For caucusing

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

State party leaders say that Iowa’s caucuses will remain first in the nation after the Democratic National Committee last week rejected a virtual online caucus to be held in conjunction with the physical caucuses. But it is clear that the DNC wants to eliminate the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, and any other state, which probably means we can’t stay first forever.

The reason Iowa is first is precisely because it is a caucus state. New Hampshire and South Carolina conduct primary elections. The Clintons have never liked Iowa’s pre-eminent position because they think it is too liberal and, they say, because it limits accessibility. Indeed, it is tough for the elderly and disabled, or evening workers, to trudge through a February night to a school or church basement to argue over candidates for a couple hours. The DNC wants to phase out caucuses in favor of primaries, which likely means Iowa would not go first. The Granite State would. Or California or New York. The entire calendar could be turned upside down, and not for the benefit of the party or the country.

Iowa and New Hampshire are good starting states because they are not in major media markets, and they are relatively small. An unknown like Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama can get a nice launch from Iowa without having all the money of a Clinton or a Gore or a Biden. Candidates can go into the small towns and make a name for themselves without getting carpet bombed by opposing TV ads. The state is among the most literate, is purple and follows politics keenly. Its electorate is too white to be representative, as is New Hampshire’s, but Nevada and South Carolina are quick antidotes.

Caucuses by their nature force candidates to build more elaborate organizing structures that can reach every likely attendee precinct-by-precinct. Hence, by the time Obama won Iowa he had built an organizational bulldozer that could be templated in all 50 states. It’s a big part of why he won.

Primaries, by contrast, concentrate more on advertising and messaging than grassroots organizing. They also do not give voters the opportunity for give-and-take like a caucus does, a precinct meeting where neighbors are forced to consider each others’ views in a moderated setting. It builds the civic life. It builds the party. A vote behind the curtain is an isolated act, sacred and inviolate in a general election. That secret ballot is not essential in a nominating setting, where party members are supposed to argue it out. Some might view the caucus as an anachronism; some see it as the very foundation of democracy going back to the Revolutionary War. It should not be discarded lightly, because it is inefficient or inconvenient.

The DNC said that Iowa’s, and by extension Nevada’s, virtual online caucus system was not secure enough — as if the US election system is somehow superior or secure. Don’t buy it. The powers in DC don’t want Iowa first, they think the state has too much influence, and they would prefer that the money selects the candidate because that’s what fuels the DNC.

The Iowa Democratic Party had hoped to increase participation by 30% with the online caucus. We suspect that the software commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party would be at least as accurate as the Dade County Elections Office in Florida. The DNC now can use this against the Iowa caucuses in subsequent discussions — that the party is suppressing voter turnout, even if turnout from a primary would not be that much higher.

The caucuses probably will remain first this cycle as a practical matter. The campaigns have invested too much already. It’s too bad that the virtual caucuses were not allowed a pilot run to see how they might increase participation.

But if we lose our early spot on the calendar, there could be a side benefit: It would ratchet down the temperature of our politics a few degrees. The flood of money, disinformation and bad will would abate, and we might resume our neighborliness. Iowa is always at the center of national politics. It makes control of the statehouse and governorship an all-out game of destruction that is coarsening our civic discussion and leading us down empty lanes. But Iowa’s middling approach, informed citizenry, and sense of practicality continue to benefit the nation through the idiosyncratic caucuses. It would be a shame in that sense to lose them.

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