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The Iowa Caucuses: American Democracy's Naked Emperor

Robert R. Thompson

Politics and Culture/East and West -- The Iowa caucuses disenfranchise a person who, despite being politically active, would prefer to act -- that is 'vote'.

The Iowa Caucuses are over. The hordes of candidates and journalists are gone from the State. But amidst the campaign detritus of bumper stickers, bunting, and yard signs, they leave behind them the wreckage of the American presidential selection process. And that is why � despite the fact that Iowa seems so long ago, and the Democrats' candidate landscape is so much altered since Iowa � we need to closely scrutinize this first stop in the presidential selection process. Iowans will, no doubt, soon claim that, assuming he is the Democratic nominee, Senator Kerry's road to the nomination, and perhaps the White House, began in Iowa. They will remind the next candidate crop that they ignore Iowa at their peril.

Why, then, should anyone be surprised that American voters view with growing cynicism an election process that begins with the alleged "populism" of the Iowa Caucuses, and concludes with the decision of the archaic, creaky Electoral College machinery? Is it any wonder that so many Americans are apathetic about election politics? Is it any wonder that so many Americans feel that the selection process neglects their views about candidates? Is it any wonder that so many Americans refuse to trudge to the polls in November to choose between the "lesser of two evils"? If Iowans have the power to determine which candidates are in, and which are out, why should the rest of us feel that we have any stake in supporting the successful nominee? Especially if the candidate nominated is not our choice, and if our state's primary or caucus took place, in a sense, way after the "game" was over?

There is a tacit agreement � "conspiracy" is, perhaps too strong of a word to describe the relationship � between Iowa's local media, the national media, and Democratic and Republican Iowa political party officials. The money coming into the Iowa economy is nice, and the PR for the State, priceless. In a sense, the candidates, as well as we non-Iowan voters, are forced to pay obeisance to the Iowa caucuses. This year Senator Joseph Lieberman and General Wesley Clark bypassed the caucuses. Iowans will, no doubt, tout those candidates' post-Iowa failures, and Senator John Kerry's Iowa success, as a warning to future candidates: avoid the Iowa caucuses at your peril.

In 1972 George McGovern � and then again and more effectively Jimmy Carter in 1976 � put the Iowa Caucuses on the political agenda. Former President Carter, and Iowans, can truly argue that the caucuses put the former Georgia Governor in the White House. Virtually unknown before the 1976 Iowa Caucuses, the day after they were held, Carter was catapulted to frontrunner status. This was the first example of the media's inflating the caucus's importance to a king-making event. To this day, thanks to sloppy media reporting, many still think that Jimmy Carter "won" the Iowa caucuses in 1976. He didn't. But more on that, below.

I am well aware of the seductive power of the caucuses for Iowans. I lived in Iowa from 1979 to 1985, and, as a Democratic Party activist, in 1980 and 1984, I participated in the caucuses. I met many of the candidates, such as Howard Baker and Alan Cranston. In 1980 I helped organize appearances by Joseph Kennedy III, campaigning for his uncle Teddy, and Chip Carter campaigning for his father. This was during the hotly contested fight between Senator Kennedy and president Carter for that year's Democratic presidential nomination. The state crawled with journalists. Even I, a lowly local college professor and caucus participant, was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio, one of the biggest public networks in the Midwest, as well as Iowa's largest newspaper The Des Moines Register.

It was quite heady. And most heady of all were my two brushes with big time political power. In December 1979, I was part of a group of county Democratic Party officials meeting in a local restaurant's conference room, a month before the 1980 caucuses. The County Democratic Chairman was running the meeting. About a half hour after we began the owner of the place came in. "Georgy," he said, somewhat awe struck, "the White House, I mean President Carter is on the phone for you." Imagine-sitting at a meeting where someone gets called away to talk with the president! When she returned we looked at her for a moment, and then all together bombarded her with questions. "The president!" someone said. "What was it like? What did he sound like? What did he say? What? What? What?"

Nineteen-eighty was truly a tough year for President Carter. As he had begun his 1976 march to the White House in Iowa, he couldn't loose in Iowa four years later to Teddy Kennedy. This was the place that had made possible his greatest triumph. He was, we realized, personally calling every single one of Iowa's 99 county Democratic Chairmen to ask for their support. He did beat Teddy in Iowa, and for the nomination. But this didn't help him beat Ronnie "The Gipper" Reagan in November.

In 1984 my close encounter with a much renowned politician trying for Iowa "magic" was even more up close and personal. I was helping to organize an appearance by Senator George McGovern at the college where I taught. The grand old man of the anti-Viet Nam war movement, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate buried by Richard Nixon in that Watergate year, was running again. Imagine this: it's a cold but bright Iowa Sunday morning, the day of the Senator's appearance. It's about 7AM and my wife and I are sound asleep. The phone rings. My wife reaches out, grabs it. I hear her say, "Hello, yes he's here." She hands me the phone. "It's George McGovern." Yeah, right.

I was astounded. It was indeed the Senator on the phone. He was calling because he had to postpone his appearance for that evening, and reschedule it. He called. Not some low-level campaign flunky, but McGovern himself. I'm sitting in bed, half asleep, listening to George McGovern, one of my heroes!, explain to me, almost obsequiously, his scheduling woes. I am stunned as much as anything by the realization that he seems so worried that I will be angry, and somehow hurt his campaign. Me?! I certainly don't consider myself a flunky. But I am truly a low-level and basically unimportant Iowa political activist. I realize that in Iowa, in presidential election years, there are no "unimportant" political activists. This is power.

It is not only because I am now on the outside of the presidential selection process that I am able see the Iowa Caucuses more clearly. It's also because as I look back at the "power" that I wielded, and the power that Iowans still exert on this process, I see the link between the growth of Iowa's political clout and Americans' increasing disaffection with the election process. There are two crucial problems with Iowa's oversized impact on the nomination process. First there is the State itself. And second, there is the absolutely lousy job that the media does in covering the bloated Iowa circus, an occasion they have played such an enormous part in creating.

Iowa is a very small state, demographically non-diverse, and, not surprisingly, focused almost completely on agricultural issues. It is true, and I can attest to the fact, that Iowans are knowledgeable about politics and do care about a wide array of issues beyond agricultural concerns. And, they take their first-in-the-nation, presidential candidate-choosing role very seriously. But, as one of my students succinctly stated during a recent class discussion about the Iowa Caucuses, "I want to make my own choice, and not have Iowans do it for me!"

It is, though, the media "coverage" of the Iowa Caucuses every four years which plays the largest role in creating the caucus juggernaut. And though they seem to cover the caucuses very extensively, the reporting on what actually happens in Iowa is woefully inadequate. The media takes a complex, multi-stage, months-long process, and turns it into a one night winner-take-all political contest. In short: the media turns it into a "primary". But, the Iowa delegate selection process starts in January and does not end until the State party conventions in June. So, I want to be quite clear about this: THE IOWA CAUCUSES ARE NOT A PRIMARY.

Last December, about a month before the caucuses, the CBS Morning News reported recent poll results for the upcoming "Iowa Primary". Even the usually reliable New York Times, in the run up to the caucuses, kept speculating on what Iowa "voters" might do at the caucuses. True, one must be a registered voter to participate in the caucuses. But, no one votes at a caucus. This year, even C-Span, which televised some of the individual caucuses, didn't really clarify exactly what was happening. If one wasn't an Iowan, or a political scientist, one most likely didn't understand what was transpiring at the caucus on TV.

So, what does actually happen at an Iowa Caucus? Participants meet at their local caucus, which might be in a school, church, local town building, or even a personal residence. They don't enter a voting booth, and pull a curtain behind them to register their private preference. Caucus attenders must stand, publicly indicate their candidate choice, and join with others in a "presidential preference group". They must withstand cajoling, pleading, and arguing from other participants over their very visible choice. This can be intimidating. In Iowa I met people who were interested and informed about all the candidates and their positions on critical issues. But, where they might have voted in a primary, they preferred not to attend their local caucus because they were uncomfortable with public political debate. So in a sense, the Iowa caucuses disenfranchise a person who, despite being politically active, would prefer to act � that is "vote" � privately.

And how do we know who "wins" the Iowa caucuses? Actually nobody wins. Based upon the total number of caucus participants, and the number in each presidential preference group, delegates are awarded to presidential candidates based upon a rather arcane mathematical formula. But these are delegates to the process's next stage, county conventions, where the dividing-up process is repeated yet again. The first step results don't necessarily mean a lot in terms of delegates for actually winning the presidential nomination at the National Party Conventions. Eventually, the national convention delegates for Carter, McGovern, Kerry, or whoever, are chosen at the Iowa state Democratic and Republican party conventions in June. So, in reality, what Senator Kerry "won" this past January 19th in Iowa, was the most delegates to Iowa's next selection step, the 99 county conventions. And Jimmy Carter? He didn't "win" in Iowa in 1976. (And remember, no candidate really "wins" anything in Iowa but media plaudits.) Delegates for "Uncommitted" took the Democratic caucus "prize" in 1976. But, the media can't interview "uncommitted". The media needs a face, something to show. Something simple.

So then are we, Democrats and Republicans alike, doomed to have Iowans, aided and abetted by the media's shabby and simplistic caucus reporting, dictate our presidential nominees? I am sure the next crop of presidential candidates is already laying 2008 Iowa Caucus plans, and sending their operatives into the State. I am sure of this because I saw it happen in 1985, before I left Iowa. Democratic campaigners pushing a little known Massachusetts politician, Michael Dukakis, were already whispering in the ears of local Democratic "power" brokers-like me.

The only way to break Iowa's power over the nomination process, and let more people participate in selecting their party's nominee, is to convince more states to move their primaries and caucuses forward. States like California and New York, tired of seeing Iowa winnow the candidate field long before they have a chance to help choose a candidate, have already done this. Eventually, both national parties may come to their senses and institute a National Primary. It is true that there are flaws in this idea, as in any nomination scheme. Process is not neutral. But it can be fair. It can encourage, and not discourage American voters from joining the political process.

So here I sit in Pennsylvania, parked by my phone. Our Democratic presidential primary is April 23rd. When is John Kerry going to call. . .?

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