People don’t change when they see the light. People change when they feel the heat. Same will be true with the Iowa caucus, which became a four-letter word last week. It should not be modified. It should be scrapped in favor of a primary. And not just because it had an app problem. It’s because the Iowa caucus system is fatally flawed.
Prior to 1831, presidents were nominated by a caucus of their party’s members of Congress. That year, the defunct Anti-Masonic Party didn’t have a member of Congress, so they held the country’s first nominating convention which the other parties then adopted within months.
The national convention delegates continued to be nominated by poorly regulated and easily manipulated state caucuses or conventions.
The first presidential primary was caused by Theodore Roosevelt’s battle to wrestle the Republican nomination from sitting president William Howard Taft in 1912. Roosevelt had the popular support, but Taft controlled the party.
Roosevelt’s proposal was to elect convention delegates as opposed to them being appointed by politicians. Taft nonetheless won the nomination, Roosevelt bolted and ran as the candidate of the short-lived Bull Moose Party, but both lost to Woodrow Wilson in the general.
However, primaries were an improvement as they gave ordinary people a voice. As such, most states adopted them before 1950.
But not Iowa. They stuck with caucuses, except for 1916, when they tried a state-run primary. They gave that up after that one try because turnout was low and the expense to the state was high.
After the 1968 election, Democratic Party leaders spread out their presidential nomination calendar. Iowa, because of its complex process of precinct caucuses, county conventions, district conventions and a state convention, started early.
In 1972, the Iowa Democratic caucus even moved ahead of the New Hampshire primary and George McGovern’s high finish gave him the momentum to capture the nomination. Jimmy Carter used the Iowa springboard, as did George H.W. Bush to finish high enough to end up as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. The Iowa caucus has been a legend ever since.
But there are long-known problems, the most central of which is that Iowa not only isn’t representative of the entire United States, but that the Iowa caucuses don’t represent the views of Iowa voters either.
Few people participate. The setup doesn’t allow absentee mail-in ballots or early voting. Participants must show up by 7 p.m. on a given evening and plan to spend three or fours hours there.
In fact, it appears only 27 percent of registered Democrats participated last week.
And then there’s the convoluted calculation of the caucus votes.
Iowa gets 49 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Eight of these are superdelegates selected by the party but aren’t eligible to vote on the convention’s first ballot.
Then 27 of the remaining 41 pledged delegates are distributed to the four Iowa Congressional Districts (five to eight delegates each) which are then, in turn, distributed to the caucuses. On what basis? I don’t know.
The remaining 14 are divvied among candidates based on caucus results from throughout the state determined after the caucus votes are in.
Unfortunately, I find no easy explanation of the basis of how state delegate equivalents are allocated to caucuses. I’m sure it’s logical, but if I can’t find it after a few hours of hunting, then I assume the typical participant can’t either.
So, the fact there’s not an easily explainable relationship between caucus votes and state delegate equivalents, the fact caucus goers aren’t representative of Iowans, and the fact Iowa is not representative of the nation, leads me to conclude the whole thing should be scrapped in favor of a primary.
And then primaries should be rotated among states, so an out-sized emphasis is not placed on an unrepresentative caucus state.