For the Iowa Caucuses


Possibly our favorite pundit, Mark Shields, has said more than once that the Iowa Caucuses are the best place to winnow the presidential field because we have the lowest abortion rate and the highest literacy rate in America. The reason Iowa is first is because we have caucuses closed to independents. New Hampshire follows a week later with open primaries. Each is a small state with stout activist bases, an informed electorate (Iowa has more newspapers per capita than anyplace in the world), and a level of accessibility to underdog candidates that New York and California do not offer. The two early states are perfect testing grounds.

Challenges are raised to the process every cycle. They come dressed in myriad outfits: a rigged system, a closed system, Iowa is too conservative or too liberal or too white, or the big states don’t get a voice in selecting the nominee. The last reason is the real reason complaints crop up, as they have this year.

Four years ago they were complaining about the Iowa Republican caucuses and the infamous straw poll at Ames. This year the Clinton squawkers don’t like caucuses and neither Bernie Sanders nor Donald Trump likes super delegates.

This year might be ripe for change, considering populist impulses on both sides of the spectrum. The Iowa Democratic Party is reviewing its caucus process. The Iowa Republicans are brushing it aside for now (perhaps until the national convention). It is important for Iowans to understand why we have caucuses, why the parties have bosses whose votes matter more, and why we deserve to be first.

Why first? The best answer is Barack Obama. By the way, he is not white. He stormed Iowa and out-organized the formidable Clinton machine from Storm Lake to Des Moines. Caucus-goers who were camped in a corner with the Joe Biden people or the Bill Richardson people were persuaded in South School to come over to the Obama people. It worked, enough for him to squeak out an improbable victory. The Illinois senator might not have prevailed in a primary where proxies were not able to state his case to the lesser camps with no hopes of a win. Plus, the issues are debated among the core of the party members that helps set the tone for the rest of the nomination season. It is arduous but healthy, focused on core activists and introducing new people to the party.

And that’s why we have caucuses.

Why super-delegates? Because political parties actually are clubs organized to put forward candidates of their ideology who can win, operating within election laws. Republicans have an interest in moderating their nominee to help win the White House and help candidates in down-ballot races. Chuck Grassley deserves a bigger voice than the average schmoe who gets his facts from the Internet because Grassley is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and his seat must be defended at all costs by Republicans nationally to retain their narrow edge of control. That’s why we have party bosses. Somebody has to set the agenda based on what the caucus-goers and wider polls are telling them. Political parties, like churches, are not democracies. Donors and incumbents must be heard over the occasional political participant. They remember 1968, or 1964. The voter who gets his news from Facebook will get his full say in November, when true democracy is in action.

But what about the big states not getting their say? New York clinched the nominations, essentially, for both Clinton and Trump. Bernie Sanders’ last great hope lies in California.

Is Iowa too liberal? We gave you Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Is Iowa too conservative? Trump and Cruz were in a close contest. George W. Bush, now considered a moderate neocon, did well in Iowa. The moderate Republican usually places second in Iowa, first in New Hampshire and ends up as the nominee.

Nobody can really say that Iowa is rigged. There are enough loudmouths in this state to make certain that no hanky panky goes on. That’s why the Iowa Democratic Party is reviewing this year’s caucuses because everybody thinks they got cheated. That usually means you are fairly well-balanced.

Caucuses are essentially Iowan. We come together as neighbors in schools and courthouses on a cold night and debate the issues. We urge our neighbors to go with us to support our candidate. We start the process of writing a platform that is forged over the coming months through New Hampshire, South Carolina and into the southern primaries. We elect delegates to county conventions, and then to district and state conventions. People get more involved in civic affairs by gathering for an hour or two on a Tuesday night. They get their blood boiling a little. The 21-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter gets his first public speaking gig. The old men in the crowd whisper him away but the youth gets a cluster around him. It is a beautiful thing to watch if you are truly interested in politics, civic affairs and good government.