In 1988, a few days before the Iowa presidential caucuses, a couple dozen farmers wearing ball caps with logos like “PAG Seeds” and Kranbeck Grain Bank,” sat in the stands of a bleak stock sales barn.
“Boys, here’s the right kind of Holstein steers to make feed cattle,” an auctioneer said, as four men paraded several terrified calves around a dirt floor ring.
Right then, in strode a squad of stern and solid guys with low body fat percentages and wires in their ears, trailed by a couple of pallid 23-year-olds with red ties and scrawny necks. The big fellas ordered the farmers out; they wanted to sweep the room — and the poor cows — in advance of the arrival of presidential wannabe, and Vice President of the United States George H.W. Bush, avec entourage, for the purpose of shaking hands with farmers, for benefit of many cameras.
“I hope you guys are proud of yourselves,” one pissed off farmer growled at one of the sallow Bush advance boys. “I’m trying to sell stock and I can’t move a goddamn thing.”
Calbuzz recalled the incident this week, steeling ourselves for the 21st century media pack, of a size as unimaginable back then as is the 24/7 digital technology they’re now armed with, to tweet, post, podcast, blabber and gasbag around the clock about What Iowa Means, in the wake of tonight’s caucus voting.
The truth of the matter: not much at all.
Too few people, too many of them white. Having spent way too many years reporting in Iowa (and New Hampshire, another pint-sized state that gets ceaselessly over-analyzed by the geniuses of the Acela corridor but…a story for another day) Calbuzz can report exclusively that the politically privileged and pampered white voters of the Hawkeye State represent an absurd measure of who should be leader of the Free World.
Iowa is one of the whitest states in the nation at 92 percent compared to the national white non-Hispanic population of 77 percent. Overall, the U.S. Latino population accounts for 17 percent, but in Iowa they make up less than a third, at 5 percent. African Americans and Asian Americans who nationally make up 13 percent and 5 percent of the population are only 3 percent and 2 percent of the state’s residents.
Add to these demographic distortions the overrepresentation of rural areas. Slightly over 80 percent of the U.S. population resides in urban areas; in Iowa, over one-third of the population is rural. This matters because the concrete policy concerns of urban and rural populations are different.
Our blood boils at the pathetic fact that presidential campaigns should have to pass muster among this tiny, unrepresentative sample of voters.
Here are the facts: The entire godforsaken wasteland contains 2 million registered voters, according to Iowa Secretary of State Paul D. Pates, about 40 percent of the number in L.A. County alone. They’re about evenly divided between R’s and D’s
Turnout, while in notoriously hard to predict, tonight will fall within some basic parameters.
The record number of Republicans to turn out for a caucus was 122,255 voters, in 2012. So say Donald Trump wins a smashing victory equivalent to the 28 percent he scored in the latest Des Moines Register poll — he’ll capture about 35,000 votes. For a comparison, that’s about one third the number San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee received when re-elected in 2015.
As for the Democrats, Barack Obama blew out the doors in 2008, boosting turnout of his party’s caucus participants to 227,000, but tonight’s turnout is not expected to come near that, meaning either Hillary or Bernie may win with less than 100,000 votes, once again trailing President Ed Lee.
Did we mention that 92.1 percent of the population is white?
The problem is not that the people of Iowa are stupid. They are not, by most measurements. It’s that Iowa looks nothing like the rest of America. As a result, the winners, more often than not, are nationally unelectable extremists…
You’re supposed to be vetting, Iowa. You’re supposed to be culling out the crazies. You’re supposed to recognize the fraud of Ted Cruz and how Donald Trump is playing you. For all your touted small-town verities, you’re not doing your job. Your bull manure detector is broken.
Assholes on my right, assholes on my left. The MSM’s favored romantic image of Iowa — the smell of new-mown hay in summer, the crunch of footsteps on crystal crusts of pristine snow in winter and earnest citizens perched in all seasons on hay bales and clad in wool plaid or work shirts as they solemnly struggle to make thoughtful choices among the wannabes — is a crock.
As Brown University egghead Josh Pacewicz, who made a study of the caucuses in 2008 and 2012 shows, in a must-read piece over at Salon, the caucus extravaganza is not shaped by ordinary citizens, but merely a collection of Potemkin stage sets, arranged for the benefit of the MSM by party hacks whose views are not representative of the state’s population.
By the time I arrived in Iowa, grass-roots parties were largely in the hands of political junkies who otherwise played little role in community affairs. Activists were particularly impressed by peers like a GOP “firecracker”: a homemaker who hosted monthly lunches with other activists, watched Fox News religiously, and called the White House whenever something struck her as objectionable.
With such activists at the helm, grass-roots parties functioned as echo chambers for hyper-partisan media stories, driving Republicans especially into frequent conflicts with other community groups. Non-activists gritted their teeth while passing Republican pickets at Planned Parenthood or a downtown sex shop and ridiculed activists for making their cities appear populated by a bunch of hicks in the sticks.
In this context, one sees why GOP activists self-present as underdogs and support bitter populist campaigns like Trump’s. During this election cycle, we are likely to hear that the Iowa caucuses counteract our nation’s polarized politics by forcing politicians to connect with regular people, but candidates’ deepest connections are with activists who echo polarized campaign rhetoric.
The authenticity of the caucuses already had begun to curdle and stink by the time of our last visit, a quarter century ago. Quite unlike the phony narrative packed with profound displays of citizenship by diligent Just Folks, the caucuses today more often resemble nothing as much as a tribal gathering of the Beltway’s cool kids, the repulsive denizens of This Town who parachute in to “cover” the spectacle and spend most of their time talking to each other.
Our colleague Jeff Greenfield nailed it in a splendid takedown:
The armies of the media are gathering in the American heartland. With each new poll come shrieks of joy, or panic. When Monday night finally arrives, this first test of the candidates will be treated as an immeasurably consequential event, honored by column-miles of type and pixels, and uncountable hours of analysis—almost all of which will conceal the cold, hard reality: The Iowa caucuses have become a blight on American politics.
Indeed, if you look beyond the color and the pageantry, beyond the county fairs and butter cows, and appreciate the real workings and impact of the caucuses, you realize that Iowa is neither a useful bellwether or an important test for candidates. Moreover, there are baleful consequences of the inflated status of Iowa: It distorts the political process and leads to bad public policy.
The bottom line: Iowa has ever truly mattered in exactly two election cycles: 1976, when Jimmy Carter won Iowa and overnight legitimacy — almost entirely because R.W. Apple informed the world, via Page One of the NY Times that his victory really, really mattered — on his way to the nomination. And in 2008, when Obama first displayed the fierce power of his campaign organization while proving proved a black guy could win in a puny Midwestern state populated by descendants of European immigrants – lots of English, Germans, Irish, Poles, Norwegians, Scots and Swedes (you also could argue that John Kerry’s come-from-behind in 2004 carried some significance, for all the good it did him. But we digress).
Otherwise, check in on Presidents Muskie, Gebhardt, Harkin, Dole, Huckabee and Santorum
As for tonight, our unsolicited advice is to skip the several billion words to be emitted like noxious gas into the atmosphere by such noted blowhards as Chris Matthews, Chris Cillizza and Charles Krauthammer and get some sleep.
As for the Calbuzz, 30-second, 68-word, take-it-for-what-it’s-worth fishwrap forecast:
If Trump wins, he’s most likely headed to the nomination; ditto Hillary. If The Donald loses, who knows whether he’ll hang around another day or another season, if his whim tells him to go nose-to-nose with whichever “establishment” mouthpiece can stay up with him, most likely Marco Rubio. If Hillary loses, it doesn’t matter – she’ll still be the Democratic nominee (hubby Bill didn’t win there in ’92).
And with the “crucial Iowa caucuses” out of the way, it’s on to “the crucial New Hampshire primary.” Puh-leeze.