The avoidable Iowa Caucus tragedy

February 8, 2020 3:09 pm

Joan Koenigs, chair of the Iowa Caucus Queen Creek, talks to Iowans who were given a chance this year to caucus away from home. About 160 people gathered at movie theater in 40 miles from Phoenix to vote at a satellite Iowa caucus. (Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy/Arizona Mirror)

Sadly, it’s now called “The Iowa Caucuses debacle.”

I have loved the caucuses since 1970, when I started teaching at Iowa State. It didn’t have to end this way.

When the Democratic National Committee’s “Unity Reform Commission” started talking about how to change the Iowa caucuses, I knew that 2020 would be a disaster. Never for a moment did they ask voters, the media, or me for that matter what was wrong and how the process could be improved.

In the company of isolated lawyers and political operatives (I won’t call them hacks) they went where all bureaucracies go — to more rules, more layers of complexity, and more unnecessary, dysfunctional, confusing clutter.

The McGovern-Fraser Commission reforms of 1969 for the more fair selection of national convention delegates made sense for 50 years when life was simple. Today, the convoluted and incomprehensible math to calculate “delegate equivalents” which no one understands is intolerable. You need to understand that those rules were created in Ames, Iowa, at Dugan’s Deli, crafted with the guidance of an Iowa State University engineering professor and a genius mathematics graduate student.

The caucuses couldn’t be any more ridiculous than if they had been designed by cartoonist Rube Goldberg’s Professor Butts, whose inventions, “Rube Goldberg Machines,” “ … solved a simple task in the most overcomplicated, inefficient, and hilarious way possible” such as the “Self-Operating Napkin.”

Caucuses are not an election. They are mostly a beauty contest, a popularity poll, where Democrats say which candidate for president they like best. Oh sure, there are some delegates elected on that night but it’s the media frenzy on caucus night that counts. It’s been that way since Jimmy Carter came in second in 1976. If you can’t produce those numbers by 10 or 11 p.m. they become “yesterday” as candidates and media fly off to New Hampshire.

So if YOU wanted to get the results of candidate preferences from about 1,700 locations and tens or hundreds of thousands of votes, would you design a clean and fast process or a convoluted, incomprehensible one?

The Republicans have an efficient process where party members come to caucus, listen to a few speeches and then vote. Period. The GOP can usually get results to the media in a timely manner.

The Democrats have an anxiety with fairness. The caucuses were designed to improve that. Yet, ironically, having an event at 7 p.m. in January or February to which voters must go for at least two hours doesn’t seem very fair. Then, add to that a public vote where participants must physically stand for their candidate for all to see and you have an onerous event that is not for everyone. Consequently, the Iowa Democratic caucuses usually turn out only 10% to 12% of eligible voters.

In their infinite wisdom, the Democratic bureaucrats decided to make changes such as requiring three different caucus night votes to be recorded or calculated and reported, locking the undecided into that limbo if they had 15% “viability” in a precinct, and a bunch of other nonsense that would clearly confuse and discourage voters.

Indeed that’s what happened on Feb. 3. Since the counting is so messed up, we don’t know the exact numbers but it seems that the anticipated huge Democratic turnout did not materialize.

Here are my recommendations for future caucuses, assuming they survive this fiasco:

Have a “meet and greet” of voters at 7 p.m. when the caucuses start. Let them do their kumbaya feely touchee. Have a few speeches. Give everyone a ballot and let participants vote in secret. Count the votes and call in the results on a confidential secure line. Then let people go home or stay for party business. The party reports results as fast as possible. No delegate equivalent calculations.

If I were a betting man, I’d put all my chits on there will be no more Iowa First-in-the Nation caucuses. And Iowa WILL then become irrelevant flyover country. Blame it on the Democrats.


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Steffen Schmidt
Steffen Schmidt

Steffen Schmidt is the Lucken Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University in Ames.