The Iowa Caucuses: How Not to Crown the Next Emperor (or Empress)

by Rick Rockwell

The first major event in the process of how the U.S. picks the most powerful person in the world is less than six weeks away. So why aren’t we panicked?

Perhaps it’s because the media are telling us everything is hunky-dory. Don’t worry. This is the democratic system at work.

First, let’s set aside the fact that votes won’t determine the Iowa caucuses for either party. This is a measure of grassroots organization, not wooing individual voters. Without getting into the details of how caucuses work, it boils down to getting your operatives into the meetings and swaying decisions. There’s no private voting. This is group-think.

And forget the polls, even though some may find positive signs if you read those tea leaves. How can a poll of individual voters actually reflect how a group can sway the decision process? Perhaps this is why candidates use that wonder of marketing, the focus group.

Yes, the Iowa polls show Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) leading Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) barely although Clinton holds a 30 point poll lead nationwide. And on the Republican side, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney leads the nationwide frontrunner Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York City. So to those who wish to stop the frontrunners, (and there are many of us) Iowa holds out hope.

But there’s no hope really. No. Iowa is just the first stop on a train ride of despair.

Many have rightly criticized a system that anoints Iowa and New Hampshire as the states that propel candidates toward the White House. The media will push the winners forward for all to approve, despite their flaws. Bill Clinton even proved exceeding expectations in Iowa (where he actually finished third after the first inklings of his problems with extramarital affairs) was enough to dub himself “the comeback kid.” And his campaign repeated the slogan when he came in second in New Hampshire, again exceeding media expectations. Everyone knows what happened after that.

This year, Nevada is also holding a primary earlier than usual, to be included in the first round of decision-making states, and South Carolina also remains an early key. After that comes the rush of other states. Super Tuesday. Super-Duper Tuesday.

It’s all Super Dumb.

But the media will tell you otherwise. E.J. Dionne tells us it's alright to forget issues and just use the media to decide about character. Eugene Robinson will admit the media don’t really care about issues and revel in the horse race aspects of campaigning, so bring it on ever earlier. And Michael Kinsley will tell you despite the mess we face, experience in government (and many of the candidates lack that) doesn't matter.

It’s all a media smokescreen.

The Emporer (or Empress) has no clothes. This system actually disenfranchises voters, which is part of the rush of states to move their primaries up on the calendar ever earlier. Why has no leader in either party come forward to stop this unseemly insanity? Of course, the nation is so sick of the current incompetent in the White House, everyone, the Republicans included, are falling over themselves to see who will come next. But choosing candidates won’t make that lying bumbler leave any quicker. And who says we need to have candidates selected by March so we have to endure seven months of their bickering?

Some in Congress have half-heartedly discussed reforms for primaries, but that won’t help us in this election, which is shaping up as the most important in a generation. And what happened to those electoral reforms we were all promised after the debacles of the presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004? Well, the powerful have no real reason to change a system where they remain in power, so we have the status quo.

However, this broken system is no way to select someone who has their finger on the atomic trigger. This is no way to pick the so-called leader of the free world. Is it any reason the rest of the world gets impatient with this superpower?

(Political cartoon from radicalgraphics.org, which offers its material for free.)

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Jeff Siegel said...

Right on. This mess is all the more amazing because the parties themselves have lost control of what's going on -- witness the Democrats and Florida. It's certainly not about choosing candidates; rather, from the states' point of fiew, it's about marketing, and getting exposure on the evening news and in the cyber ether.

Our only hope is that all these candidates (on both sides) are so weak that no one wins much in the first couple of primaries and caucauses, and that there is no clear front-runner heading into either convention. Then we might actually see the issues become important.

Anonymous said...

The problem in any electoral reform I see lies with the media again.

They elevate "national frontrunners" from every party (i.e. Clinton/Obama and Giuliani/Romney) even though they might not necessarily be leading in the Iowa polls/New Hampshire polls.

The way I see it, it's this early Caucus and Primary (with the rest that follow) that prevents these front runners from actually getting elected.

Also, Iowa provides a lot of hope, as you said. True grassroots support is more important than just votes in this case (in a party sense). It helps determine which candidate actually gets and holds voters.

Anonymous said...

I think this is one of the best blogs I have ever read. I loved the link to the three op ed pieces in the Washington Post. Fantastic stuff, I probably would have never seen those articles otherwise and even if I had seen one or more, I would not have fit them into the bigger picture so beautifully.

Let's hope blogs replace major media in the long run, because major media have become part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

Let's not understate the imporance of the American campaign finance laws and campaign laws in general.

To push the blame entirely onto the media is putting the cart before the horse. The media are scoundrels and should be ashamed of themselves, but in my opinion its the campaign system itself that is so bad and in effect everything else is a symptom of that problem.

for starters...
Very few countries in the world even allow TV commercials for campaigns. there is so much money at stake that the media outlets feel they have to compete for those dollars and this corrupts the process.

You need massive money to run for many political which has effects an idiot can see so I won't list them all out....

I love it when Americans tout how great their ethics are and site placed like India where you might have to make a gift or some sort of gesture to open business and political doors. America is just as corrupt, only we've cloaked this illegality with legitimacy by legalising what should be illlegal and calling them nice names like lobbyists (in Italy we also call persons with ironically similar day to day work duties as mafiosi) and campaign contributions (these are known as bribes in many countries)

Anonymous said...

In response to the anonymous comment about Campaign finance laws...

A part of the problem is also the inanity of the rules. 527s, for example, are a beast created by these rules. Campaign finance laws create perverse incentives that have unintended consequences.

Nobody would disagree, however, that our campaign laws do need SOME sort of reform

Rick Rockwell said...

Thanks for all the great comments. I do feel I need to clarify this though because the perception is that I'm only blaming the media.

Part of my reason for writing this was that few folks are going to call the media to account for their flaws: both the corruption and the skewed coverage. Why is it I get overwhelmed with minutia and lots of horserace details by the media but few are stepping back and looking at the macro picture? Our democratic system is broken, but the writers trudge onward, not accepting responsibility for marshaling folks to fix it.

However, I certainly do think the media are just part of the problem. The major parties really don't want electoral reform, otherwise, at least one of them would have pushed it harder. Why this isn't on the Democratic Party agenda is beyond me.

And campaign finance reform is part of that too. Remember the McCain-Feingold reform? It did not go far enough but it was the best compromise at the time. However, now McCain is paying the price for pushing it (as he did when he ran in 2000 too).

Academics like to discuss polyarchies... a system of government that some see as glass-ceiling democracy. The more I see the U.S. refraining from reform the more I believe we no longer live in a democratic republic but something more like a polyarchic system which functions only as a democracy for the elite.

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