It Is Time To Ditch The Iowa Caucuses

Caucus Room

Caucus Room

When our family lived in Indiana, the 1988 Democratic nominee for president was mostly decided when our May 3 primary arrived. Michael Dukakis had been dominating previous primary contests and was expected to get the nod for president. He did.

If I voted in that primary (don’t remember) it was a harbinger of what I felt on election day, basically what the f*ck? It seemed futile to vote for a candidate I hadn’t supported and didn’t like. At the same time, living in a Democratic county, I wasn’t about to pull the lever for a Republican. George H. W. Bush trounced Dukakis 426 – 111 in the electoral college, winning Indiana and 39 other states.

In Iowa we hold the first presidential nominating event — the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses. I like the early attention, but less so each cycle. The 2016 contest has been about whether or not to ratify Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. She has not wavered in her effort or in polls conducted in Iowa, making this the most lackluster Iowa caucus cycle I can remember. Clinton is not inevitable, but her campaign’s strategy, tactics and discipline make it hard for her to lose in Iowa. The campaign is trudging its way to a caucus win, with the saving grace being the large number of young, energetic and enthusiastic people helping organize the effort.

A professional class of political consultants, activists, fund raisers, corporate media correspondents, bloggers and supporters has evolved. At each announcement of a new supporter, there is a discussion of whether that person is a significant “get” for the campaign. The rise of this new class of operatives, many deriving a living from politics, has been because of unlimited money in politics. Money feeds the professional political class which is inflicting the body politic like a cancer. The Democratic process has become about winning elections.

Elections matter, but like the professional political class feeding on our Democracy, a sole focus on elections is problematic for our long term political health.

U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan mentioned the Democratic focus on elections in his Dec. 3 Confident America speech.

“Maybe the way to win the debate is to play identity politics, never mind ideas,” Ryan said. “Maybe what you do is slice and dice the electorate: Demonize. Polarize. Turn out your voters. Hope the rest stay home.”

While Ryan is supporting a conservative agenda with this speech, and Democrats I know focus on governing as much as elections, what he said describes exactly what Republicans are doing in Iowa more than Democrats.

What I miss most about Iowa politics is the chance to build the community where I live. It has been difficult to do so in campaigns with which I have associated since 2004. The hindrance has been the data analysis method of targeting caucus-goers or voters, and the necessary exclusion it breeds. The Iowa Democratic Party is not about community building in a geographic sense. It is about building coalitions of whoever will join together with us to win elections. To say I despise it is an understatement.

Whatever issues I may have with the Democratic Party, they are not the reason Iowa should ditch the caucuses. It’s because candidates roaming free-range around the state has served only slight useful purpose. It has been harmful to the Iowa that elected candidates like Harold Hughes and Robert Ray.

There is an economic benefit of having 20+ candidates campaigning in Iowa, but less than one thinks. Brianne Pfannenstiel posted an article at the Des Moines Register recapping candidate spending this cycle.

“Despite Iowa’s outsize influence in the nation’s presidential nominating process, political spending is still funneled primarily to coastal states, which house major political consulting and advertising firms,” Pfannenstiel wrote. “Iowa accounts for just three percent of the $153.3 million that presidential campaigns have spent so far this cycle, filings with the Federal Election Commission show.”

The amount is much less if one removes fees and salaries paid to members of the Iowa professional political class. The Iowa caucuses are not about economic impact, as facts in the article demonstrate.

For the most part, the Iowa caucuses are about party building. If you think having as many as 20 non-presidents wandering every restaurant, gas station, gymnasium and legion hall isn’t having an impact on what Iowans believe about politics, think again.

There is little chance President Santorum will undo the Obama legacy because there is zero chance of him being president. What he, Mike Huckabee and others polling less than five percent do is build the culture of party politics in a corrupting manner. It reinforces what people already get from mass media. Minority and fringe views are depicted in media as being acceptable as media corrupts.

Candidates seek supporters to build their respective campaigns. There are few better examples of the deleterious effect of this than this headline and story by Jill Colvin and Bill Barrow of Associated Press, “Trump backers baffled by criticism of his Muslim proposal.”

When we open the state to all political comers, candidates who still poll in the asterisk range have been given serious coverage in corporate news outlets and blog posts alike. There is no sacred responsibility to cover the presidential aspirations of candidates like Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Gilmore. That they travel Iowa is to our detriment. Attention given them is time we could focus more productively.

While I grumbled about my choices in 1988, I knew I was a Democrat and that gave me standing in my community. What is heard today is a plethora of weird views with serious and flaky mixed together in a jumble. Politics is like Chex mix gone wrong. Activists and advocates say we should ask “serious questions” of candidates, but there is little use of asking any question of most of these candidates. After all, we are not on a fact-finding mission to fill our grocery cart.

The benefit of holding the first in the nation caucus is much less than we think. More than that, it is corrupting Iowa in a way that has yielded us more conservative elected officials including Governor Terry Branstad, Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, and Representative Steve King. That’s not the Iowa I want to see, and rethinking our role in presidential politics is important to making a change.

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One Response to It Is Time To Ditch The Iowa Caucuses

  1. Hugo S LaVia says:

    Paul: So sorry to read that you have lived in Indiana. I did, too. It was for a year but it felt like 12 …

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