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What In The Heck Happened In Iowa?

February 24, 2020 Frontpage No Comments


After writing about how the Iowa caucuses work a few weeks ago, I’m left fielding questions about what appeared to be a colossal system-wide failure. Let me try to answer and in doing so try to defend the caucus process.
First, let me explain why we have a caucus and not a primary. It seems the folks in New Hampshire have the corner on the market for the first primary in the nation. In fact, New Hampshire law requires that its primary is first and if any other state schedules a primary before New Hampshire’s primary, it will move to the week before the other state’s date. Thus, everyone has practically conceded the first to New Hampshire.
But Iowa is not a primary, it is a caucus and thus it is allowed to be held before New Hampshire. Over the years New Hampshire Democrats and Iowa Democrats have quibbled about the Iowa rules. If the caucus is only a straw poll of presidential preferences, New Hampshire Democrats looks on it as a primary. Since Iowa does more than a straw poll, actually connecting presidential preference with delegate selection, an easy peace between the states has prevailed.
Interesting to note, there didn’t seem to be any problems with Republicans having a straw poll probably because the Republicans — like the Democrats — use the caucus for party and platform building. But how is it that Iowa’s caucus became the first?
Ever since Iowa was admitted to the union, parties have used caucuses to select delegates to county conventions, which in turn selected delegates to the district and state conventions, and from there to the national nominating conventions. Iowa does have a primary, held in June to select candidates for electoral office. In order to schedule the state convention, delegates to the district conventions had to be chosen far enough before the state convention so that notices, etc., could be mailed to the state delegates; moving back in the calendar, district delegates needed advance notice for their convention, and county delegates likewise needed notice for their conventions.
Thus, by the luck of the calendar, Iowa’s caucuses needed to be set far enough in advance of the state convention so all the notices for each level could be made within the prescribed timeline, thereby pushing the caucus date earlier in the year.
After the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention, party leaders tried to spread out the nominating process through each state. Because of Iowa’s established caucus-to-convention process, Democrats simply went first, and the Republicans followed four years later. In 1972, George McGovern — who largely wrote the Democratic rules — got a lot of media coverage by using the caucuses as a springboard to the nomination. That caught the attention of an obscure Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter who used the 1976 caucus to, as they say in the boxing world, become a contender. Thus Iowa’s place was cemented.
But there were cracks around the cement. Other states claimed that Iowa was not representative of the population at large and thus shouldn’t go first. But those claims were usually overcome by two factors: First, those candidates doing well in Iowa generally liked the system and sided with Iowa in intra-party disputes, and, second, there developed a real grass-roots style of campaigning here where potential presidents met real people, oftentimes in small group settings. One Democratic wag once told me she never decided on a presidential choice until she had them all over for dinner at least once. That may be an exaggeration, but that is how it was done in Iowa.
So, why did the system fail this time? Well, first of all, it didn’t fail, only the reporting system did and only for the Democrats. And keep in mind that in caucus states, each party controls its own system; in primary states there is an election which is controlled by the state. Thus, in the caucus state the parties operate independently without the state’s election machinery, tabulations, and other safeguards.
What happened to the Democrats in Iowa probably says more about the party poobahs than anything else. In order to accomplish its mission, and to equitably include everyone who attended, they adopted a complex set of rules and procedures that were bound to fail.
For example, precinct leaders were given a packet of 13 items, including one on “caucus math,” 38 pages of instructions, and had 77 pages of explanation of caucus rules.
Iowa State Political Science Professor Steffen Schmidt — full disclosure, he was the chairman of my master’s committee that approved my thesis — writing in The Iowa Capital Dispatch, observed: “In the company of isolated lawyers and political operatives (I won’t call them hacks), they went where all bureaucracies go — to more rules, more layers of complexity, and more unnecessary, dysfunctional, confusing clutter. . . .
“The McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms of 1969 for the more fair selection of national convention delegates made sense for 50 years when life was simple. Today, the convoluted and incomprehensible math to calculate ‘delegate equivalents’ which no one understands is intolerable. You need to understand that those rules were created in Ames, Iowa, at Dugan’s Deli, crafted with the guidance of an Iowa State University engineering professor, and a genius mathematics graduate student.
“The caucuses couldn’t be any more ridiculous than if they had been designed by cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s Professor Butts, whose inventions, ‘Rube Goldberg Machines…solved a simple task in the most overcomplicated, inefficient, and hilarious way possible,’ such as the ‘Self-Operating Napkin’. . . .
“So if YOU wanted to get the results of candidate preferences from about 1,700 locations and tens or hundreds of thousands of votes, would you design a clean and fast process or a convoluted, incomprehensible one?
“The Republicans have an efficient process where party members come to caucus, listen to a few speeches and then vote. Period. The GOP can usually get results to the media in a timely manner….
“In their infinite wisdom, the Democratic bureaucrats decided to make changes such as requiring three different caucus night votes to be recorded or calculated and reported, locking the undecided into that limbo if they had 15 percent ‘viability’ in a precinct, and a bunch of other nonsense that would clearly confuse and discourage voters.”
Some, like the good professor, believe that the caucuses might be toast, that the claims that Iowa is unrepresentative might finally take hold. The editor of the Dispatch, my friend and former political editor of The Des Moines Register, Kathie Obradovich, opined:
“There are a lot of reasons why Iowa should fight for the caucuses. Beyond the self-interest, the caucuses offer the best opportunity for non-establishment candidates, the ones who aren’t famous billionaires, to have a chance to compete. The grassroots style of campaigning forces candidates to interact with voters, sharpen their messages, and, often, learn a little humility in the process. It puts even the national establishment favorites to the test.”
I think Kathie was right on point. Iowa needs to fight to keep the first-in-the-nation caucuses for all the right reasons. Reporting results, stripped of all the complex rules, shouldn’t be that hard even for Democrats. Hopefully both parties will see the wisdom of starting here again in 2024. If not, it will truly be a national loss.
(You can reach Mike at:

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