Iowa Caucuses: Elephant Gives Birth to Mouse


On the night of January 19, 1976, New York Times political correspondent R.W. “Johnny” Apple pounded out a deadline story leading with the assertion that Jimmy Carter had won a “smashing victory” in the Iowa caucuses.

Merv Field, the dean of American political pollsters, was on hand in the press room that night in Des Moines, and recalls reading Apple’s lede over his shoulder and having a considerably different reaction.

“Johnny, I think you’re the one that’s smashed,” Field told him.

As every school child knows, Carter, then the still-obscure governor of Georgia, parlayed Apple’s story into an enormous burst of campaign momentum that helped him to capture both the Democratic Party nomination and the presidency that year.  Worse for the Republic, the episode also cemented the status of the caucuses as the crucial opening act of presidential races.

Tonight, the nation will wait breathlessly for the verdict cast on the GOP presidential field by Iowa Republicans (joined by some gate-crashing Democrats and independents). But Calbuzz stands firmly with Field on the thoroughgoing absurdity of how the crackpot opinions of an arithmetically meaningless number of utterly unrepresentative Americans have come to play such an outsize role in picking presidents.

Consider: On the night when Apple ‘s story changed the shape of the 1976 race, Carter’s “smashing victory” consisted of winning exactly 10,764 votes – about 27% of the 7% of registered Democrats who actually participated in the event,  fewer people than the Giants used to draw for a Tuesday night game against the Montreal Expos when they were stinking out the joint at Candlestick Park.

If that’s not bad enough, Carter didn’t even finish first: that honor went to “uncommitted,” which captured 14,508 votes, or 37%, in a field that also included Senators Birch Bayh, Mo Udall and Fred Harris.

But that was plenty, in the political netherworld where perception and expectation met the blowhards of the MSM, a meta media message dynamic that has only grown more goofy in the nine presidential cycles that have followed the Carter landslide.

And now the news: Odds makers (and the Des Moines Register’s respected poll) are telling us that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will be the likely winner, edging out Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. If the polls are correct, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann will pull up the rear.

If past is prologue, the total votes cast will be somewhere just north of 100,000 – about the number of registered Republicans in San Joaquin County or the total number of registered voters in El Dorado County.

In 2008’s hard-fought GOP primary, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won with 40,841 caucus votes, followed by Romney with 29,949 and Arizona Sen. John McCain with 15,559. Of course, McCain went on to win the nomination because Iowa didn’t mean squat. Total votes cast were 104,696.

Having spent our fair share of time as part of the media throng that trudges across Iowa in the dead of winter – and believe us, we’re deeply ashamed of all the corporate expense money we burned up on corn-fed beef, rental cars and single-malt scotch – we are well aware of our friend David Yepsen’s advisory that Iowans are not all hayseed farmers in overalls and John Deere ballcaps.

As Yepsen, former political editor of the Des Moines Register, wrote the other day: “Of Iowa’s 3 million people, about 90,000 are farmers, and of those, 48,737 list farming as a principal occupation. Iowa’s manufacturing and financial services industries contribute far more to the gross state product than does farming. So media caricatures of snaggle-toothed hicks from an `American Gothic’ painting don’t fit.”

True that. But even Yepsen had to acknowledge that Iowa is 91.3% white and while he tried to argue that Iowa somehow winds up reflecting mainstream Republicans and Democrats – Hey! Didn’t Barack Obama win there over Hillary Clinton? – it’s a losing argument.

Waiting to die: “In a perfect world, no way would Iowa ever be considered representative of America, or even a small part of it. Iowa’s not representative of much. There are few minorities, no sizable cities, and the state’s about to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House because its population is shifting; any growth is negligible,” Stephen G. Bloom of at the University of Iowa wrote recently in the Atlantic.

Moreover, Bloom wrote:

“Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow.’  It’s no surprise, then, really, that the most popular place for suicide in America isn’t New York or Los Angeles, but the rural Middle, where guns, unemployment, alcoholism and machismo reign.”

So, as of this morning, Iowa GOP caucus-goers are leaning toward giving Romney – the flip-flopping Mormon — a first-place finish, although the religious conservative Santorum is said to have some momentum while Paul, despite his superior organization, is said to be losing favor.

Yada yada yada. It doesn’t matter whether Romney wins the Iowa caucuses, It would only matter if he came in fourth or lower – which he won’t. Just like it wouldn’t  matter if Paul or Santorum were to win.

If Iowans pick Romney, it will be because they’ve concluded he’s got a better chance to beat Barack Obama than the other two lightweight contenders in the hunt.  As the Des Moines Register found, about half the Republican caucus-goers say Romney is the most electable of the candidates. But on other measures — relating to ordinary Iowans, least ego driven, most knowledgeable, most likely to limit the size and influence of government, for example – Romney trails others.

The cost of democracy: According to our friend Beth Fouhy of the Associated Press, about $12.5 million* will be spent on TV by GOP campaigns in advance of the Iowa caucuses. If the caucuses draw 110,000 voters – which would be a big number – that’s more than $113 per vote. By comparison, the most expensive campaign ever mounted in California – eMeg Whitman’s attempt to become governor – spent about $39 per vote total in the general election of 2010.

Or consider that if the winning candidate in the Iowa caucuses should rack up a phenomenal 50,000 votes, that would still be less than the 54,202 votes Lawrence “Larry” Naritelli won in the 2010 GOP primary for governor of California. Who? We have no idea.

If you’re from California, Texas, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania or Illinois, you have to wonder how it could be that Iowa (and New Hampshire) should be so outlandishly important.

Because the national Republican and Democratic parties have no guts. They have allowed themselves to be bitch slapped by state parties and because our brethren and sistren in the national news media are like moths to a flame – however weak it may be.

Werner Heisenberg

The result of their collective attentions is nothing even the late, great Mr. Apple could have envisioned. So much attention is paid, so many polls, so many reporters and TV crews are focused on these tiny flyspecks that, like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the measurement itself alters the thing being measured.

Bottom line: As Yepsen put it in a note to Calbuzz:

“There is a lot of media overkill, especially in the closing days of a campaign. The sheer size of the media contingent changes the intimate nature of the events. But I don’t know how you’d change it – wherever you start the selection of an American president, you’re going to have a lot of media because it’s one hell of a story.”

* Tuesday morning, the folks at NBC’s First Read reported: “The campaigns and various Super PACs spent more than $16 million in advertising in Iowa. The breakdown for the major players: Perry $4.3 million, Paul $2.8 million, Restore Our Future (pro-Romney) $2.8 million, Make Us Great Again (pro-Perry) $1.6 million, Romney $1.5 million, Gingrich $980,000, Red White and Blue Fund (pro-Santorum) $530,000, Winning Our Future (pro-Gingrich) $264,000, Bachmann $180,000, and Santorum $30,000.

We didn’t update our math, but you get the picture.

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There are 7 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    “where guns, unemployment, alcoholism and machismo reign.” No wonder the Tea-baggers are a big deal there.

  2. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    No single-malt Scotch involved, but I did spend a week in Des Moines before the caucus in 2004. The folks I met there didn’t seem much less informed than the average American voter. But they did have an amazing sense of entitlement brought about by their first-in-the-nation primary status. One fellow demanded to know when the candidate I was working for was going to show up at his front door so the guy could talk to him about the problems of long-haul truckers. I promised to pass his opinions on to the campaign manager, which I did. But the guy was serious!

    Then we come to the problems with the caucus system itself. People put pressure on their neighbors to vote their way. Since it’s all public, it’s pretty easy to do that. They use everything from cupcakes to public shaming to get votes for their candidate. So the campaign with the most experienced caucus leaders often wins. Or, as in the case of the 2004 Democratic caucus, the one who makes a deal with another candidate as John Edwards did. Because, if any candidate doesn’t get 15% of the “votes” at any given caucus site, they’re considered non-viable and get no delegates. So people supporting non-viable candidates are lobbied hard to switch. Edwards cut a deal with Kucinich in 2004 to pick up his supporters in those sites where Kucinich didn’t meet the 15% threshold. That’s how Edwards did so well there.

    In addition, the political parties can change caucus locations up until just a few days before the caucus. It’s at night, in bitterly cold weather. So people who are sick, have kids or sick kids, work nights, or are elderly often can’t attend. And there’s no absentee voting. You have to show up at some strange place in the dark and cold and be there the whole 2 hours. I remember one caucus in a precinct with a large retired population that was changed from the senior center they all knew well, and that had good, close parking, to a college building with far-away parking. In other words, it’s almost deliberately designed to limit the number of people who participate. It has little to do with democracy as most of us understand it.

    But, despite all the deficiencies of the system there, it was covered to death. There were more media crews there than I’d ever seen in my life. Walking to campaign HQ early in the morning on caucus day, I saw 3 blocks of satellite trucks already lined up. I saw crews from Denmark and Japan, talked to a reporter from Brazil, did an interview with a news outlet in Salinas on my cell phone, and gave a tour to a diplomat from Australia. It was nuts!

  3. avatar tegrat says:

    I say Whitman still takes the prize for $/vote, as the bulk of her money was spent against a single opponent as opposed to the Iowa caucus which is a free for all involving three major contenders (for this caucus) and a smattering of wannabees. California is #1! WOOT!

  4. avatar cgulli says:

    Far be it for me to quibble with the wisdom and knowledge of CalBuzz, but the Giants averaged 7,739/game in 1976, so I’m guessing the Giants would have been ecstatic with 10K for a Tuesday night game against the Expos. My guess is that any such game would be a third of the Carter vote, unless there was a single-malt scotch and corn-fed beef giveaway night.

    In less important news, while I actually don’t think California should go first because of it’s size, I’d love to see some small-to-mid size state just say “Screw you, we’re going first. You schedule your stupid caucus for tomorrow, then everyone head down to the church hall tonight at 7pm, because we’ll always be first.” I hate NH and IA’s sense of entitlement. And when their lips move and they say “We take the process seriously and cherish our role in democracy” what they mean is “We love all the tax that all the hotel rooms and meals generate.”

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Nice try cgulli; we actually were referencing 1985, when the home team lost 100 games and averaged 10,107 fans per game.

    • avatar cgulli says:

      I was a vendor in 1984, and unless there was a major upswing in attendance from 84 to 85, I think my numbers would still hold. I can remember them announcing attendance one night at something like 4,000 and people just laughing, because even that seemed to high. Hard to imagine it’s the same franchise drawing 41,000 to every game now, or even 30,000 in a bad pre-World Series Tuesday night game.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Baseball Almanac lists year-by-year average attendance figures here: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/teams/sfatte.shtml

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