The Brigadoon Complex

Where the Iowa caucuses went wrong.

The state of Iowa is a model of civic engagement. It regularly scores one of the highest voter turnout rates in most Novembers; its political system is largely free of corruption; and its court-supervised method of congressional redistricting makes it one of the few states to offer genuinely competitive races for the U.S. House.

At the same time, Iowa’s vaunted precinct caucuses—especially those of the Democratic Party—violate some of the most elemental values of a vibrant and open political process. As far as a mechanism for selecting a president is concerned, you might end up with Iowa’s model if you set out to design a system that discouraged participation and violated basic democratic values. Why do the caucuses take this terrible form? George McGovern in 1972, and Jimmy Carter more successfully in 1976, made the Iowa caucuses a pre-New Hampshire test of political strength. And then they became in effect a “pre-primary primary,” which bring to the state tens of millions of dollars and massive media overkill. In the process, the original purpose of the caucuses—to conduct party business and to talk over local concerns—became completely overwhelmed by the presidential frenzy for which they’re so ill-suited. As Drake University professor Dennis Goldford notes, “The presidential preference just began as something piggybacking on an ordinary set of party functions, and it’s been blown way out of proportion.”

By nature, a caucus suppresses turnout. If you can’t show up at 7 p.m., you don’t participate; there’s no absentee ballot and no early voting because the fiction is that at a caucus, you’re supposed to deliberate. So, if you work the nightshift—if you’re a cop, a firefighter, an emergency room nurse, a waitress—and you can’t change your hours, you’re shut out.  Beyond that, the Democratic Party’s caucus method requires not 10 to 15 minutes at a polling place, but two or three hours in a school lunchroom or library. This is why turnout—measured by eligible voters—ran under 6 percent in 2000 (the last time both parties held contests).

The Republican Party, by contrast, has recognized that the change in function, from local party business to presidential contest, requires a change in form. The GOP caucus process is straightforward and simple: You show up, perhaps listen to appeals from candidate’s supporters, and then write the name of your choice on a blank piece of paper and drop it into a box. The results are phoned into headquarters and tabulated. That’s it—one person, one vote; the candidate with the most votes wins.

But the Democrats have a totally different thing going on; one that discards at least two key elements of an open, fair system: the secret ballot and the one-person-one-vote principle, as Christopher Hitchens points out. When you show up at a Democratic caucus, you and your fellow participants divide up into different corners of a room, based on who you are for. You don’t submit a secret ballot; you stand up to be publicly counted. What if you’re in a union and want to pick someone your union hasn’t endorsed, and your shop steward is there, watching you from across the room? Or the person who holds your mortgage? Or your spouse? Tough. “It is free, it is open, and you are there of your own volition,” says Carrie Giddins, the Iowa Democratic Party’s director of communications. But of course, you are also in a polling place on election day of your own volition—and most free societies think that it’s a good idea to let voters keep their choices to themselves.

Then there’s the missing principle of “one person, one vote.” More than 40 years ago, the Supreme Court told the states they had to follow that rule in drawing legislative and congressional districts. The court told Georgia it had to dump its “county unit” rule for electing a governor—a process modeled on the Electoral College, that gave rural areas power out of all proportion to their populations. But the Iowa Democratic Party hasn’t gotten the message. Rather than simply tabulating votes, its precinct caucuses calculate “state delegate equivalents,” using a mind-numbing formula based on past votes for Democratic candidates for president and governor.

What this means, in effect, is that beyond a certain point, it doesn’t matter if your candidate can turn out 200 or 10,000 participants in a particular precinct, because that precinct has only so much delegate-purchasing power. It matters not just how many participants a candidate can turn out, but whether he can turn them out all over the place. A candidate who won a lot of the precincts narrowly would wind up winning a bigger portion of the delegates than a rival who piled up votes in one corner of Iowa—even if that corner yielded a higher overall number of supporters. It’s all the disproportional representation of the Electoral College, in miniature. And that was the price for forming the Union, not a guide for running elections.

This is especially true because in most precinct caucuses, a Democratic candidate who does not get 15 percent support from the participants is deemed “nonviable.” Supporters of these candidates can go home, or they can join another candidate who has made it over the 15 percent bar. (One reason why the Edwards campaign is optimistic is that they believe they are the favorite “second choice.”)  In the moment, this makes for a great show, as rival candidates importune the “nonviables” to join with them. Over the course of the evening, the appeals range from high-minded to horse-trading: (“Come with us and you can be one of our delegates to the county convention”).

But the drama doesn’t answer one basic question: Why can’t the public learn how many of the participants actually voted for the different candidates? The Democratic Party has these voter-preference numbers—but will not release them to the public, as this New York Times op-ed pointed out. Instead, the percentages reported on election night reflect only the share of state delegates each candidate has won. Why? No one seems exactly sure. But it means that a candidate who turned out more total supporters than anyone else, across the state, could wind up in second or third place—and no one will know.

In defense of all this, Goldford stresses that “we have to remember that the caucuses are not an election. They’re simply this expression of preference defined a certain way.” But this is, of course, the greater fiction. Candidates who spend millions of dollars on advertising, or 100 days in the state, are doing so because the caucuses have become the first quantifiable test, the one that will affect their chances everywhere else.

They are not about to question the process. And Iowans, for all their estimable qualities, know full well that they have a good thing going, with local officials and journalists courting them for months and pandering politicians embracing corn-based ethanol. (“If they held the first caucuses in Idaho,” someone once said “we’d be subsidizing gasoline made out of potatoes.”) The only way Iowa has kept its first-in-the-nation process is by conducting caucuses; shifting to a primary would deprive them of their Brigadoon-like emergence every four years as the center of the political universe. They’re not going to be allowed to run a straight-up primary before New Hampshire. So, they keep doing it their own way, to their benefit and to the detriment of the rest of us.