Thursday, January 03, 2008

Iowa insanity

"It is quite astonishing to see with what deadpan and neutral a tone our press and television report the open corruption—and the flagrantly anti-democratic character—of the Iowa caucuses."

That’s Christopher Hitchens’ assessment of the Iowa caucuses that are to take place this evening. The Iowa caucuses are important not because they are important but because they are first in line of an insanely early and long delegate selection process for major party conventions to take place mid-summer to nominate candidates for the Presidential election to take place in November – eleven months away.

Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the first event in the Presidential campaign. In 1972, Ed Muskie tied with “uncommitted” while George McGovern came in a distant third. However, the momentum of the relatively strong showing of the anti-establishment McGovern candidacy led to the capture of the Democratic nomination by the South Dakota Senator. In 1976, Jimmy Carter came in a distant second to “uncommitted” but since he received the most votes of the candidates he declared victory giving the relatively unknown Georgia governor the momentum to capture the Democratic nomination and eventually the White House.

The process involves a complicated set of rules for evening meetings throughout the state on a single night to select delegates to 99 county conventions who in turn select delegates to Congressional District and State conventions who in turn finally select delegates to the National Convention of each party.

Iowa is a small rural state and its caucuses will be followed by the nation’s first Presidential primary in New Hampshire – another small rural state. The results of these two events will likely make and break a number of campaigns. At a minimum, the results will give the front-runners a big fundraising advantage.

As argued here before, this whole process simply isn’t in the best interests of the candidates or the parties. Given the timing of this whole process -- almost a year before the election -- there is the very real possibility of “buyers’ remorse” setting in and the public and maybe even party activists, becoming disillusioned and/or tired of the candidates. And while this campaign is almost as long as the term of office the candidates are running for, most of the public across the country are outside the process. Any momentum the eventual nominees may have had during the winter primaries and caucuses will be long gone by Labor Day.

Professor Larry Sabato has this assessment of the problems with the Iowa system:
The Timing. Have you met anyone who thinks it's a good idea to start the process two days after New Year's, with campaigning having peaked over the Christmas holidays? Let's remember why this has happened: Iowa and New Hampshire absolutely insisted upon going first, as always. Isn't that a little bit greedy? Aren't there 48 other equal states? Even if you buy their arguments about small states being better as the initial "screening committees" for White House contenders, there are twenty other states with just a few electoral votes. Any small state would take the lead-off post seriously. Yet Iowa and New Hampshire almost pushed the presidential selection process into early December 2007--an absurdity that could easily become reality four years from now if we don't insist on change.

Representativeness. Iowa, like New Hampshire, is overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural. African-Americans and Hispanics in the Hawkeye State, for example, number just 2 percent and 3 percent of the population, respectively, and 38 percent of Iowans are located in rural areas. In the nation as a whole, nearly 25 percent of the population is African-American or Hispanic, and a mere 21 percent of U.S. citizens are found in rural localities. New Hampshire is even worse than Iowa, with a population that is 0.7 percent black, 1.7 percent Hispanic, and 41 percent rural. In the Democratic Party--the home of 90 percent of African-Americans and about two-thirds of Hispanics--the disparity is especially significant. The two first states to vote often determine one or both party nominees, yet racial and ethnic minorities will have played a tiny role.

Unfair Caucus Rules. Let's keep in mind that the Iowa caucus requires a great deal from all participants, not least a full evening devoted to travel and meeting. The time commitment discourages many from joining in. Iowa's population is about 3 million, of which approximately 2 million are registered voters. The news media are full of stories about an expected "record" turnout tonight. And what will that record amount to? In both parties combined, there may be as many as 250,000 people showing up for the caucuses, or 12 percent of the registered voters. Therefore 88 percent of Iowa's registered population won't be seen or heard from on caucus night.

That's just the beginning. If an Iowan has to work an evening job, he or she can forget about the caucuses. To have your vote count, you must be there at 7 pm when the doors close. It's just too bad for those who can't get time off or afford to do without the income. How about Iowans who are members of the armed forces and stationed out of state? Sorry Charlie, you may be defending our freedom but there's no provision for you to participate either. Absentee ballots and caucuses do not mix. As Governor Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) noted this week, if you are elderly or frail or ill, you are far less likely to endure hours of caucusing than a quick trip to the polls to cast a primary ballot.

Adding insult to injury, some Iowa activists and journalists actually condemned caucus participation by college and university students who live with their parents in other states three months of the year while feeding Iowa's economy nine months of the year by enrolling in a Hawkeye institution of higher learning. Participation among the young often lags, and they should be energetically facilitated in every way possible. Some in Iowa apparently think the caucuses are a private club that must be kept "pure." …

We haven't even mentioned the Byzantine caucus rules on the Democratic side. It would require a separate column to explain the process in detail, but suffice it to say that it almost takes a PhD in mathematics to advise Iowa Democrats on their delegate allocation formula. The party even refuses to release the simple hand-count of caucus participants for each presidential candidate, making public only the final delegate allocations. Thus, the raw popular votes for the candidates, which can differ considerably from the weighted delegate allocations, are never known. (The Iowa Democratic Party says it must do this to satisfy the national Democratic Party's rules; if so, the national rules should be changed.) By contrast, the Republicans just take a hand-count tally, and release it. Of course, all the other inequities we have outlined still apply to the Iowa GOP.
Will any of this change? I hate to be a cynic but I strongly doubt it.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

The system in place caters to lobbyists and power and neither of them are particularly friendly to reform.

I find it interesting how huge of a deal the mainstream media is making this event compared to previous years and how now one is bothering to even take a stab at explaining the complexities of the caucus.