Yes, Iowa matters, and no, it should not

On the day when Iowa will caucus, veteran WashPost political writer Dan Balz raises the question, “Does Iowa really matter? And should it?

My answer is, yes, it does. And no, it shouldn’t.

And my answer has nothing to do with those white people in Iowa or their relative political value. I object to the idea of anything as idiosyncratic, and as extremely partisan, as caucuses having such an outsized effect on our nomination process.

As Balz notes:

There’s no question that both the Democratic and Republican caucuses deny some people the opportunity to participate. Unlike a primary, when polls are open from dawn to dark, there is but one window for taking part in the caucuses. There are new provisions this year to make it easier to participate for some who otherwise might be unable to do so. But it is by nature limiting and, to those not closely aligned with their party, it can be intimidating and seemingly exclusionary….

And not just “seemingly.” Ruth Marcus puts her finger on the problem, too:

Welcome to my quadrennial rant against the caucus system. The theory is Norman Rockwell heartwarming: neighbors gathered in a communal enterprise of representative democracy. The reality is jarring, as illustrated by conversations with voters I encountered during a canvassing session with Sanders volunteers Saturday afternoon.

The unforgiving demands of the caucus system serve to intensify the voice of the parties’ most committed, and therefore likely most extreme, voters, as others are deterred by the seemingly arcane and time-consuming process. Meanwhile, caucuses disenfranchise nurses, firefighters and others working the night shift, although both parties took steps this year to offer some opportunity for members of the armed forces to participate….

Yeah, I’m concerned about those nurses and firefighters, yadda-yadda. But I tend to rant against the process in large part because it disenfranchises a guy like me.

There is no way I am ever going to attend a caucus, except to cover it (which I did, way back in 1980, in Arkansas). Attending caucuses is for partisans — and not only for partisans, but for the kind who are so into it that they don’t mind standing up at a public meeting and declaring themselves so, and actively advocating for one candidate or another in front of their neighbors.

So, yeah: It’s yet another thing, alongside the way we reapportion districts, that pushes our politics more toward the extremes.

At least, that’s the usual effect. This year is weird. This is one year in which it might be a good thing for some party regulars to show up and steer the process back toward the mainstream a bit. But even the possibility that that could happen doesn’t reconcile me to the process. The fact that I would, even for a moment, think of party regulars as part of a solution to a problem just shows how far gone we are this year.

I could go on about all the reasons caucuses are horrible, but I don’t have to, because I already did, in this column back in 2008

19 thoughts on “Yes, Iowa matters, and no, it should not

  1. Michael Bramson

    I think it’s partly a testament to how screwy the whole party system has become. Isn’t the idea of political parties supposed to be like-minded people coming together to agree on candidates and issues? In that sense, a caucus seems a great idea. But when you are more or less structurally obligated to have only two major parties, the primary/caucus system becomes half of the election, in which case you really need a proper primary vote. Perhaps if we had instant runoff voting or something similar, the extreme elements of either party could run their own candidates. Then caucusing with like-minded folks would make more sense.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      As you say, this is how the nation decides who will be on the ballot in November. This process must NOT be the private property of the parties. All of us have a huge stake in the outcome.

      This is how I arrive at my “radical” conclusion that not only should we have open primaries, as we do in SC, but everyone should be allowed to vote in BOTH of them…

      1. Michael Bramson

        I see where you’re coming from, but I think we need to rethink the entire process. If the parties — and by that I mean the people who consider themselves a part of that party, not necessarily just party leaders — don’t get to decide who their candidate is, then why bother having parties at all? What is the point of the primaries in that case?

        I think we should have an “instant runoff” vote, which eliminates most questions of “electability” or “spoiler” candidates. You don’t need to win a primary to get on the ballot, you just have to do what third party candidates already have to do: collect enough signatures and file the paperwork. Then, if a particular political group decides that they want to focus their energy on a single candidate, they can hold a primary to decide who it should be. If the loser doesn’t like it, they can still run in the general election.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Why bother having parties at all? I don’t know. I’d do away with them.

          I think we could still have primaries. They’re sort of warm-up, preliminary, winnowing elections, to narrow down the choices we all face on Election Day in November. They give us more of a deliberative process, more opportunity for discernment. For that reason, they are useful. And that usefulness has little to do with parties.

          OK, now I’m going to do a 180 again… ON THE OTHER HAND…

          David Broder, whom I greatly respected even though I disagreed with him on this matter, used to say that the problem with our politics wasn’t the parties; it was that the parties didn’t play ENOUGH of a role in the process. He said we had gotten to this point where anybody who got the notion into his head (and could come up with the money) could run for office without having to prove himself or work his way up to it.

          He argued that the parties were devices for conferring legitimacy. They answered the question that old party bosses used to pose to newcomers: “Who sent you?” (The answer being, in the old days, “Joe from Precinct 19,” or something along those lines.)

          This year, we’ve got a number of candidates who were sent by no one; they just sent themselves. Neither Trump nor Cruz (whom all the Republicans he serves with HATE) nor Bernie would ever been sent for further consideration by any party functionary.

          Were Broder still with us, he’d be driving that point home now…

          1. Michael Bramson

            To your second point, is your position that Trump, Cruz, and Sanders shouldn’t even be allowed to run? Because the gatekeepers don’t like them? That’s a funny idea of democracy.

            To your first point, I would just say that you can’t get rid of parties. They will just come back. That’s the nature of freedom of assembly. Given that, I don’t think having a two-stage electoral system that ignores political parties is likely to be successful, nor does it make sense to shoehorn an open primary system (with people voting in both) into a system that was built up with political parties in mind. There are better means of electing leaders and there is copious political science literature on the relative merits of the various mechanisms of doing so.

  2. Phillip

    Just bear in mind that the last two GOP winners in Iowa were Huckabee and Santorum, so it’s not that pivotal.

    My prediction as of midday Monday: Cruz wins by a surprisingly large margin, with Trump only slightly ahead of Rubio. Cruz and Rubio come out of Iowa on the upswing, Trump is seen as underperforming.
    Clinton wins by more than expected on the D side.

  3. Doug Ross

    Why hasn’t one of the parties just said “No more Iowa first”? Just skip them and pick a different, more diverse, more influential state. Every four years, the candidates trudge across Iowa extolling the greatness of ethanol, farm subsidies, and eating corn fed beef. Why? Because they have to.

    Pick a different state every four years to start with. One with a “normal” election. And be done the foolishness.

    North Carolina, Colorado, or Missouri would be good starting points for a Presidential election. Enough people to be meaningful, diverse enough politically.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The devil’s advocate answer to that is that, hypothetically, early contests in smaller states give us a chance to see how the candidates do in relatively low-stakes, retail-politics venues, before the campaigns go national.

      Like trying out a play in New Haven before it goes to Broadway.

      Except… that’s not the way it works anymore. Nowadays, by the time you get to these early contests, you’ve had a year of wall-to-wall coverage by media that are starved for content. It hasn’t been possible to give your candidacy a tryout off-Broadway since the advent of 24/7 cable TV “news.”

  4. Karen Pearson

    I usually vote in the republican primary, in order to have a say (however minute) in who SC is going to vote for come election day. However, this year’s most popular candidates are people for whom I could not vote, ever. This year I may vote in the democratic primary because I think my vote might make a difference there.

    1. Doug Ross

      Do you REALLY think your vote in the Republican primary could ever impact the results? If you’re voting for the most liberal Republican, it won’t make a difference.

      I suppose I could skip the Republican primary and vote for Sanders because I’d prefer him over Hillary every day of the week and twice on Sunday… but what’s the point? I’m not voting in either because the only candidate I would ever support hasn’t got a chance – Paul.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I never thought I’d say this to anyone, but you should go ahead and vote for Paul.

        The only way you can GUARANTEE that things won’t go your way is if you don’t vote.

        I’ll be voting in the Republican primary, as usual, and while my candidate probably won’t win, I think it’s important that everyone who doesn’t want to see Trump or Cruz nominated should get out and add to the numbers of Bush, Rubio, Christie or Kasich.

        Actually, the best thing would probably be if Bush, Rubio, Christie and Kasich get together and put ONE of them number forward, and the rest drop out. That would pose the best chance of a rational option emerging.

        Eventually, something like that will probably happen, if only by attrition. Your vote for one of those more sensible candidates will help determine which one emerges. So even if your candidate only comes in third, you’ve helped affect the eventual outcome…

        1. Doug Ross

          My time is too valuable to me to waste on a meaningless vote. Although if Bernie is close, I would consider voting for him. I won’t ever vote for the best worst candidate.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            You mean, the least bad candidate? Your vote is needed when the choice is between not great and truly awful — arguably, your vote is needed more then than it is when there are two good candidates.

            1. Doug Ross

              Once you get beyond Rand Paul, they are all the worst for me. None of them will do anything I would want from a President: limit defense, simplify tax system, enforce immigration laws

  5. Bart

    I could care less about the Iowa caucus. Where is Kathryn? I know I was not active for a long time and may have missed something but just wondering where she is and if everything is okay.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Kathryn’s fine, just taking a break from blogging.

      I will continue to endeavor to make this a site no one can bear to take a break from, and hope to see Kathryn rejoin us soon…

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