A Curated Guide to Why the Iowa Caucuses Reek


iowaIn 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.

whitepeopleToo 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.

iowapicAssholes 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.

bachmanncorndogOur 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.

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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. Entertaining, as always. But since there is no single state nor region that’s perfectly reflective of what America looks like, what’s the solution? A national primary that is decided on millions of dollars of advertising?

  2. avatar patwater says:

    For a different perspective on processes to choose the powerful person on the planet, I’ve been enjoying listening to Dan Carlin’s five part magnum opus on the Mongols in this election season: http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-43-wrath-of-the-khans-i/

    Killed 70 million people, created the largest empire in human history, and came apart at the seems as the institutions built for a tribal step people namely choosing the khan in person and by consensus stopped working when the empire spread from hungry to huan.

    We like to pretend with modernity that were oh so different but remember our DNA is 99.9% the same and is our process of choosing the most powerful person on the planet really any less anachronistic? Perhaps not shocking the institutions designed for an agrarian country of a few million are getting clunky to put it politely today

    That points been made over and over and over again (not least by the CA reform crowd that I’ve been known to be a fan of) though these sorts of big institutional changes often appear impossible until they’re inevitable.

    And there’s rumblings of a different path towards this sort of constitutional change: http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article54004530.html Still very inchoate and imperfect though again I wouldn’t bet on the DC industrial complex forged in the post WWII consensus continuing indefinitely as the underlying demographics change, software eats the world, things get more global yada yada yada ya

  3. avatar konnyu says:

    What a suggestive pic of Bachman campaigning. Is that any way to treat a married Congresswoman who was nervy enough to make a hopeless run for president?

  4. avatar patwater says:

    And just for good measure. The Great Global Chattering class is a twitter on the impact of automation on the global economy — think it was this years topic in Davos: “In the words of the famous author Elbert Hubbard —- “One machine can do thework of fifty ordinary men, No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” With technology advancing at a rapid pace, could Hubbard be right? Do we need tobe extraordinary for technology not to take our job?” http://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/downloads/reports/Citi_GPS_Technology_Work_2.pdf

  5. avatar tonyseton says:

    A better plan…
    A single national primary the day after Labor Day.
    A ban on all broadcast political advertising.
    Same-day voter registration.
    Online voting.
    A fine for not casting a ballot.
    Public financing of campaigns with more money for non-incumbents.
    Term limits of 12 years in the Congress.

    • avatar M.J. Grove says:


      I have few problems with your “better plan.”

      One single primary would deprive us of the time to learn about the candidates, and watch them win, lose, adapt, and mess up, which is both helpful, and often the only fun in the election season.

      As for fining people for not voting, please don’t! Anyone who doesn’t really care should stay away from the polls. Please!

      Not only some of the worst, but many of the BEST legislators have been long-timers. Term limits are equally applied to the bad, the good, and the great.

      And if you could fast-talk incumbents into taking less financing than the people trying to get their jobs, you should be devoting your magical skills to something more important than politics, like negotiating peace in the Middle East.

      M.J. in Beverly Hills

    • avatar Noozeyeguy says:

      I, too, would like to suggest a few tweaks:

      Keep the existing primary schedule; eliminate “winner take all” primaries. They skew the totals disproportionately to the margin of victory, especially in populous states like Florida, New Jersey, and California.

      President and Veep on separate tickets in the general election.

      I’d agree with publicly-financed campaigns. Make it a prerequisite for all broadcast entities to set aside x number of hours of programming time each election cycle for electioneering (exclusive of news coverage) as a condition for retention of their broadcast license. Programming hours could be ad time or sponsored content, subject to equal-time constraints (which needs to be re-instituted). Candidates may raise money for “ground game” electioneering, subject to stringent donor limits, no “soft money” allowed. (Sorry, SCOTUS, you blew that one.)

      Mail voting (NOT online. Too much opportunity for fraud, and I think folks need some sense of “skin in the game,” even if it’s just the physical act of filling out a ballot). I’d have the same objection to same-day registration, too easy to game the system.

      Term limits: I’d be a bit more expansive, but I feel they’re a net plus. Twelve years (six terms) in the House, and twelve years (two terms) in the Senate. That’s two and a half decades in Congress, that’s plenty.

      And finally, ditch the Electoral College. Direct election by the plurality of votes.

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