The Thinker

Caucuses are still undemocratic

It has been four years since the last Iowa caucuses. I am hoping that like four years ago C-SPAN will show the caucus process live on national TV. It was quite an eye opener for me in 2004. It did not leave me with a nice, comfortable feeling that our democracy was in good hands.

In summary, here is what will happen tonight. A likely tiny share of Iowa’s voters, probably less than ten percent and likely about five percent (those who do not mind skipping the Orange Bowl or traveling in subfreezing weather) will show up at their neighborhood caucus. They had better show up promptly at 7 PM because that is when the caucuses start. There is no mailing in of absentee ballots. Moreover, if you are handicapped or are required to work that evening that is just too bad. In addition, if your favorite candidate does not garner at least 15% of the vote in your Democratic caucus, they will receive zero delegates. So among those who attend, a fair number will actually vote for their second choice.

The Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa does not allow for a secret vote. You declare your support openly and in front of your neighbors. If you are an easily intimidated type, you may end up supporting a candidate you do not prefer. Since many of those in the room are likely your neighbors, you have to weigh your vote against your need to get along with them after the caucus. In short, peer pressure may have an effect on your vote. Moreover, if you need to leave early because Jimmy is suddenly running a fever, well, your vote will not count. If you are susceptible to changing your mind, expect to be lobbied in ways that may make you feel like a Congressman. Your neighbor may agree to buy you lunch every day for the next week for your vote. These tactics are legal.

While the Democratic Party caucus system in Iowa disenfranchises lesser-known candidates, if you attend a Republican Party caucus then whoever gets the most votes at your caucus gets all of its allocated delegates. In other words, it is a “winner takes all” system, reminiscent of our Electoral College. On the positive side Republicans at least get to have a secret vote. They scrawl their favorite on a piece of paper. The caucus chair sorts through them and determines the winner. If you cannot spell Mitt Romney’s last name correctly, just write “Mitt” and hope the caucus chair will decide you meant Mitt Romney.

Moreover, as this article points out, the caucus system in Iowa is biased in favor of urban voters. Twenty seven percent of voters select 50 percent of the delegates, and those 27 percent live in the more densely populated areas. It can also be helpful to your candidate to make sure the “temporary chair” of your caucus supports your candidate. As “temporary chair”, he will have a disproportionate ability to influence undecided or wavering voters.

In short, it is a bad system. Yet, the Iowa caucuses do matter. Recent history (since 1972 or so) suggests that if you win the Iowa caucuses, you have a 2/3 chance of winning the party’s nomination. If you are a Democratic candidate, you have a 2/9 chance of winning the general election and a 1/3 chance if you are a Republican. With a better than 50% odds that you will win the party’s nomination by winning in Iowa, it is no wonder that more than a year ago potential candidates were trolling for votes there. Winning in Iowa is not a sure thing to winning either the nomination or the presidency, but it provides real momentum.

Do Iowans represent America? I guess it depends on the demographics you are looking at but clearly, America is no longer primarily an agrarian economy. Iowa comes close to Utah in being the nation’s premier Wonder Bread state. Iowa’s primary role in the presidential race is to clear the field, so it may give Caucasians disproportionate early influence. If you do not come in at least third, you are likely out of the game. Expect tomorrow to see a number of candidates drop out. I bet Dodd and Biden will drop out tomorrow. Richardson and Kucinich will likely say adios also. They will have spent their wad and will have little in the way of resources to compete in the remaining states. Richardson might well command ten percent of the vote in Iowa, but he will likely not pick up a single delegate there. Of course, it is the number of delegates pledging a candidate that ultimately choose the party’s nominee.

The nomination process also favors the party establishment. A few weeks ago out of curiosity, I decided to learn how I could become a delegate to the Democratic Party National Convention in my state of Virginia. Our February 12th primary is used to select delegates to a Virginia Democratic Party convention held in June. Fortunately, delegates at that convention are proportioned by candidate based on their primary results. 85 delegates go to the Democratic National Convention but only 54 of those delegates are chosen based on the February 12th primary. The remaining 31 delegates are chosen at the state convention. There is no assurance that those chosen at a state party convention will proportioned based on the state’s primary vote. However, Virginia Democratic Party rules allow 18 others to become “automatic” delegates, meaning Virginia will actually have 103 voting delegates. These include top party leaders, including our governor Tim Kaine. So in the best case 82% of my state’s delegates will be chosen based on primary results. In the worst case, only 53% of my state’s delegates will be chosen this way. Consequently, in the event of a brokered convention, you can expect that the current political establishment, rather than the voters will wield the real power.

I hope voters in Iowa and elsewhere are smart enough to realize that the caucus system works against them and demand a primary-based system. In addition, I hope both parties will eventually reform the delegate selection process so that delegates are truly proportioned based on primary results.


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