The Iowa caucuses are on the brink — but we should fight for them

The New York Post's front page on Feb. 4, 2020, disparages the delay in reporting of Iowa caucus results.

Former Iowa congressman Dave Nagle has been on the front lines of trying to preserve Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses for more than four decades.

“It’s not a good morning,” Nagle told me on Tuesday.

That’s an understatement.  Nagle, a Waterloo Democrat, has been called into action many times over the years when the caucuses have teetered on the precipice of extinction.

The Iowa Democratic Party is going to need him again.

The party’s inability to release even a single precinct’s results before 4 p.m. Tuesday was like an Acme anvil flattening the noggin of Wile E. Coyote as he dangled over a mile-high cliff.

Campaigns were furious.  The glitch deprived the winners of their rightful spoils — 24 hours of positive media as they landed in New Hampshire.  The candidate that stood to gain the most from burying the caucus results, former Vice President Joe Biden, had his lawyer calling for an injunction.

The New York Post’s front page screamed “DUH MOINES.” President Trump tweeted that the Democratic caucuses were an “unmitigated disaster.” News commentators called the party’s performance “pathetic.” Even former longtime Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen was quoted saying the caucuses were toast.

It sure looks that way. But just like a Looney Tunes character, the caucuses are hard to kill.  The cartoon coyote may look like a furry pancake in the bottom of the canyon, but he’s right back after the Roadrunner a few seconds later.

It may be a longer recovery for the caucuses — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Nagle noted that it’s unlikely the Democratic National Committee would consider a caucus-killing resolution at this year’s national convention.  Because there’s likely no consensus on how to revamp the nominating calendar, the decision would likely be pushed off to a commission to study the process.

Iowa has outlasted that wind-spitting contest before, usually with the aid of New Hampshire and the other early states.

“We’ve a long ways to go in this,” Nagle said. “But the important first step for now is to mount our defense.”

That defense is the same one we heard last week from the Des Moines Register and CNN, which withheld their final caucus poll after a reported polling irregularity.  They chose integrity over expediency.

He said Iowa Democrats, faced with a terrible choice, made the right decision to wait until they could verify their numbers.  “We shouldn’t be penalized for honesty,” he said.

Then there’s the point that the straw that broke the caucuses’ back was placed there by the DNC.  The national party’s demand for more transparency ended up tripling the complexity of the reporting process.

Iowa could keep its caucuses first even if the national party sanctions the state with a loss of delegates. It could hold its contest and some candidates would see a potential benefit to campaign here.  If the candidates come, so will the media.

But should they?

There are a lot of reasons why Iowa should fight for the caucuses.  Beyond the self-interest, the caucuses offer the best opportunity for non-establishment candidates, the ones who aren’t famous billionaires, to have a chance to compete.  The grassroots style of campaigning forces candidates to interact with voters, sharpen their messages and, often, learn a little humility in the process.  It puts even the national establishment favorites to the test.

But the caucuses were never made for the age of instant information, where a wait of even an hour — much less a day — is cause for screaming outrage on social media and cable TV. This was always designed to be a slow process that forces people to interact with neighbors, face to face.  They operate with volunteers — some 10,000 of them on Monday night.  They happen in places that don’t always have great internet access. The caucuses, as they exist today, can’t stand up to the demands for real-time results.

Maybe the question isn’t really whether the Iowa caucuses should be first — but whether they should be treated with such importance.  The ever-escalating media frenzy has built up this neighborhood ritual into an international spectacle.  No state’s contest can live up to that, year after year.  But the alternative is giving in to the fact that only famous millionaires or billionaires can be elected president.

The caucuses can continue to change and evolve, however, if given the chance.  Some of the ideas that the state or national party rejected — including telephonic “virtual” caucuses and an absentee process — are worth serious consideration.  Perhaps Democrats could finally adopt a simpler straw vote like the Iowa GOP uses, without upsetting New Hampshire. Better technology will be available in four years.

The caucuses are not immortal, nor should they be.  But let’s not dive off the cliff.  Let’s go down fighting.