Kish and I spent last night watching the news networks’ breathless coverage of the Iowa caucuses (“Tonight, America finally casts its first votes of 2016!”) and we came away with one overwhelming reaction: Iowa is weird. In fact, it’s very weird.
It’s not the people of Iowa who are weird, of course — it’s the process. Rather than trooping off to the private voting booths like the rest of us, Iowans employ a strange caucus system that requires you to leave your home at night in the dead of winter, sit in different corners of a church or hall, and yawn through speeches by supporters of the different candidates. This year, if you were a Republican caucusgoer, that meant enduring speeches by supporters of 11 different candidates before your vote is counted.
How many of us would put up with that appalling time-suck, and how many perfectly rational Iowans who would otherwise vote the normal way decide to skip the caucuses? The answer is: a lot. Even with all of the media hype about record turnouts for the caucuses, the fact is that only a fraction of the Iowans who vote in the general election participate in the caucuses.
But the caucuses are even weirder as a result of the 24-hour media machine. Last night we watched as reporters and cameras prowled caucus sites, shouldering their ways between voters and actually recording Iowans trying to convince each other to change their allegiances. Of course, most of us like the idea of casting a private ballot in a voting booth (or what passes for a voting booth these days) and would no more want a camera recording our every move as we exercised our franchise than we would want to watch a 24-hour marathon of Barney episodes. The caucus participants also were heavily “entrance-polled.” And at least some Iowans have become so wedded to the supposed importance of their caucuses that they say that the amount of time a candidate physically spends in Iowa is a factor in their ultimate decision — while others earnestly assure the rest of America that they take seriously their role as “first voters.” (Stay humble, Iowa!)
So let the pundits talk about how the Iowa caucuses are really a good way to start the process, because candidates need to get out and press the flesh and do “town halls” and eat with the locals at diners and rub elbows with the evangelicals at church. In reality, the demographics of the participants in the bizarre Iowa caucus process aren’t remotely representative of those of the rest of the country, and the caucus process itself no doubt exacerbates the discrepancy.
This year the caucuses will serve a useful purpose of winnowing out the fields; Martin O’Malley on the D side and Mike Huckabee on the R side both “suspended their campaigns” after dismal showings, and hopefully more faltering candidates on the overcrowded Republican side will throw in the towel, too. But don’t expect me to care too much about the results, otherwise. (Although, if I were a Hillary Clinton supporter, I’d be concerned that she barely beat Bernie Sanders and got less than 50 percent of the caucusgoers support after being the prohibitive, well-heeled favorite for months.) Let’s move on now to states where they hold real elections, shall we?