Election 2016

The Iowa Caucuses Are Insane

Iowa's first-to-vote status is effectively a subsidy to the state.


As you watch the election returns roll in from Iowa tonight, and listen to the TV pundits argue and analyze and explain What It All Means, and then check back in at Reason—make sure to check back in!—to find out what we think it means, remember: The caucus process itself is kind of bonkers, and it is at least a little bit crazy that it's such a big deal in the nation's political process.

The first problem with the Iowa caucuses is Iowa itself. To say the demographics do not exactly match the demographics of the nation is an understatement: It is a fairly small, very white (94 percent!), heavily evangelical state. Even amongst residents, not everyone can participate, because the caucuses are held in the evening, and, with a few exceptions, you have to show up, and in some cases stay for quite a while, often in fairly bad weather (a blizzard warning is in effect in some parts of the state tonight).

The result is that this quadrennial kickoff event for the presidential election reflects a fairly small number of people. As Jeff Greenfield recently pointed out in a Politico Magazine essay on how Iowa hijacks the nation's democracy, a turnout of 350,000 is enough to break records—and even that is just 1 in 6 of eligible adults. It's practically an Iowa focus group. 

The winners, then, are ultimately selected by a very small number of people who represent a very small percentage of possible voters. In 2008, for example, Barack Obama's win in Iowa helped solidify his image as a plausible contender for the Democratic nomination and the presidency; yet as Greenfield notes, just 4 percent of eligible voters in the state voted for him.

So just 4 percent of eligible voters in a state that is totally unrepresentative of the nation demographically helped set out current president on his way to the White House. 

And the voting process they used was nuts. Iowa Democrats use a rowdy, drawn-out process that involves groups of people standing around yelling at each other, sometimes for hours, and requires people to physically move themselves to stand with other supporters of their candidate. The idea is to form a pack for your candidate, and then get others to join your group. As Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford recently told Vox's Andrew Prokop, "It's kind of like a carnival, where the candidates' supporters say, 'Come over to us, to our group!'" There's no secret ballot—which surely depresses turnout and complicates voting for many—and the event can last for hours. Convention delegates are then divided up based on the results; candidates who fail to secure the support of 15 percent in a precinct get nothing. (Here's an explanation of how it works using Legos.)

The Republican caucus process is less raucous—there's no yelling involved, or at least not officially—but it's still more time-intensive than a traditional primary. Basically, they just listen to a half an hour's worth of speeches, and then cast a secret ballot. But they still have to show up at the predetermined time, and they still have to sit through the preamble before voting. It's a commitment.

(The time-intensive nature of the process, and the requirement to show up at a set time in the evening, is one of the big reasons why a lot of people are questioning Donald Trump's ability to turn out voters in Iowa, despite his consistent lead in the polls there.)

It's true, as Reason's Stephanie Slade pointed out earlier today, that Iowa Republicans don't have a very strong recent record of picking future presidents or nominees. Rick Santorum—Rick Santorum!—won in 2012, which gives you a pretty good sense of what kind of candidate Iowa Republicans are into. (Thanks to YouTube, you can relive the glory of his victory speech over and over again.)  Santorum obviously didn't go on to be the GOP nominee. But his win in Iowa elevated his shoestring-budget campaign, and helped shift the Republican race around him.

Even when it doesn't pick winners, it helps set the priorities for the parties, orienting them more toward government-backed ethanol handouts and social conservatism than they would be were Iowa not so central to the nominating process.

It's a process to which politicians aggressively and shamelessly pander. Here's Santorum in 2012: "You — you, by standing up and not compromising, by standing up and being bold and leading, leading with that burden and responsibility you have to be first, you have taken the first step of taking back this country." Oh Iowa, great Iowa! How great you are! 

All of which is to say that it's a system that provides clear benefits to Iowa and its voters and issues, but not so much everywhere else. Instead of celebrating this handout, it's worth recognizing this for what it is—effectively, it's a subsidy to Iowans at the nation's expense. 

NEXT: U.S. Falls Back Down the Economic Freedom Ranking

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  1. Iowa can go fuck itself with a corn cob.

    The End.

    1. I will settle for cobless.

    2. How about we toss you into the corn crib? Asshole.

  2. If Iowa doesn’t have its first in the nation status, do we have as many asinine ethanol/corn subsidies?

    1. It’s not the caucuses, it’s the log-rolling in Congress. I agree with you on the subsidies, but blaming them on the caucuses is lazy. And the real winners are Big Ag – corporations like Cargill who have lots of cash for lobbying.

  3. Thank you Jimmy Carter!

    Also aren’t all primaries and caucuses handouts?

    1. The primaries more than the caucuses. The parties pay a bigger share for the caucuses.

  4. It’s kind of sad seeing all those Evangelicals voting for a Catholic or New York Presbyterian.

    1. See Santorum, 2016.

      1. oops, 2012

        1. You never know, those corn fuckers might go for him again. Or Huckabee.

  5. Somebody has to go first. I like the idea of low population, small, northern states (like say, Iowa and New Hampshire) going first, so the candidates have to humble themselves and mix with the common man at some point in the campaign. And 4 percent of Iowans is still a heck of a lot more people than 1,000 people with land lines who happen to answer calls and don’t even know who is running yet.

    1. I dislike the idea of small states that are not very diverse in their populations going first. They get to winnow down the field before the rest of us have a chance. I believe that had CA and some of the other large western states gone first in 2012, Huntsman would have had a much better chance, he wasn’t going to ever have a big chance in SC or Iowa.
      And why does somebody have to go first? Why not a bunch or all of them at the same time?

      1. Huntsman would have had a much better chance

        Is that supposed to be a selling point?

      2. Huntsman was great, but nobody forced him out. He was the classic example of the compromise candidate who everyone liked but no one was passionate about. Our voting method doesn’t produce such winners, except by accident. You want Approval Voting. Under AV I would have voted for Huntsman, but I was forced to choose only one.

      3. back when I was a kid, the two biggest states, California and New York went last, so that it was virtually impossible for a candidate to wrap up enough delegates before the big stats spoke. Then a bunch of medium size states banded together to make “Super Tuesday”

      4. Big state voters (and basically all primaries too) are nothing but a bunch of easily-manipulable monkeys whose vote can be bought with a few 30-second ads on TV and who have zero knowledge of how to actually affect politics other than peck some damn lever in November.

        It’s bad enough that the general election – and most of the winning candidates – will end up decided by the big states cuz that’s where the votes are. At least with small states, there is a chance that the more psychotic candidates fall out of the race. Obama and McCain were certainly poor candidates in 2008 – but it would have been Clinton v Guiliani – all 9/11 all the time – if the big states controlled those early races. And yes – I’m gonna bet that Trump (this years psychotic) gets wounded bad in Iowa.

    2. Yea, I don’t understand why they can’t have them all at once. pick a Tuesday in April, call it “Super-Duper Tuesday”, and have all of the states vote at once. Just like, you know, the real election.

      1. Because drawing out the process gets the candidates to go a lot of places and actually meet and talk to voters, which we get to see on TV. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be much more than ads.

    3. I’m just glad they’ll be gone.

      Its a foregone conclusion that virtually every candidate really hates to be here.

    4. Why does somebody have to go first? I know that’s how it’s set up now, but does it have to stay that way? Why not push primaries/caucuses back a month or two and coordinate the same day for all fifty states? Then the other two hundred million of us can have an unbiased say before we’re influenced by results from the first five relatively meaningless states.

  6. The time-intensive nature of the process, and the requirement to show up at a set time in the evening, is one of the big reasons why a lot of people are questioning Donald Trump’s ability to turn out voters in Iowa, despite his consistent lead in the polls there.

    I would have guessed exactly the opposite.

    1. I think the idea is that it’s much easier for some dunderhead to say, “Fuck yeah! The Donald!” than it is to actually have to show up someplace and do something. From what I’ve read about the demographics of Trump supporters, it seems like there is pretty good representation from the dunderhead cohort.

    2. In 2008, Hillary got 51% of the primary votes but only 37% of the caucus votes. I reckon that whenever someone went to stand with the Hillary precinct captain, the other side of the room yelled “racist!”

  7. Paging kinnath, kinnath please pick up the white courtesy phone.

    1. I’m somewhat disturbed with Reason pushing the hate Iowa agenda. Heavily Evangelical?

    2. what, just because it’s Iowa, it’s a WHITE courtesy phone? Racist…

  8. It is a fairly small, very white (94 percent!), heavily evangelical state.

    Bullshit. I spent my formative years in Georgia and Tennessee. South Baptists scare the hell out of me.

    Socially-Conservative Christians might be 10% of the population. But they are very well organized. So they represent 1/3 of the people that show up to caucus. So they become a make or break voting block of anyone that wants to get through the Iowas Caucus in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place.

    But the population as a whole is way more moderate.

    1. I agree kinnath. I grew up in Iowa and then spent good chunks of time in Florida and Texas (where I still am). Iowa seemed no more “evangelical” than the other places I’ve lived.

      1. Thank you, FreeRadical. I also grew up in Iowa, then spent time in New Mexico, Colorado, Indiana and now Georgia. Iowa has always struck me as more rational than the other states I’ve lived in.

        It is amusing to read screeds from big-city types decrying the backwardness of Iowans. Occasionally I get the impression that they’re not entirely clear on the distinction between Iowa and Ohio.

  9. I suspect that Suderman has never even been to Iowa. I would love to see the horror in his face if he was told he had to move to Iowa: “You mean I have to go live with lilly-white, country-bumpkin farmers???? Do they even have Starbucks there????”

    1. Sadly, yes.


  10. Last time this year.

    The caucus is the place where the party elects members of the county party. This has legal ramifications. In the event of a special election, only the people elected at caucus are allowed for vote in the nominating process for Republicans running in special elections (but not federal elections)

    Delegates to the county convention are also selected at the caucus. It is supposed to be an election, but anyone willing to pay the entrance fee will get approved to go to the county convention. The county convention elects delegates to the district convention (again anyone willing to pay), and the district elects delegates to the state convention. The state convention elects delegates to the national convention (this is a real election, but mostly determined by who paid to get into the state convention). So the “winner” of the nominating process is whoever can convince the most people to pay to get into three separate conventions held over 3+ months.

    And then there is this little piece of business called the “straw poll”. Apparently, the vast majority of the nation is stupid enough to care what the results of the straw poll are.

    Not our fault.

    1. I think in theory people’s presidential preferences are supposed to influence who gets selected as convention delegates.

      1. In theory, it’s a way for the party establishment to raise significant funds while delaying the important vote until it is all over.

        In practice, the system can be hijacked by a small, dedicated bunch of political groupies (see Ron Paul, 2012).

        1. In practice, the system can be hijacked by a small, dedicated bunch of political groupies (see Ron Paul, 2012).

          I thought the RNC changed the caucus rules so that now the delegate counts have to line up with the straw poll results (to keep that very thing from happening again). Maybe I’m wrong.

          1. In 2012, the Paulites took over almost the entire slate of state party offices. The delegates to the convention are a different matter.

          2. Was that only for caucuses, or does it also apply to the “beauty contest” (preference poll) in primary states that had one separately from their lowest-level delegate elections? If so, how does that work at the final delegate selection stage of that state? Is it simply taken out of the hands of the state convention, and the national delegates elected from lists by proportional representation? Or some more complicated process involving cut & try?

    2. Tell it. The caucus is easily the last remaining way for regular people to influence either main party. And honestly it is probably nearly the last remaining way that neighbors can actually talk to each other about governance issues – rather than sit in their living room and take centrally-planned instructions from the TV.

  11. What is insane is the choose-one plurality (a.k.a. first-past-the-post) voting method. Whether you do it on paper or by shouting and moving around, it is vulnerable to vote splitting and gaming. The solution is Approval Voting.

    1. Approval voting has the disagreeable feature of forcing the voter to decide where to make the cut between approval & disapproval. That’s as bad a distortion as making you choose just 1.

    2. What is insane is the notion that voters have the slightest freaking clue what they are doing – since most are either a)not making a decision from scratch but merely voting the way they have done for their whole life or b)spending less time thinking about their vote than they do about their breakfast cereal.

  12. I’m from Iowa. Thanks for all the attention once every four years. And thanks for the money – we appreciate it. Send more if you have it.

    It’s nice to be able to force the politicians to get down on their knees and beg. We don’t really listen to them much, we just like to see them get manure on their knees. There’s nothing else to laugh about if you’re from Iowa …

  13. You didn’t cover the subsidy side. That it is is obvious. Why it is, not so much. A good look would have would have delved into the parties’ various primary arrangements, and lead to other areas of cooperative planning by the parties.

    Caucus v. popular vote, in general, is an entirely separate issue–And while a huge (and unanalysed) factor for the Iowa favortism, should not be smoothied in with the subheading…. IMO. –This is a non-smoothied suggestion.
    Caucuses, in general, are a more and better republican arrangement. Voters aren’t as easily bribed by cheaper twinkies, or most devastatingly delivered slander; and the politically thoughtful have a chance to represent their neighborhood.
    Caucuses do, in fact, undermine democracy. So do the 50 state republics, and their federation–Though that federation has (and most states have) acted upon permissive democracy against lawful restraint.

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  15. The system of electing the president is not explainable to the rest of the world.
    Iowa and New Hampshire are the first of many primaries which are sustained by professional politicians because it assures these states something they otherwise do not have, a way of being noticed. The Iowa welfare queens demand more money from subsidies of environment-destroying ethanol mandates and New Hampshire gets to be known for something other than the refuge of people who advocate higher taxes but avoid them by living there. Why not have a primary system where there are ten states having their primaries every week, picked by a lottery and have it be over by the end of March.?

    1. Over by the end of March? They shouldn’t even be starting as early as March!

  16. @Peter Suderman

    Iowa population White alone, not Hispanic or Latino, percent, 2014 87.1%

    Second Reason author today with the wrong stat. Why the push to make Iowa whiter than it is? And for reference, OH is 80%

    1. So Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio aren’t white?

    2. Why the push to make Iowa whiter than it is?

      Because white people fucking suck and Iowa is not a goddamned accurate representation of the rest of the country! Dude, don’t you listen to NPR?! Whites are a pestilence.

      1. Sad when Reason and NPR are ideologically equivalent…

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  18. I’m certain about two things. The Iowa results are going to influence subsequent results, and it’s not clear how. We haven’t seen the anti-Trump vote any more than we’ve seen the pro-Trump vote. People like Stuperman are going to continue to scream about the electoral college, staggered primaries/caucuses, and all kinds of institutions when things don’t go their way. But if he’s screaming, it probably means he’s being ignored.

  19. Another hater on Iowa.

    Boy, you don’t understand the caucus and you don’t understand Iowa or its role.

    It’s the press that forces the whole shebang into their narrow narrative of winners and losers. Iowa doesn’t pick winners or losers. But it does give outsiders, people who aren’t favorites of the media or the money a chance to gain recognition. That’s all. There’s no way that Iowa is bad for democracy.

    In the caucus, an individual has a voice. Oh, I know we’re supposed to depend on what you feed us, but tough cookies. We go in, we talk issues and candidates with our neighbors, we make up and change our minds. You want us to reduce democracy to an act of consumption, where we just make a choice among the alternatives you want with the spin you give, swipe a card or pull a lever and leave. Ok, it takes time and commitment. You make democracy easy for the lazy and maybe, just maybe you get a lazy democracy.

    Do us a favor. Save your opinions for the coasts and the cities if that is all you understand.

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