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.