Ignore Iowa; watch New Hampshire closely

David Broder’s column today reminds me of something I keep meaning to mention:

You know those Iowa caucuses today? You may have heard about them. Well, pay no attention to them if you are watching to see:

  • Which candidate has the strongest appeal among Democrats.
  • Which candidate has the strongest appeal among Republicans.
  • Which candidate has the strongest potential appeal for the general election in November.

Remember that these are caucuses, and only reflect the views of a very small minority in each party who are willing to attend a two-hour meeting and publicly declare, and argue for, their preferred candidate. It’s difficult to conceive of most voters being willing to do anything of the kind, and the turnouts at these caucuses have long borne that supposition out.

Who would attend such an event other than a few very vocal partisans, professional advocates of various stripes, and a few bloggers (and among bloggers, we’d be speaking only of those of you who have the guts to comment with your real, full names)?

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from what Mr. Broder had to say:

    The maddening thing about the caucus system, for candidates and outside observers as well, is that large and enthusiastic rally crowds tell you almost nothing about the dynamic of the decision-making. I have been dazzled this year, not only by the thousands who filled arenas in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to see Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama but by the turnouts of hundreds in high school gyms on freezing Friday nights in small towns such as Oelwein.
    Yet getting crowds to a rally or a town meeting is child’s play compared to getting them to caucus. In 2004, 1,506,908 people voted in Iowa in the general election for president. Turnout at the Democratic caucuses that year was estimated at 122,000. The biggest number ever for Republicans was 115,000 in 1980.
    That system empowers the activists and those with built-in organizational ties who can mobilize people to leave their homes for a couple hours on a weeknight and motivate them to declare a public — not private — preference for a candidate.
    On the Republican side, those networks belong principally to conservative Christian groups, anti-abortion organizations, home-school advocates and some economic interests.
On the Democratic side, organized labor and the teachers boast the best existing networks, but the main impulse is a broader populist tradition that tugs the Democratic Party of Iowa to the left…

Of course, you may be tempted to ignore Mr. Broder and me both, seeing as how he and I have a personal beef: Caucuses bar him and me from participating, because the canons of our profession bar us from such public participation in the process.

I was really ticked when I moved home to South Carolina in 1987 and found that in the following election year, only the Republicans were going to afford me a chance to participate in the winnowing process that takes us down to the two candidates left in the fall. That’s because the Democrats, probably influenced by the sorts of party purists who don’t want independents having a say, were choosing their delegates by caucuses. As the editor in charge (at that time) of The State’s political reporters, I couldn’t very well turn up at a party caucus and express a preference. So it was that I was disenfranchised.

But this is a much bigger problem than just Broder and me. I’ve noted over the years — and had the lesson emphasized by my blogging experience — that most citizens are extremely reluctant to surrender their anonymity as political participants, for whatever reason. So the caucus process intimidates them out of their franchise. Not to mention braver souls who nevertheless are too fastidious to participate so directly and publicly in a party function.

Primaries are bad enough as it is — they force us to choose one ballot or the other. Then, once we do, the party in question has the audacity to count us among its adherents as it proudly touts its turnout. I don’t know about you, but preference for one party or the other (as an UnParty man, I despise both equally) plays no role in which ballot I choose in a given election cycle. It’s purely a matter of which ballot offers a more critical choice, the choice most worth spending my one shot on.

What I just said is pretty straightforward to me, but in case it isn’t to you, I’ll explain: It may be that I prefer ALL of Party A’s candidates to any candidate in Party B. But I know that Party B’s nominee is just as likely to  be elected in the fall as Party A’s, and one of these people will almost assuredly become president for the next four years. And I have a preference among Party B’s candidates — perhaps a strong preference for one over ALL the others. So of course I will vote in Party B’s primary, where I believe I can make the most important difference. In the next election, presented with different candidates, I’m just as likely to choose Party A’s ballot, for the very same reasons.

Partisans take that equation and turn it on its head: They claim that people who are not their loyalists only vote in their primary to "sabotage" it, intentionally voting for the weaker candidate. Perhaps there are people who will do that, but I submit that they are as blindly, insanely partisan as their critics, a class of people who in my experience make up a small minority of the electorate. What sane person would cast a ballot for someone who, by virtue of becoming a party’s nominee, would have close to an even chance of being elected, if the voter believed that person could not do the job? Maybe they’d do it for dogcatcher, but for president of the United States? If a significant portion of the electorate would do that, we need to scrap this whole system of representative democracy.

Anyway, back to my original assertion: Mr. Broder’s right. Pay no attention to what happens in Iowa, unless all you care about is turnout organization (an important political skill, but nothing more than what it is). Watch New Hampshire for a real test of the candidates’ appeal among the electorate.

As for what happens in South Carolina, I won’t feel fully enfranchised until I’m allowed to vote in both primaries, and neither should you. With eighteen or so candidates running, you shouldn’t be forced to choose from among only half of them, as the decision is being made that will leave you with a choice in the fall between just one or the other. And too often, what’s left at that point is essentially no real choice for those of us who despise parties.

28 thoughts on “Ignore Iowa; watch New Hampshire closely

  1. James D McCallister

    None of should feel enfranchised until the MSM stops telling us in advance through “polling” who the top-tier candidates are, private organizations put on “debates” that do not include all candidates, et cetera.
    And a couple-hundred-odd thousand folks in Iowa and NH are allowed to decide who the “front-runners” are, so much so that most pundits agree that the race is essentially over after the first few primaries (including SC)? Doesn’t sound like any sort of fair and free democracy to me.
    It all makes me want to vote for Ron Paul just to send a message.

  2. Jenny Martin

    You could watch New Hampshire if you want but that isn’t going to tell most folks in SC anything about the candidates that we would prefer. A very liberal state all it is going to do is tell us who sides with labor unions and big businesses the best and who doesn’t have the strongest morals.

  3. Larry E. Creel

    There are numerous things skewed re: the caucus system but the good thing about it is that folks participating in them have to be informed about their candidate which informs those folks with other candidates. Public discourse is central to what an open society is about; even though it is sometimes biased and can get one’s blood pressure up. In states with no caucus system it is too easy to to vote or not vote for a candidate because of their sex, their race , or their haircut.

  4. Doug Ross

    > that most citizens are extremely reluctant
    > to surrender their anonymity as political
    > participants
    Most are reluctant to surrender their anonymity because it would require them to expose their ignorance, apathy, and bias.
    The average American voter has no clue about the positions of the candidates. The average American voter either: looks at what party a candidate belongs to, recognizes a name from a sign, or votes the way the leading talking head convinces them to vote.
    I’ve been through the process in my run for school board in 2002. The district held several candidate forums and the attendance was less than 50 people for those sessions (aside from the district office personnel who were required to attend). On election day, I stood outside various precincts during the day and was told by numerous voters who I had just met that they had voted for me. I could have been advocating segregated schools, sex education in kindergarten, or free drugs. It wouldn’t have mattered to some voters. They saw me, saw my name, and said, “Hey, I didn’t bother to pay attention to who’s running the school system last time, why should I care this time?” And who won? The three incumbents and a woman whose husband spent $25K to buy the most signs to litter the roads of Northeast Columbia.
    Iowa matters. Noone who has finished lower than third has ever won the nomination.
    Brad has a vested interest in saying it doesn’t matter because he needs to keep McCain relevant as his endorsement approaches. The fact that McCain may slip to 4th or 5th doesn’t help his personal cause. The question that we should be asking is why a candidate like John McCain, who has had two shots to make his case in Iowa, hasn’t been able to do so.
    Is the point that he can only succeed in an environment where the voters don’t care as much and only have to be repeatedly beaten over the head that he was a war hero 40 years ago to make him a viable candidate?
    Yes, let’s ignore Iowa. They think too much.

  5. zeke


  6. bud

    As a proud democratic partisan I would maintain that caucsuses are good. All states should have them. Just because journalists are too stupid to understand the process shouldn’t be justification for discarding them. All states should go to the caucus system just to annoy the media pundits. In the end we would bet better candidates.
    An open discussion, free from media interference, allows ordinary folks an opportunity to vent their thoughts in the open for all the hear. Frankly, if we had less, and I mean much less, media scrutiny the election process would be far better. This constant polling has become an end in itself that skews the whole process. Who gives a damn what Brad Warthen or David Broder think. They are just as partisan as anyone else, just in a different way.

  7. Richard L. Wolfe

    I have to agree with Doug. McCain is a war is a war hero. Well maybe he is but I fail to see how he is any more a hero than my brother Joe. My brother Joe was one of those sergeants that trained thousands of raw recruits to stay alive in Vietnam. He served three tours in Vietnam and only came home when an explosion that cost him his eye forced him to do so. The greater heroes are the 58,000 plus veterans who died in a thankless war.
    We shouldn’t vote for McCain because he is a war hero anymore than we should vote for Hillary because she is a woman or Obama because he is black. We are suppose to vote for president not the hero and chief.
    I can fully understand why McCain, Clinton and Obama would want us to think like Brad. When you strip away their special status all that is left is three mediocore senators who have done more damage to America than Bush ever dreamed of doing. That is why I am going to vote for a real American hero, Ron Paul a man cut from the same cloth as Washington, Jefferson and Adams.

  8. Tim Cottle

    Iowa matters and it should. Just as NH, SC and the states that follow will matter. A state has to be first. Why not a state that forces candidates to define who they are and what they stand for? Until now, I never quite appreciated or supported the caucus format. Having recently moved to Iowa from the Carolinas, I now see how it forces candidates to get close and personal and commit to their beliefs. Commercials and sound bites alone will not guarantee anything here. Iowans have come to expect a discussion of the issues and solutions. Voting is a privilege and should be entered into in an educated and informed manner. I have heard or met all of the major candidates. Doing so has taken time (well over two hours and more like 20 hours). This is time I have committed in order to be an educated voter. To spend an additional two hours tonight is a small price to pay for having the benefit of a caucus. All of those at the caucuses tonight will have the same commitment. Food for thought… is spending 3 hours at a football game, watching TV or a movie more important than choosing our president?

  9. weldon VII

    You won’t feel fully enfranchised until you’re allowed to vote in both primaries?
    Have you lost your mind? If everyone could vote in both primaries, the Democrats would vote for the least electable Republican and their favorite Democrat, and the Republicans for the least electable Democrat and their favorite Republican, which could very well result in a presidential race of the worst Democrat vs. the worst Republican in November.
    It’s one man, one vote, Brad. Not one man, two votes. Pick the party that has the candidate you like the most, vote in that primary, and live with the results.

  10. Brad Warthen

    It’s still just one vote, because the one that counts is in November. The primaries are about the winnowing process, and its utterly unfair to deny me the ability to participate in the winnowing. You end up with lose-lose propositions that way. The process needs to be wrested away from the extremists, so for once, independents will have two candidates in the fall who both have appeal, instead of two candidates who make sensible people who are not partisan loonies want to barf.

  11. Brad Warthen

    Now if I may, I’d like to point to something that argues against my premise:
    I think it’s very cool that we’ve got a dynamic going here now where people come to the blog and don’t mind giving their full names. That’s very encouraging. I think enough of our regulars have started doing it that relative newcomers see it as the thing to do — and they’re right; it IS the thing to do. (bud, weldon and zeke would be the exceptions that prove the new rule, I suppose)
    This is great. Thanks, folks.

  12. Richard L. Wolfe

    Brad, Since you are interested in full names. The L. stands for Lee, a great southern name. Unlike, most of the Johnie come lately, ” southern bloggers ” I have lived in this state all my life. I have read and listened to all the crap you transplants have spouted for more than 50 years. We, real southerners don’t care how you did it whereever you came from.
    I find it extremely rude to come into someone else’s house tell them how to run it. My family has done more in one year to make this a better place to live than many of you ever will. Until you deal with what I have to say you haven’t dealt with a southern perspective. But, that is o.k. I will still be here enjoying the most beautiful state in the nation long after you and the State newspaper are gone.

  13. bud

    The problem is with the two party system. It seems perfectly reasonable to me for a group of like-minded people to get together and decide which candidate they want to represent them in the general election. Somehow Brad finds this approach partisan. Ok, it’s partisan, so what. It seems reasonable that a party should only allow members to participate.
    What is troublesome is that only two parties are viable. Again, much of that has to do with the media’s approach to elections. If other parties were given equal time with the Dems and the GOP they would eventually gain a measure of respect. It would be a nice social experiment to see what would happen if the MSM would give exactly equal time to 3 or 4 minor parties in addition to the big 2.

  14. Richard L. Wolfe

    Bud, The media can’t give the 3 or 4 minor parties the same voice and coverage because the media is owned by the same people that own the two major parties. Why do you think Brad loves McCain? The purpose of the McCain/Fiengold bill was designed to limit speech. It is no accident that newspapers in Iowa, New Hampshire and Brad in S.C. have all endorsed McCain.

  15. bud

    The more I read about McCain the more sleazy he appears. Why for instance did he remain silent when Bush issued a signing statement suggesting the president does not have to comply with the torture bill he was signing? And why does McCain have more lobbyist contributors than any other candidate? These are two revelations that lead me to believe Senator McCain is hardly the ‘maverick’ that the MSM would have you believe.

  16. Harry

    For some reason, I think there is another reason underlying Brad’s advice to ignore Iowa. His favorite candidate stopped actively campaigning there a while back, and isn’t expected to do so well.

  17. weldon VII

    “The process needs to be wrested away from the extremists, so for once, independents will have two candidates in the fall who both have appeal…”
    That’s nice rhetoric, but the goal of the process is to elect a president, Brad, not placate people who doomed themselves to straddling the middle and wincing when their legs drift too far apart because they chose newspapering as a profession.
    It’s a party system, not an independent system. Republicans pick a Republican candidate, with the help of independents or even Democrats who choose to cross over for the primary. Democrats pick a Democrat with similar assistance. And if a significant third party comes along, whether it be Unparty, Libertarian, Green, Socialist, Whig, Tory or Nazi, it can get a place on the ballot, too.
    I myself don’t belong to a party, and I like to think of myself as an independent, but, unlike you, if I had two votes, I’d pick my favorite in one primary and a dog in the other, and I know I’d have plenty of company.
    The biggest problem I see with your view is you seem to be ignoring that the candidates don’t exist independent of party. When you vote for president, you’re picking a party to run the executive branch as much as you are a president. With a vote in each party primary, you’d effectively be picking both parties.
    I don’t deserve that opportunity, because it really doesn’t make much sense, and no matter how unpartisan you are, no matter how sincerely you’d try to pick your favorite candidate from either side of the aisle, neither do you.
    You and your editorial board get to endorse a candidate in each primary. Methinks you should be content with that.

  18. Brad Warthen

    Yeah, weldon, and I think all voters should get the same kind of input into the winnowing process that we on the editorial board get. It’s not a “party system” we have; it’s a constitutional republic. And the folks who drafted that constitution intended to give the authority to pick the president to the electoral college, NOT to political factions. To them, parties were anathema. Of course, on of the first things they did after ratifying said constitution was to split up into parties. But I attribute that to original sin, not the constitution.
    Richard L. — Friend, I don’t know where you think I “transplanted” from; I was born in Bennettsville. Or do you hold it against me that I HAVE traveled, and even lived, outside the state at certain points in my life. Personally, I thing travel is a good, educational thing, not a drawback. Maybe you think otherwise. Anyway, thanks for giving us that insight into where you’re coming from (Geez, you thank a guy for giving his name, and you get a nativist diatribe…)
    I was going to say something to somebody else, but I forget what it was now…

  19. Thanos6

    “It all makes me want to vote for Ron Paul just to send a message.”
    How about Kucinich? I am.
    Brad–Just because someone is extremely left (like me) or extremely right doesn’t mean they’re “partisan loonies.” And just because they’re in the middle and have “independent appeal” doesn’t mean they’re not wishy-washy.

  20. Richard L. Wolfe

    It’s not Bubba, Brad it is Richard. It can be friend if you start acting like the man you profess to be. You simply don’t understand me. I don’t care for the parties either. Weldon is right under the party system you don’t vote for the man you vote for the party. Bud is right we do need a 3rd and 4th party.
    I am not upset with you personally. I travel too and the more I travel the more I am proud of my home state. I do not go to other states and try and tell them how to run their state. What we are upset with is the game the media plays where they pretend to be helpless and innocent when it comes to shaping the public discourse.
    Finally, I am not a bubba stuck in the past.
    I am a red blooded american who is proud of his God, his state and his country.

  21. weldon VII

    Let’s see: Obama has won by eight points over Edwards in Iowa, one of the whitest places in America, with record turnout that nearly doubled the previous record, and Hillary finished third, a point behind Edwards.
    That’s hard to ignore, even if all Obama’s win means is that every registered African-American voter showed up at a caucus.

  22. Richard L. Wolfe

    Weldon, the thing about Obama is who he is not! He is not Jessie Jackson or Al Sharpton. He reminds me of a Bobby Kennedy without the guile. The thing is he is getting better on the job. It would not surprise me if he won the White House. If I had to handicap the race tonight he would be my odds on favorite to win it all. I keep trying to tell everyone that Guliani is the GOP best hope in this election. He is not my first choice either.
    The question is who is the lesser of two evils once again. Do you vote for the liberal democrat or the liberal republican?

  23. weldon VII

    I think you’ve got something there, Richard. There’s a lot in what Obama’s not.
    He’s not the same old Democratic song and dance, when Biden, Dodd, Edwards and Kucinich certainly are, and Clinton is by proxy.
    Of course, he’s not the guy I want to see win, either, because after fighting in Iraq for years, electing a rookie senator named Barack Hussein Obama makes absolutely NO sense to me.
    Were I to vote in the Democratic primary, I’d vote for Biden.

  24. Tim Cottle

    Posted yesterday for the first time. Attended the Iowa caucus (also for the first time as I am a recent transplant to Iowa) and at my precinct Obama had exactly 1/2 the vote of 184 voters. Edwards and Clinton split the remainder almost evenly. Observations – There was not an African American at my caucus location thus Obama is drawing from all races. Clinton camp was predominantly the over 50 crowd and the party leaders in the county heavily favored her. Obama had 90% of the voters under 20 and those that had never voted and were registering at the door. Obama had the most organized ground organization. Edwards had the support of local law enforcement and a mix of the remaining youth, professionals, labor and seniors. It would have been a dead heat had the youth not been energized and organized to get out and vote. Finally, there isn’t a lot of negativity for Obama but a little mostly from the Clinton camp, none against Edwards from anyone, and a ton against Clinton. She is not well liked even in her own party. She may be the only democrat that could lose the national election. Edwards would be a shoo in.

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