Iowa Is Weird

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.

usa-elections-iowa-caucusHow 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?

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Terrible Ted’s Voter Shaming

I’m one of those people who think Ted Cruz is not “likable.”  In fact, he looks and often sounds like the kind of guy who is so single-minded about succeeding that he would happily climb over the bodies of his former allies to get to the top.  Anyone who has gone to law school knows that personality type and shudders when they think of it.

twitterSo I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Cruz campaign in Iowa would do something like obtain voting data — which is available a matter of public record in Iowa — and then prepare individualized mailings headed “VOTING VIOLATION” and designed to look like official citations from state voting officials.  The mailing lists the name of the recipient and the percentage of times they have voted and gives them a “grade,” and — even worse — names the recipient’s neighbors and gives their voting percentages and “grades,” too.

Iowa’s Secretary of State, Paul D. Pate, has strongly criticized the mailing, calling it misleading. “Accusing citizens of Iowa of a ‘voting violation’ based on Iowa caucus participation, or lack thereof, is false representation of an official act,” Mr. Pate said. “There is no such thing as an election violation related to frequency of voting. Any insinuation or statement to the contrary is wrong and I believe it is not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa caucuses.”  The Cruz campaign, for its part, pooh-poohs the issue and says that such a mailing is “common practice,” and Ted Cruz himself said he would “apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.”  (Why does that reaction not surprise me?)

Some people — like the guy who tweeted his mailing, shown above, and declared he was now caucusing for Marco Rubio — have reacted negatively to the mailing, which they think is trying to shame them, in front of their neighbors, into participating in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.  I’m not surprised.  Such a mailing would piss me off, too, and I vote in every election and therefore presumably should get a good voting “grade.”

I think, for Ted Cruz, this kind of mailing strikes at the deeper issue of just what kind of jerk he seems to be.  If Cruz is willing to try to publicly embarrass average people to try to get what he wants, where would he draw the line — if anywhere — if he were elected President?  People like to believe they can live their private lives without being put under a microscope or having their actions held up for ridicule by politicians who are already far too intrusive in our everyday affairs.  Now Ted Cruz thinks it is okay to try to shame people to their neighbors?  If I were an Iowan, it would definitely be something I would think about come caucus time.

Another Turn Of Fortune’s Wheel In Iowa

Thankfully, the Iowa Republican caucuses are tomorrow.  I don’t think I could take even one more day of breathless reports about the latest polling data.

I’ve written before about how the Iowa polls seem like Fortune’s Wheel — constantly turning, with always-new, surging would-be frontrunners who quickly crash and burn and then are replaced with latest darling.    Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich have all had their time at the top of the wheel, followed by speedy tumbles to the bottom.  According to the final Des Moines Register poll, the latest candidate to catch fire is Rick Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania who is popular among social conservatives.  The poll reports that Santorum has broken into the top three, trailing only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.  Gingrich, the former flavor of the month, apparently has talked his way back into the pack of also-rans.

The polls make voters in the Hawkeye State seem as silly and fickle as a crush-addled teenager.  Given that, perhaps reporters should stop writing critically about how Romney can’t seem to be break through the 30 percent barrier and write admiringly instead about his ability to steadily retain a solid core of support among an undecided and capricious Iowa electorate.

Will Anyone Watch, And Does Anyone Care?

Tonight the eight declared Republican candidates for President will debate in Iowa.  The debate is nationally televised on Fox News.  Will anyone watch, and does anyone care?

The lead-up to the debate is filled with the kind of phony urgency that sets my teeth on edge.  The Reuters story, for example, notes that the debate is two days “before an Iowa straw poll that will test the strength of their campaigns” and breathlessly adds:  “With less than six months remaining before Iowa holds the first presidential nominating contest in 2012, time is running short for candidates to begin making up ground.”  So, let me get this straight:  the debate may affect the outcome of a non-binding “straw poll” being taken six months before delegates will be selected?  Could someone explain again why this debate is so crucial?

The constant, creeping advancement of the campaign season is always ludicrous, but this year it is offensive.  Our economy is in the dumper.  Our national credit rating just got cut.  We’re fighting in ill-defined conflicts across the globe.  Millions of Americans are out of work.  Our budget deficit is out of control.  In short, we’ve got lots of important stuff to worry about — much more important than whether Michele Bachmann’s showing makes her the presumed Iowa front-runner or whether Rick Santorum should throw in the towel.  At this point, I couldn’t care less.