NOTE: This blog post originally ran on January 3, 2008.
The Iowa caucuses begin in just over an hour, and already the talking heads on CNN are creaming their pants waiting for the returns to start coming in. I’m worried.
I’m not worried about any particular result. I’m worried about the media coverage. The journalists and pundits covering this campaign haven’t had anything real to talk about for more than a year. They are like racehorses trapped in the starting gate, straining for the finish line. The language is already scary: “It finally begins!” “It’s a day that’s been circled on political calendars for months.” “It could be anyone’s game and in a few hours we’ll finally know who emerges as the winner in Iowa.” As a result of all this pent-up media energy, a completely ridiculous system involving around 200,000 corn farmers will be blown totally out of proportion.
So just what is a caucus, anyway? The mainstream media have been doing these “So just what is a caucus, anyway?” pieces all week, but they are always done with this “aw, shucks” undertone. “Aw, those cute Iowans, meeting in each others living rooms, bringing cookies and pie and talking to their neighbors about politics. That’s the stuff of democracy.” The BBC America reporters covering the caucuses seem to get particularly swept away with the heady romance of good ol’ fashioned USA democracy in action.
But the Iowa caucuses have a dirty little secret: hardly anyone participates. Part of the romance around the early electoral states of Iowa and New Hampshire is that the people in these small, unrepresentative states take their duty seriously and are really engaged in the process. In Iowa, it turns out that’s just not true. Two million of Iowa’s 3 million residents are registered to vote, and of those only 150,000 Democrats and 80,000 Republicans are expected to participate in caucuses. That’s only about 12 percent of registered voters. So much for participation.
There are other issues with the Iowa caucuses that make them less the bastion of participatory democracy that they are portrayed to be.
- The caucuses begin at 7pm sharp. If you can’t be there at 7pm, you can’t participate. So anyone who has to work at 7pm (oh, let’s say nurses, police officers, bar and restaurant waitstaff, couples who can’t get a babysitter, the babysitters of couples who could get a babysitter, etc.) are left out in the Iowa cold.
- When you attend a caucus, you are asked to publicly choose which candidate you prefer, usually by physically moving to a certain area of the room. If your candidate does not garner 15 percent of the participants in his or her corner, you can either leave or move to one of the other groups. It is this “neighbors persuading neighbors” bit that’s always romanticized by the pundits, but what if one of the people doing the persuading is your boss? Or your minister? Or a party activist, promising you a spot at the state’s convention delegation if you come over to their side?
- Those initial counts — when everyone first says who they support — are not reported to anyone ever. It’s therefore possible for a candidate to come in third or fourth in the preferences of participants overall without anyone ever knowing it. For example, if you attend a caucus of 60 people a candidate must get at least nine supporters to be considered “viable.” So if six people support Dennis Kucinich, 27 people support Barack Obama, and 27 people support John Edwards, those six people in Kucinich’s corner will be asked to support another candidate. The fact that they initially supported Kucinich is never known by anyone. Multiply that across the 1,781 precincts in Iowa, and you’ll never know how many people in Iowa actually thought Dennis Kucinich would make a good Democratic presidential nominee.
- Forgetting all that nonsense for a moment, even after the Kucinich supporters in our example above move on to support, say, Obama, those vote totals are not reported either! So if there are 60 people in that room, the result coming out of that precinct is not “Obama: 33, Edwards: 27.” Those totals are plugged into a mathematical formula that no one ever explains! except to say “it’s reaaaallly complicated, Wolf!” That formula decides how many state delegates each of the two candidates in our scenario will receive (not national convention delegates; those are different). Our hypothetical precinct might have only three or four delegates, and that’s the only number that counts in the end of this “democratic” process.
My rule of thumb: if a system requires this much explanation, it’s probably not that good.
UPDATE: My mistake above. My post from 2008 was referencing the Democratic caucus rules. The GOP caucuses work differently. They do have a secret ballot, and there is only one vote with those raw vote tallies counted and reported. I was right about the participation rates though; they are abysmal.