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Fear Iowa: Understanding the Importance of the Caucuses, Even When They Don't Technically Matter PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Wednesday, 12 December 2007 02:36

Reader issue #663 Does it matter which presidential candidates win the Iowa caucuses on January 3?

Iowa is a small state, and its delegates to the national convention are relatively insignificant, and the translation of caucus results into delegates is so arcane and elongated that you probably won't recognize what comes out as related to what went in.

Okay, so national-convention delegates aren't the main object anyway. But even taking into account special circumstances - such as Tom Harkin running for president in 1992, and races in which incumbents are up for reelection - the caucuses have been wrong nearly as often as they've been right in picking the eventual presidential nominees of their parties.

George McGovern finished second in 1972 - the year the modern caucus process started - and still won the Democratic nod. When Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, he finished second in the Iowa caucus to "uncommitted." George H.W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan in the 1980 caucus. George H.W. Bush finished third in Iowa in 1988 and won the presidency that year. Michael Dukakis finished third in the 1988 caucus and won the Democratic nomination. Bill Clinton took third place in Iowa in 1992, with 3 percent; Harkin won 76 percent.

And other states are trying to increase their impact on the nomination process by moving up their primaries, threatening Iowa's status, with New Hampshire, as the critical first tests for candidates.

Of course, the Iowa caucuses do matter - that's why we see so much of the candidates - but not in an easy-to-define way. The caucuses are the semi-official beginning of the presidential-campaign story - they set the tone.

Because Iowa's influence is not quantifiable - because it's drawn from perception as much as anything else - it can't be easily supplanted. As long as the candidates fear Iowa - fear that ignoring the state might be disastrous to their campaigns - Iowa has nothing to fear.

And the irony of the movement to compress the nomination process is that it could serve to increase Iowa's influence rather than undermine it.


The Process

The caucus process can be intimidating to people because it's so different from voting in a typical election. It's a precinct-level party meeting, with a lot going on besides gauging presidential preference.

The first step toward participation is to determine the caucus location for your precinct. (There are nearly 2,000 precincts in Iowa's 99 counties, and more than 60 in Scott County.) Local caucus locations are available at the parties' Web sites: ( and ( To find your precinct, visit (

People who will be eligible to vote by the November 4, 2008, election can participate at a caucus in the precinct in which they live. You must be a declared member of the party with which you caucus, but you can register or change your registration at the caucus site.

The Democratic caucuses begin at 6:30 p.m. on January 3, and the Republicans start at 7 p.m. You must be on-time to participate.

A number of things happen at the start of the caucus - such as the election of a permanent chair for the meeting - and soon thereafter is the presidential-preference polling.

The Republican preference poll is done by secret ballot - a straw poll of people in the room. The results of the poll are sent to the state party, which releases them to the media gathered at the Polk County Convention Complex.

The Democratic process is more public and involved. Participants organize themselves into preference groups for candidates. Candidates are then determined to be viable (with more than 15 percent of participants) or nonviable. At that point, supporters of nonviable candidates can join to form a viable bloc for one candidate, or they can join an already viable group. Hence, the Democratic process takes into account some participants' secondary preferences.

It's critical to understand that with the Democrats, the results reported to the state party and then to the media (at the Polk County Convention Complex) do not represent the preferences of voters in a one-person-one-vote way; they are instead the delegates to county conventions, which are apportioned based on the sizes of the final preference groupings.

"The Democratic results are certainly not as clean as the Republicans' are," said Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University.

Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said the aim of the Democratic process is "to minimize the fragmenting of the vote into lots and lots of little pieces. The main goal of this whole thing is to create a consensus behind one candidate."

Goldford said the Democratic structure is an "exercise in citizen democracy, even though most people don't show up." Participants must publicly state their preferences and try to convince other people to join them in supporting a candidate.

The polling is the part of the process that most people - and the media and the candidates - care about. After that, most people leave the caucuses.

But the caucus event isn't over. Delegates need to be nominated and elected for the county conventions, and participants also discuss and vote on planks to the party's platform.

The preference numbers mean very little in either party, technically speaking. The people elected as delegates aren't necessarily supporters of the candidates who performed well.

"You can probably expect that the voting delegates that are chosen ... will somewhat reflect that [poll] result, but it doesn't have to," said Bryan Sievers, chair of the Scott County Republican party.

At the county conventions, delegates are elected to the district conventions, and at the district conventions, delegates are elected to the state convention, and there, delegates are elected to the national convention.

"Nobody but Iowa cares about what happens after January 3," Covington said. "It's irrelevant. ... By the time the state convention is held [in June], we already know who the winner is, and so the losing candidates will often release their delegates anyway."

The importance of the caucuses lies with the participants' presidential preferences rather than national delegates. The caucuses are "a poll taken to determine where each of the presidential candidates stand in Iowa that one particular night," Sievers said. "We know and understand that a lot will change between the Iowa caucuses and our county, district, state, and national conventions ... . Things will change."

The caucus' role is agenda-setting, Sievers stressed: "It determines front-runners in the race, at least here in Iowa."


The Story

The presidential election comes down to a counting of electoral votes, but the nomination process is a narrative.

"The nomination process rolls on over time, and so early events affect later events," Covington said. "It's the passage of time that allows a narrative to be created."

Iowa gets the story rolling. "It's [important] because of the momentum that it gives to the later races, the way it shapes the later race," he said. "If you do poorly in Iowa - particularly if you do poorly compared to expectations - then you fall into a hole, and you have to climb out of that hole. And, on the other hand, if you do better than expectations, then you get a boost."

The conventional wisdom says that a candidate needs to finish in the top three in Iowa to be viable, but it's not nearly so simple. Howard Dean finished third in 2004, but he was the presumed front-runner in Iowa, and his campaign never recovered.

That's where the press comes in. "How does the media frame the stories it writes about you?" Covington said. "Are you this shiny new comet of a candidate blazing across the sky, or are you this broken-down horse that is falling apart as the race gets going?"

"The media will decide who the presidential nominee will be," said Ramona Oliver, communications director for Emily's List, which is focusing its get-out-of-the-vote efforts in favor of Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus. (See sidebar below.) "It depends how the media decides to play" the race.

It's all about perception. A candidate who doesn't meet expectations in Iowa might find it harder to get people to donate money, or to volunteer. "There's kind of a multiplier effect that Iowa has," Covington said.

"The results of the Iowa caucus aren't always about who wins," Sievers said. "It's about who exceeds expectations. And then secondly, who falls far short of expectations. There'll be a winnowing effect of candidates who don't perform well."

"Iowa doesn't pick the winner - never has, at least on the Democratic side," Covington added. "Really, what Iowa does is cull out the losers. ...

"Iowa structures people's perception of who's strong and who's weak from that point forward."

But casting the state merely as the opening bell of a contest ignores one critical element that makes both Iowa and New Hampshire ideal for kicking off the campaign: their size. Candidates can engage in person-to-person campaigning in both states, and their modest populations make it relatively inexpensive to explore a run at the presidency. The pool of candidates is larger with Iowa and New Hampshire at the front, and candidates can parlay a good finish in Iowa into campaign contributions that will help them compete in states with larger media markets.

"It's not picking the president," Goldford said. "What the caucuses do on both sides is give the campaigns a chance to take their candidates, their messages, their organizations, out on a test drive, and see how they're doing, and discover unexpected strengths and unexpected weaknesses.

"It provides that initial story of how ... we assess relative support among candidates early on by real people as opposed to pollsters."

The caucus process, Covington said, "does demand thought. It does demand effort and deliberation on the part of the voters."

"Iowa and New Hampshire have been in this position because of their voters," concurred Sievers. "We tend to be very involved and engaged in this process.

"Iowa has done an awful lot to ensure that the way in which we identify some of the front-runners in the race will serve the rest of the voters well throughout the nation," he added.

But the caucus process - so much more involved than stepping into a voting booth - comes at the expense of higher participation. Less than 6 percent - roughly 125,000 people - of eligible voters participated in the 2004 Iowa caucus, according to a report by The Century Foundation ( "Caucuses, as opposed to primaries, by their very structure violate fundamental principles of voting rights," the report states. "Their time-consuming, inflexible, Byzantine procedures discourage broad participation, presenting substantial barriers to the right to vote."

"To the extent you want people participating in a democracy, then a caucus is a costly price to pay for that deliberation," Covington said.


Crowding Out Iowa

Iowa's power does not sit with its delegates but in its place at the front of the nomination process. As Goldford said, "The caucuses are not first because they're important. They're important because they're first."

A handful of states moved their primaries into January this year, prompting Iowa to movie its caucuses even earlier.

The two dominant parties have tried to curb the compression of the nomination process. The national Democratic party stripped Michigan and Florida of their convention delegates for scheduling their primaries for January 15 and January 29, respectively. (Party rules forbade states except for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina from scheduling their primaries/caucuses prior to February 5 in this election cycle.) The national Republican party sanctioned five states - New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan, and Wyoming - for violating party rules and cut half of their delegates.

Covington said the punishment isn't meaningful if, by moving earlier, the states have more influence on the outcome of the process. "Who cares about any one state's delegates, compared to if they really affected the dynamic of the race?" he asked.

"There's an essential problem that won't go away," Goldford said. "The national parties ... can attempt to persuade or cajole or on the other side threaten state parties into holding primaries and caucuses on a particular day and in a particular order, but what they cannot do constitutionally and legally is require them to hold them a certain date. And that's the difficulty."

"For the states, it is a chicken game," Covington said, "because the states clearly do believe that when push comes to shove, the parties will give them their delegates."

Goldford agreed, saying that the parties can't afford to alienate their members. "The problem there ... is you're angering people whose support you're going to need in the fall election," he said.

While it's unlikely that Iowa would allow any state to hold a primary before its caucus, the trend toward compression could have several unintended consequences. If primaries and caucuses are stacked close together, there's no time for the traditional development of a campaign - for performance to affect (positively or negatively) a candidate's fundraising fortunes.

This year, almost half the states will hold their primaries on February 5 - a mere month after the Iowa caucuses - making it the largest "Super Tuesday" ever.

It's possible that a dark-horse or underfunded candidate could do particularly well in Iowa, and get momentum, but compression could prevent that from being translated into campaign contributions that would help in other states. "There wouldn't be any time for what happened in Iowa and New Hampshire to have an effect," said Arthur Sanders, a professor of political science at Drake University.

That would diminish Iowa's ability to provide "an opportunity for some relative unknown to catapult into the race," he said.

The result of a highly compressed process, Sanders said, would be that only well-heeled candidates - such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - would truly benefit from strong performances in Iowa. "You wouldn't see the Richardsons and the Bidens and the Dodds still hanging on because they still think that they can use the process," Sanders said.

Goldford added that the trend toward compression actually gives Iowa even greater power in determining nominees. "The way to diminish the impact of the caucuses is to stretch out the length of the nomination system," he said. "But when you front-load everything ... that merely increases the significance of the caucuses, because people who stumble don't have time to recover, and people who do well don't have time to reveal additional flaws that may not have come out during the caucuses."


Real Threats to Iowa

Unlike the parties - whose sanctions have clearly not deterred states from trying to encroach on Iowa's importance - candidates can help Iowa maintain (or lose) its power.

"Do the candidates buy into the state moving up to the front?" Covington asked. He noted that the Democratic candidates have agreed to not campaign in Michigan and Florida. "If the candidates won't compete in a state, then that state isn't likely to have much effect," he said.

But, he added, it's possible that agreement could collapse. "Those two states are betting that when push comes to shove, they [the candidates] will come to their states and compete and campaign," he said.

That points to the circular nature of Iowa's influence. Candidates come to Iowa because Iowa has power. And Iowa has power because candidates spend so much time and money here. "As long as the candidates say, ‘We think of Iowa as being the most important. We think of Iowa as being the place we put our time and money,' Iowa will stay important no matter what the other states do," Covington said.

"You don't look at the numbers" of delegates, he added. "You look at the impact that a state has on the rest of the race. How does Iowa and how does New Hampshire affect the shape of the rest of the race? And as long as the candidates believe that Iowa and New Hampshire will significantly structure the way the rest of the race will be contested ... they will continue to give Iowa and New Hampshire a privileged place. The day that they're convinced that they can ignore Iowa and New Hampshire ... and win the nomination is the day that Iowa and New Hampshire will no longer be important."

"If candidates simply decided that Iowa didn't matter, then Iowa wouldn't matter," Goldford said. "There's nothing inherent in the caucuses that makes them matter. It's that they're invested with significance by the press and by the candidates."

A real threat to Iowa's status, though, would be if it contributed significantly to poor candidates consistently getting their parties' nominations, or if there ceased to be a significant correlation between the results of the caucuses and the remainder of the nomination process.

A candidate finishing poorly in Iowa and winning the party's nomination "would be a body blow to Iowa," Covington said.

The state's future role will depend on "how big the train wreck is" in 2008, Goldford said.

He noted that John Kerry's surprise win in Iowa in 2004 was a key factor in his performance in later states and in his eventual nomination. Yet "by April people had started to have buyer's remorse about Kerry on the Democratic side," Goldford said. "But by that point it was too late; that ship had sailed."

If deeply flawed candidates are regularly nominated, he said, that could give momentum to dramatic reform of the nomination process - which could displace Iowa in favor of states that better reflect the country as a whole.

But there will also be a resistance to change, in the sense that the winner of the election would likely prefer the status quo. "The party that wins the presidency probably by definition wouldn't have a huge interest in changing the procedure," Goldford said.


"You Take Your Chances"

The difficulty in generalizing about the Iowa caucuses is that each one is different. The caucus is perceived as essential on the Democratic side this year because all the major candidates are working the state hard. On the Republican side, the early favorite for the nomination, Rudy Giuliani, hasn't campaigned as hard in Iowa as his GOP rivals.

That has had a ripple effect, Sanders said. "So other candidates are choosing other places to make their first stand, because knocking Guilliani off in Iowa wouldn't have the same effect as knocking Clinton out in Iowa would have on the Democratic side."

But candidates skip - or de-emphasize - Iowa at their peril, Sanders said. The key is to have a credible excuse why Iowa isn't a good measure of a candidate's support.

In 1992, nobody paid much attention to Iowa, with George H.W. Bush running for reelection and Iowa favorite son Harkin running on the Democratic side. Harkin won handily, but it didn't matter.

McCain didn't bother working Iowa in 2000, Covington said, because of his opposition to ethanol, but the ploy didn't work.

Covington said that a McCain nomination "would have been a devastating blow to Iowa as the first state in the nation. But McCain didn't do well. He didn't win the nomination. So that reinforces the notion that Iowa is important in choosing who is going to win and who is going to lose."

This year, Sanders said, Giuliani's excuse is that his relatively liberal record on social issues wouldn't play well in Iowa, where social conservatives dominate.

This again points to the circularity of the process in Iowa. Giuliani's campaign is tempering expectations for his Iowa performance, thus claiming that a poor finish won't be lethal. It's all about perception and expectations.

Hillary Clinton famously debated whether she should campaign heavily in Iowa but finally decided to devote resources here. Sanders said that choice was a function of not having any reasonable excuse.

Oliver said that Emily's List considered focusing its efforts for Hillary Clinton on the February 5 states, but eventually decided to focus on Iowa. "Our thought had actually been ... that we should not play in Iowa. We should hold back," she said.

But the group fretted that a poor Iowa performance for Clinton would be a hard thing from which to recover. "The only thing that could happen would be that by not doing well enough in Iowa, you'd see erosion" in Clinton's support in other states, she said.

"The question becomes whether or not you have a credible answer that people believe you when you say [why] you skipped Iowa," Sanders said. "Here's a reason the Iowa caucuses aren't a good test for me."

Al Gore tried to focus on Super Tuesday states instead of Iowa and New Hampshire in 1988, but Dukakis had too much momentum by the time those major primaries came around. "It was a disaster" for Gore, Sanders said.

The lesson, he said, is that as flawed and problematic as the Iowa caucuses can be, it's unwise for candidates to bypass them: "You take your chances."



Not Just Your Friendly Neighborhood Gathering


The Iowa caucuses are often portrayed as community gatherings and models of democratic deliberation, but one organization's effort to get people to participate undermines that image.

Emily's List - the national group whose sole goal is to get pro-choice Democratic women elected to office - doesn't want to convince anybody to support Hillary Clinton. It simply wants her existing supporters to participate in the caucus.

"We're in the kind of fortunate position of not needing to grow her support, but needing to mobilize existing support," said Maren Hesla, director of the Women Vote program at Emily's List.

She started with a list of Democratic women who voted in the 2006 general election in Iowa (roughly 160,000) and removed those who caucused in 2004, leaving her with a universe of 124,000 people. Approximately 100,000 of those had phone numbers listed on their registrations. Emily's List called each of them, and took out everybody who identified with a candidate other than Clinton. That left 70,000 people that Emily's List is targeting for the caucuses.

Emily's List then conducted a Web survey, and found that Clinton's support was stronger among women who weren't sure if they were going to caucus than those who were very likely to participate on January 3.

Among likely caucus participants, Maren said, "what you see is a race that looks a lot like the race looks like in all the polls," with Clinton at about 30 percent. Among those less likely to participate, she said, "Clinton's at 51 percent - a huge increase of her support."

So the challenge becomes getting those people to the caucus sites. "If we mobilized 5,000 to 10,000 women, I'd consider it a huge success," Maren said. "I'm very clear-eyed about how hard it is to get people who haven't caucused before to caucus."

She added that "the number-one reason that people said they weren't likely to caucus is they don't understand the caucus process."

So Emily's List created (, which explains the process and includes video features such as "Caucusing can be fun!"

Maren said the idea behind the online campaign was to cut through the glut of traditional-media advertising.

She also said that Emily's List will measure its success by matching the list of caucus attendees against its list of targets.

But this tactic might only work for Hillary Clinton, said Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. People are very familiar with Clinton because of her time as First Lady and in the U.S. Senate, so there are few people who don't have an opinion on her. "You can't grow the pie with Hillary Clinton ... but you can do that with Obama," he said. "You can do that with Edwards. ... So when your piece of the pie is pretty well fixed, as it is for Hillary Clinton, then what you have to do is make sure everybody on your slice comes out and votes."

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