It’s Time to End the Iowa Caucuses

There’s been lots of grumbling in the media lately about the Iowa caucuses and the supposedly disproportionate role they play in the process of electing a president.

Because of their strange format, a small number of motivated activists in both parties can exert an outsized influence. Iowa’s overwhelmingly white population makes the state unrepresentative of a more multicultural America. And because they come so early, the caucuses can set the tone for the rest of the campaign, supposedly hurtling second-tier candidates to the front of the pack.

Exhibit A: 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama’s stunning victory in the Iowa Democratic caucuses landed a blow from which the vastly more experienced Sen. Hillary Clinton never recovered.

Actually Iowa has a decent track record of picking presidential candidates on the Democratic side: Six of the last nine Democratic presidential candidates won the Iowa caucuses, excluding unopposed candidates and “uncommitted” votes.

But on the Republican side, it’s a mess. Not counting unopposed incumbents, only two winners of the last five presidential caucuses went on to win the nomination (Gov. George W. Bush in 2000 and Sen. Bob Dole in 1996).

Former Sen. Rick Santorum campaigning in Iowa Monday. Photo:

Why? Because the Iowa GOP caucuses are said to be dominated by “social conservatives”—more accurately, evangelical Christians—who supposedly vote based on religious issues like abortion or gay marriage. That’s why candidates like Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson made strong showings there.

That usually doesn’t translate into the rest of the campaign, where that group of voters is disproportionately influential only in South Carolina.

No, the main problem with the Iowa caucuses is that they’re undemocratic and feed in to a media circus that makes our presidential campaigns too long, too superficial, and too expensive.

As CBS News’s Political Hotsheet reported in a thoughtful post, only “119,188 people participated in the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses. That’s about 20% of Iowa’s registered Republicans, 4% of the [state’s]  population, and .04% of the total US population.”

Hotsheet went on to say:

…The press’ focus on every twist and turn of the Iowa horse race takes the focus away from the candidates’ positions on issues and creates a distorted narrative in which candidates are often forced to spend weeks focused on winning a few thousand votes in an effort to win a trumped-up expectations game….

Very astute. The Beltway media are addicted to covering the horserace. The big guns from the networks and cable news are in Iowa, holding court at local bars and coffee shops and getting those all-important shots with the state capitol building in the background. Websites like Politico and the Huffington Post also are well represented.

How much money are they wasting on coverage that’s overwhelmingly speculative and worth about as much as Wall Street’s predictions about how the market will do in 2012?

I’ve been following the reports closely and have learned little for the hours I’ve put in. Local merchants and third-rate Iowa politicians also love the revenue that’s coming in and the undeserved attention they get every four years, so there are deep vested interests against making changes there.

But the right thing to do is to turn the Iowa caucuses into primaries and have both parties address the whole dysfunctional primary process. And maybe the media can show some judgment and self-restraint for a change.

I know that’s a pretty big challenge, but it’s nothing compared to what they’re going to face if the race is essentially over in a couple of weeks, which is very possible. But we’ll deal with that later.

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