Tuesday, February 04, 2020

It's Time to De-Hype the Iowa Caucuses

The Iowa Democratic Party certainly deserves plenty of blame for the disastrous problems with the delayed tabulation of the results from Monday night's caucus. The all-too-predictable failure of a new, untested reporting app was compounded by the state party's idiosyncratic devotion to a uniquely complex two-stage public preference declaration process that required the chairs of 1,700 precincts statewide to all simultaneously report three sets of distinct but necessarily compatible numbers to state party headquarters. This new mandate for numerical transparency came at the behest of the Democratic National Committee, which responded to widespread suspicions that Bernie Sanders actually received more popular support than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 caucus by requiring Iowa to release raw vote totals for the first time as well as the traditional delegate counts.

Still, there was something a bit unseemly about major media figures taking to cable news and social media to blast the state party for failing to satisfy their curiosity about the outcome on a more personally convenient schedule. For it was the media that turned the Iowa caucuses into a decisive event in presidential politics beginning in 1972, when journalists interpreted George McGovern's third-place finish in a sparsely-attended vote (behind Ed Muskie and "uncommitted") as a game-changing moral victory, and it's heavy media coverage every four years that gives what might otherwise be an obscure and unimportant event its outsized influence on the behavior of voters in subsequent contests, setting some candidates on a path to the White House and driving others out of the race entirely with 99 percent of the national delegates still unselected.

Naturally, Iowa's leaders have scrambled to defend this quadrennial importance, in desperation to retain the massive publicity that comes with the first slot on the nomination calendar—even as the shortcomings of its caucus mechanics, and the limited organizational resources of its state parties, have become impossible to ignore in the age of ubiquitous cameras and smartphones. The rules that govern the Democrats' two-stage voting process aren't always easily understood even by the officials supposedly in charge, and are open to various kinds of clever manipulation—Candidate A sending some support to Candidate B in order to deny a delegate to Candidate C, deemed a more serious threat—that are absent from the simple primary elections that stand as alternatives to the caucus system. But Iowa cannot abolish its caucuses without risking its first-in-the-nation status, since New Hampshire claims the perpetual right to hold the first primary, and so the caucus tradition remains in all its increasingly apparent awkwardness, unless and until the national parties decide to forbid it.

There was a lot of big talk as the hours ticked by on Monday night about the current debacle putting an end to the Iowa caucus forever. We'll see—these are the kinds of things that impatient journalists say in the heat of the moment, forgetting that the political world will soon enough move on to other preoccupations and that party reformers find it easier to agree on what they dislike about nominations than on what the preferable alternative should be. But whether or not the national parties force Iowa to give up its caucuses in 2024, influential media authorities should use this opportunity to consider whether such a strange little system—one that, among other quirks, produces four sets of results and thus, potentially, four different winners—deserves the tremendous investment of attention, resources, and hype that they direct Iowa's way every four years. If the Iowa caucus were granted press coverage in better proportion to the number of delegates at stake, the representativeness of its electorate, and the distinctiveness of its electoral procedures, these sorts of screwups wouldn't seem so monumental—and the entire nomination system would be much better off.