In defense of the Iowa caucuses

via Markos Moulitsas

In today’s The American Prospect, Paul Waldman wrote an editorial criticizing the current primary and caucus system and the Iowa caucuses that start it off in particular.

His criticism starts with the turnout issue for the Iowa caucuses:

If this is a typical election, somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of voting-eligible Iowans will bother to show up to a caucus. Yes, you read that right. Those vaunted Iowa voters are so concerned about the issues, so involved in the political process, so serious about their solemn deliberative responsibilities as guardians of the first-in-the-nation contest, that nine out of ten can’t manage to haul their butts down to the junior high on caucus night. One might protest that caucusing is hard — it requires hours of time and a complicated sequence of standing in corners, raising hands, and trading votes (here is an explanation of the ridiculousness). But so what? If ten presidential candidates personally came to your house to beg for your vote, wouldn’t you set aside an evening when decision time finally came?

This is a fair criticism.  Here we have a small state that has a huge impact on the outcome of the primaries and less than 10% of eligible voters from this state are participants.  Certainly, this does seem undemocratic.

But Waldman doesn’t just focus on the fact that Iowans don’t turn up to vote, he also argues in the next paragraph that Iowans are not good stewards of their privilege of going first, because on average, Iowans don’t pay much more attention than average Americans, citing a study of primary and caucus voters in 2000:

But only one in ten Iowans can be bothered. Not only that, despite all the attention, Iowans know barely more about the candidates than citizens of other states, and don’t discuss politics any more than anyone else (unless something has changed since this research was conducted in 2000). Yet around 200,000 of them, possessed of no greater wisdom or insight than the rest of us, will determine who presides over this nation of 300 million for the next four years. The problem isn’t that Iowans aren’t like the rest of the country (95 percent white, for one). The problem is that despite the extraordinary privilege of having the next president grovel before them, they’re just as indifferent and apathetic as any other group of Americans.

But this is where Waldman’s argument here turns on itself.  Certainly the fact that Iowans on average aren’t paying more attention than most Americans may cause us to raise our eyebrows about their first state status, but as Waldman stated, most Iowans aren’t going to the caucus.

It would stand to reason that those who are investing the time and energy it takes to go caucus for a few hours on a cold January day are those who are taking their privilege and duty as the first state to vote most seriously and are thus more likely to be informed about the candidates than the average Iowan.  In fact, given the very public and open nature of the decision-making done at the Iowa caucuses, going to a caucus uninformed would likely be quite embarrassing, considering that one’s views are made public.

Waldman starts to wrap up his argument by discussing the effect that Iowa and New Hampshire have over the primary elections in total:

All right, you say, why should the rest of us care? Couldn’t the other 98 percent of Americans simply rise up and proclaim that they intend to make their own decisions? No one is forced to have their primary vote determined by what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire, after all.

But while we are not literally forced, the imperious campaign press will do all it can to coerce us into narrowing our choices. Like Roman emperors glaring contemptuously at a collection of wounded gladiators, then turning their thumbs down as the crowd roars its assent to the execution, they will pronounce candidates dead on the judgment of a few thousand Iowans. No appeals to mercy or reason will be allowed once the judgment is rendered. They will spend a day or two describing the demise of the candidates who came in third and fourth, then ignore them completely as though they no longer exist. Technically, you could still vote for them in your primary, but any choice other than the two candidates the press proclaims to still be viable, they will tell you, is as pointless as walking into a Starbucks and asking for a cup of Postum.

Indeed, the press coverage after those two contests will have a large effect over the decisions of voters in subsequent states, which does give them a great amount of power.  However, what Waldman neglects to mention is the most obvious alternative to staggered state primaries and that is a national primary.

Instead of having voters choose from the greatly narrowed field coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire, there would be a relatively uninformed general populace making a decision based upon what the campaign media says before a single vote has been counted.

The effect of this?  The presumptive front-runners can run their campaigns on fundraising alone and buy big advertising spots.  Clinton would win the election if it were held tomorrow just based on the great press she gets today.  Here are some of the headlines:

Clinton opens chasm in Democratic race – AFP
Clinton outperforming rivals – San Jose Mercury News
The Clinton Surprise – New York Times
Clinton moves up in polls and money – Christian Science Monitor

What Waldman is missing here as he paints this inaccurate picture of Iowa:

As you read this, some of the most important and powerful people in America are crawling through the Hawkeye State on their knees, pretending to know more than they do about corn, pretending that the deep fried Twinkie they had back at the state fair was just dee-licious, pretending that ethanol is the key to our energy future, and pretending that every precinct captain and PTA chair they meet is the very heart and soul of our nation, whose opinions the candidate is just dying to hear. And the good people of Iowa? They couldn’t give a rat’s ass.

Is that Iowa forces the candidates to actually talk to voters and discuss the substantive issues of running for President of the United States, rather than what is currently influencing the national polls:  the name recognition that comes from being first lady or being mayor of New York City during September 11, 2001 and the focus of a press corps largely based in Washington D.C. and New York City on those two candidates.

The word that is commonly used to describe the campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire is one that never appears in Waldman’s column: retail politics.  In those two states, candidates must sell themselves to the public directly to get votes.  This allows less well-known candidates a chance to be heard.

The fact that small rural populations are the ones making the most influential decisions is by design.  In big cities, having the resources to heavily advertise yourself is the key whereas it is not as effective in the more spreadout, less media-frenzied small, rural states.  Those 6 to 10 percent of eligible voters who show up to caucus in Iowa have had the opportunities to hear what the candidates stand for from the horse’s mouth, not just from a press biased by name recognition and East Coast location.

Obviously this system isn’t perfect and has a definite undemocratic element to it, but given the alternatives on the table, it is unfortunately the best we have for now.  If the American populace as a whole was well-informed and each person thoroughly reviewed the candidates before making an dispassionate decision on the matter, the situation would be different.  If we had a press that gave equal time to all candidates and focused on substance rather than fluff, the situation would be different.  If all candidates were required to use the same strict budget to get their message across, the situation would be different.

But the situation is as it is, we have a poorly informed populace that is largely either impassioned or indifferent, a press that gives front-runners undue exposure, and candidates who must raise enormous funds to stay alive, which stresses connections over substance and keeps them within a bubble, influenced most by those willing to pass on large sums.

What Iowa and New Hampshire do is they level the playing field on which candidates compete, which is important in keeping our democracy competitive.  There are obvious flaws with the system and the two parties that determine how the system works will have to revise the schedule.  But until someone offers a better alternative to the current system where small rural states level the playing field, I’m going to stick with it.

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About Meng Bomin

Real name Benjamin Main, I am a graduate of Grinnell College with a degree in Biological Chemistry.
This entry was posted in Current events, Opinions, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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