Iowa caucuses need to bite the dust
The complete meltdown in tallying results at the Iowa caucuses means officials should decide on the only viable course of action: It’s time to get rid of the outmoded practice of holding caucuses.
Iowa has selfishly prided itself on its first-in-the-nation status, and the state’s voters have come to expect the chance to meet all of the candidates. Cable news channels sent scores of reporters to several caucus sites, seemingly in hopes of interviewing every last Iowa voter.
All of this is for a state that’s older and whiter than the Democratic Party as a whole. Why does the Democratic National Committee keep allowing it? And what happened to all the votes?
Media outlets descend on the state each year for the Iowa State Fair and each candidate’s campaign events. All of those reporters and TV production staff mean a lot of money goes into the coffers of hotels, restaurants, diners (you can’t do a story about Iowa voting without visiting the local diner), and more.
Candidates themselves spend gobs of money on TV advertising — the state’s residents have learned to have their thumbs poised over the TV remote’s “mute” button. Advertising Analytics, the ad industry’s trade group, said candidates had spent $45 million on advertising in Iowa as of early January, when there was still a month to go before the caucuses. That compares with $46 million in 2016, when Democrats and Republicans faced wide-open races.
There are lots of conspiracy theories about what went wrong in counting the votes. Even when the results are released, they aren’t going to tell us much — the estimates are that the four front-runners did equally well, give or take a few percentage points. No one can claim a “win” from Iowa, even though candidates gave speeches to supporters trying to claim just that.
Yet if you watched any of the coverage of the caucuses themselves, cable news spent hours and hours at caucus sites long after voters had gone home. Officials and voters both admitted they were confused by some of the new rules, in which those running the caucuses were supposed to deliver three sets of totals, using a new (and, it turns out, untested) app. Older officials, perhaps not as keen on the new technology, had the option of calling in results to a hotline, but there were reports of being on hold for more than an hour. And the Iowa Democratic Party could only report “technical glitches” and “inconsistencies” in numbers.
Of course the numbers were inconsistent. Some voters in caucuses where their candidates weren’t deemed “viable” — that is, they didn’t reach 15% of the total vote — simply went home. Can you blame them? With such a still-wide-open field of candidates, including two billionaires who don’t have to drop out of the race because of money problems, voters are still undecided on which candidate has the best chance to beat Donald Trump. As a result, the hoped-for surge in voters likely didn’t happen (although we don’t have that number, either). As Karen Tumulty wrote in The Washington Post:
But the voters I talked to seemed confused and anxious in the final hours before the caucuses, more torn than usual over which candidate to pick in a field that still numbers nearly a dozen. …
The campaigns have already moved on to New Hampshire. The countless hours of stumping and organizing in Iowa are behind them. And no doubt they are all wondering: What was the point of it?
Yes, DNC and Iowa Democratic Party, what was the point of it? What was the point of changing the rules, under pressure from the Bernie Sanders campaign, to make it harder to count votes? What was the point of using an untested app, especially by older volunteers who didn’t know how to use it?
Even more important, what’s the point of letting a group of non-representative voters winnow the field?
There are other, better models of choosing candidates. Caucuses favor candidates whose followers have hours to spend milling around. College students can show up easily; working parents, people who work at night, and folks with disabilities, not so much.
Here are some other voting models (there are more), which have been proposed by some elected representatives and state election officials as well states who don’t have early primaries. These models are always shot down by Iowa and New Hampshire.
A national primary day. All primary voters (with chances for early voting, absentee voting, etc.) would choose a candidate on the same day. Pros: It gets it over with, and no state’s voters have more weight than others. Cons: Candidates would concentrate on states with the most votes.
Inter-regional primaries. States would be divided into six regions, and a single state (or group of small states) from each region would have primaries on the same day until all states had voted. States would be chosen at random to go first, and the order would rotate. You can see the obvious problems and confusion that would arise.
True regional primaries. The country would be divided into four regions, and all states in each region would hold primaries on the same day. The order would rotate each presidential cycle. To me, this is the only model that makes sense.
Whatever the future of primary voting might be, let’s hope a prediction from a veteran Iowa reporter comes true. As reported in Politico:
If one thing was certain from Monday’s debacle, Iowa had just signed its death warrant as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, the legendary Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen said.
“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Yepsen said. “The real winner tonight was Donald Trump, who got to watch his opponents wallow in a mess. A lot of good Democratic candidates and people who fought their hearts out here for … nothing.
“I expect Iowans will move themselves to kill it off by holding a primary, and let the state move to someplace behind New Hampshire along with other states.”