Last weekend, a drove of Democratic presidential hopefuls descended on Iowa for two days of voter contact. The lure was Sunday night’s Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, where each of the 19 candidates was given five minutes to perform a monologue before Iowa’s Democratic Party elite.
With an estimated 200 journalists and 1,500 activists on hand, contenders seized the opportunity to flaunt their Iowa spirit. They careened between marches, meet-and-greets and media interviews. They brought in sign-spinners and food trucks, hosted picnics and held jam sessions. Who knew Pete Buttigieg played the keyboard?
Iowans insist on personal attention from candidates, and this crop of contenders, some of whom have been working the state for months, understands what’s at stake in the first contest of the presidential nominating season. It is yet another reminder of how special Iowa politics are — and of why it’s past time to end the state’s outsize and unwarranted influence.
Hating on the Iowa caucuses has become a cliché. As the familiar refrain goes: The state is too old, too rural and far too white to wield such clout. This is a cliché because it is true. Demographically speaking, the Iowa electorate looks about as much like the face of America as does the Senate Republican conference. Which says a lot.
Iowa’s caucuses are mind-numbingly convoluted and anti-democratic, favoring the most motivated, well-organized few over the less-obsessive majority. More fundamentally, granting one state — any state — a perennial lock on the pole position of presidential voting fosters a sense of entitlement resulting in a quadrennial parade of pandering that borders on the absurd. Ethanol subsidies? Seriously?
Beyond the particulars of Iowa, caucuses are problematic. Compared with primaries, they tend to be less inclusive and more complicated, resulting in much lower participation rates. In 2016, less than 16% of Iowa’s eligible population participated in its caucuses. In New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary, the participation rate was over 52%.
Looking to address caucus-related concerns raised in 2016, the Democratic National Committee urged state parties to switch to primaries for 2020 and instructed those that didn’t to find ways to make their caucuses more inclusive and transparent. Almost all caucus states made the switch. Iowa did not. And its new system is even more complex than the old one — I dare you to study the details — and no matter how many participate in its new virtual gatherings, the results will count for only 10% of total voters.
Defenders of the Iowa-first system typically fall back on a couple of arguments. One, that keeping the focus on Iowa promotes an old-fashioned, hands-on brand of retail politics that doesn’t rely on big money or celebrity the way campaigning does in larger states. Because of this focus on personal interaction, Iowa voters can get the true measure of a candidate in a way not possible with campaign ads or big rallies.
Please. Who’s to say that the true measure of a candidate can — much less should — be determined by a talent for one-on-one schmoozing? Or on how willing a campaign is to sink insane amounts of time and money into a small, unrepresentative state?
What’s more, Iowa has a mediocre track record at picking winners, particularly on the Republican side, where the state’s top pick has gone on to claim the nomination only twice in six contested races since 1980 (Bob Dole in 1996, who lost the general, and George W. Bush in 2000). On the Democratic side, Iowa’s top choice has become the nominee in seven out of nine contested races since 1972 but won the presidency only twice: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Obama in 2008.
Some fret that if Iowa loses its role as kingmaker, the process will wind up dominated by megastates like California, Florida and Texas, benefiting candidates with massive bank accounts or near-universal name recognition. Poppycock. There are several alternative plans, such as rotating regional primaries.
Iowa is a lovely state with many fine qualities, but is it really so much worthier than Colorado or Nevada or Utah or any number of other states, whose electorates would surely enjoy being fawned over for a political season or two?