be over- or under-inflated.
And then there's the event itself. On the evening of the caucus, Democrats show up at the designated locations (schools, libraries and the like) and spend a couple of hours deliberating. When they're ready to vote they stand in a part of the room designated for a particular candidate. Then there is a head count. (Yes, a head count.)
You might notice that there's nothing terribly anonymous about this process. Indeed, some Iowans seem to think this is a good thing. While describing the caucus to reporters this Saturday, the political director of the state's Democratic Party related a "wonderful anecdote" meant to relay how "personal" the process can be: two women from Fort Dodge found themselves on opposite sides of the room and during the 1980 caucus and haven't spoken since. I suppose a 28-year-old grudge could be considered pretty wonderful. I guess I'm of the opinion that the secret ballot is just one of those tried-and-true elements of a modern democracy. In fact, such a guarantee is right there is Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Republican caucus is less awful - it basically resembles a straw poll - but spending a couple of hours caucusing on a Thursday evening is still a prospect that skews outcomes. (Do you work late? Early? Have kids? Out of town? Bed-bound?) For this reason, turnout tends to be incredibly low: this year's prediction is 10% for the Democrats and 12% for the Republicans. For comparison, turnout in the last presidential election was almost 60%.
It's annoying that this process exerts so much influence over presidential elections, and I'm embarrassed that people in Iowa actually they think "deserve" to occupy the first slot of primary campaign. Iowa apologists drone on about how caucus goers "are better informed, more aware of political issues, more involved, and in general much more the kind of citizens political scientists always want to find," and the Clinton campaign's Strickland statement swooned that "Iowans are entrusted with this responsibility because they take it so seriously."
But this is crazy. If anything, Iowans are more engaged because they are oversaturated. Tens of millions of dollars are spent trying to bribe, trick and cajole the state's residents into the right corner of the caucus room. The Washington Post reports that "some undecided voters will be contacted hundreds of times by the various campaigns" before the caucus. Hundreds of times! This coddling comes at a price: the time and effort that could be spent on the millions of voters that happen to live outside a patch of land wedged between Minnesota and Missouri. We should stop pretending that Iowans are the virtuous guardians of our election process. They are its spoiled and pampered babies.
Conor Clarke is a journalist in the Guardian's Washington, DC office. He has also written for the New Republic, Slate, the Washington Monthly and the American Prospect, among others publications.
© 2008 The Guardian