Grinnell’s special role in Iowa’s quadrennial farce

(correction appended)

If Geek Buffet has a spiritual home, it’s probably Grinnell, Iowa, where a bunch of us went to college. Coincidentally, that’s also the site of this year’s best illustration of why the Iowa caucuses are such a wretched way to select the most powerful person in the world.

Seriously, if you’ve never been to an Iowa caucus: It’s worse than you think. Leave aside the arbitrary timing of the primary calendar and the fact that the state is 94 percent white. Because big-city people seem to see the entire state of Iowa as a sort of joke, most of them (with the notable, perennial exception of Mickey Kaus) write off the caucus’s very serious democratic problems.

Come with me, if you dare. It’s a geeky journey.

I’ll focus on the Democratic caucus, since that’s the one I reported on (and, er, participated in) four years ago. The GOP caucus is only slightly better.

The first thing you need to know about the Iowa caucuses is that almost nobody attends them. Unlike voting, attending a caucus requires every participant to meet simultaneously in church basements, living rooms and elementary school gymnasiums across the state. It probably takes half an hour in the best of circumstances. It also requires you to disclose your vote publicly. The party asks your initial preference when you enter the room. (This way, future political candidates can acquire a record of how you’ve leaned in every previous caucus and target you accordingly with mailings and telephone calls.) Then, because the way you cast your vote in a caucus is to stand in the corner of the room assigned to your candidate, all your neighbors get to observe your opinion.

In 2004, I tried to write an article about all this personal information disclosed by caucusgoers, and the uses to which it was put. The editor of my small community paper killed the story, saying he didn’t want to discourage turnout.

He needn’t have worried: That year, 5.7 percent of eligible voters in the state went through with this culturally enriching but terrifyingly undemocratic ordeal. Compare that to the 29.9 percent turnout in the efficient, secret and straightforward New Hampshire primary, the following week.

But that’s just the start.

Take a quick look at these results from the 2004 caucus. See that middle column? “State delegates”? That’s the number that’s being translated into percentages on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.

Not caucusgoers. State delegates.

If state delegates were assigned in proportion to caucusgoers’ preference, they might be justifiable. But that’s not how things work in the Iowa Democratic Party. Instead, months before caucus day, each precinct is assigned a number of delegates (this year, between 1 and 37) based on the number of people who caucused voted in that precinct four years before. When the votes are counted in each precinct, its delegates are proportionally divided according to the local support for each candidate. (There’s one more undemocratic complication to the Democratic caucuses, but I’ll spare you.)

So the precinct system is a little bit like the electoral college, which assigns states votes based on their population in the previous census and which I’m actually in favor of. (The virtue of the college, unlike the caucus, is that the winner-take-all system requires candidates to campaign in centrist swing states rather than running up a big majority in one region of the country.)

Here’s the problem: the number of caucusgoers in a precinct, unlike the number of voters in a state, can change wildly from one election to the next.

This is where Grinnell comes in.

Last week, the Iowa Democratic Party voted to move its caucus to Jan. 3, in order to stay ahead of other states that, rationally enough, have been trying to seize Iowa’s power. This early caucus date means that, unlike in 2004, the caucus will fall in the middle of winter break, when almost no students are on campus.

Because of Grinnell’s heavily Democratic and well-organized student body, the city’s first ward (which contains the college) always has far more turnout than its population would suggest. In 2004, about 800 people showed up at the first ward caucus. As a result, in 2008, Grinnell’s first ward is by far the most powerful precinct in the state, with 37 delegates. That’s two or three times the voting power of most big precincts and 23 percent bigger than the second-most-powerful, in the Omaha suburb of Council Bluffs.

If my math is right, whoever shows up at Grinnell’s first ward on Jan. 3 will control 0.2 percent of the entire Iowa caucuses.

If 800 people were going to show up again, there wouldn’t be a big problem here. But without students, the first ward will be lucky to draw half that many.

Most coverage of the date-change in the Iowa caucus has focused on the fact that fewer students will vote at all, which is supposedly going to hurt Barack Obama. But the real winner here is the candidate who appeals to those students’ professors, janitors and bartenders. They’re just a few of the bizarre interest groups who will wield way too much power in this year’s presidential election.

-posted by Mike

Correction: Upon hitting the big time, I checked my facts more closely. The number of delegates is assigned based not on the number of caucusgoers in the previous cycle but on the number of voters in the corresponding general election. The democratic problem remains, but I regret the error.


24 Responses to Grinnell’s special role in Iowa’s quadrennial farce

  1. Mike says:

    One immediate addendum: In his syndicated column last week, Garrison Keillor made the best pro-Iowa argument I’ve seen. It’s a much better read than this was.

    To be clear, I’m not calling for Iowa to be stripped of its status. Early primaries in small states are good for un-famous candidates, and that’s good for democracy. And Iowa is a noble, well-educated and politically active state, which makes it as good as any for this special status.

    Iowa’s caucuses are beautiful in a Keillor-esque way. They reinforce Iowans’ understanding and appreciation of each other. They force people to take responsibility for their role in their community and they invite further, post-election political participation.

    But, as anybody who’s lived on this planet for the last three years will tell you, the stakes are way too high for us to design an election based on how beautiful it is.

    The problem with the Iowa caucuses isn’t Iowa. It’s the Iowa caucuses.

  2. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Hey Mike, what does the GOP do differently?

  3. John says:

    %5.7 participation and Iowa fights tooth and nail to go first? That’s just… wow.

  4. TheGnat says:

    See, I personally can’t think of something more democratic than a bunch of people getting into a room and shouting, fighting, and negotiating who to vote for. It isn’t democracy until you need to call the fuzz!

    The other thing is, the student argument just pisses me off. I hated politics in Grinnell. You had several hundred people who weren’t really part of the town’s community, and had no intention of remaining in Iowa for more than college, constantly wildly swinging local elections and bigger elections too. I also don’t consider Grinnell the spiritual home of Iowa. That is utterly ridiculous to my mind, as well as depressing.

    And 5.7% is an overall number. Some places saw much higher numbers. Not that Americans vote all that much anyway…

  5. Dana says:


    Just a minor note, but Mike didn’t call Grinnell the spiritual home of Iowa, he called it the spiritual home of Geek Buffet, or at least many of its writers.

  6. Mike says:

    I take your point, Ms. Gnat, but in the end, I think the secret ballot is essential to any democratic vote. Debate in the open, but act in private; anything else invites thuggishness and groupthink.

    I’m not sure how I feel about student voting. I was pretty upset when Grinnell students ousted the hugely competent Peggy Pinder from a nonpartisan city council race in 2006. The campus Democrats had found out that she’s a registered Republican, and I’m certain that almost none of them bothered to learn anything more about the situation.

    Still, students have to vote somewhere, and four years from now there will be another 1400 young people with approximately the same interests in the same city. Better for them to vote where they sleep than where they don’t.

  7. TheGnat says:

    Ah, I misread the opeing, my bad. Don’t know why.

    As far as I can tell, the secret ballot doesn’t seem all that important. Maybe if all your neighbors knew whether you had voted, more people would vote. Social pressure! Maybe if people actually felt they needed to stand up and think out their voting…

    I would rather people vote where they take an actual socio-political interest in a real sense. I don’t absentee vote in Canada because I have never lived there in the long term and thus can’t have any real opinion of what is right or wrong for my area there. So I don’t try to muck with the lives of people who actually do live there permanently.

    Much in the same way, Grinnell students tend to be far more attached to the college and to their home areas than to Grinnell the town. When I asked some students why they were registered in Grinnell? To vote in the caucauses, to teach the locals “better” etc. It’s really no different than what the U.S. is doing in Iraq or many other places. Just no guns are involved.

  8. Tink says:

    “Hey Mike, what does the GOP do differently?”

    The GOP does a secret ballot with delegates chosen later at the district and state conventions.

    As a side note, demographics aside, if you check the history of Iowa voting patterns, they very closely follow the voting patterns of the country as a whole – much more so than any “big-city”.

    Tink (an ex “big city” left coaster now living in Iowa)

  9. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Thanks for the info, Tink. Now I’m curious — regular Buffet reader or linked from Slate?

    BTW, HELLOOOOOOOOOOOOO everyone from Slate! We’re glad to have you with us.

    TheGnat — I am of two minds about the voting thing. First and foremost is that people must be enfranchised and the law should be flexible enough to allow them to vote, even if they are “just” a new or temporary resident, like a homeless person or a college student. So, I would never argue that a voter should be turned away simply because they’re not “permanent” enough; that is a slippery slope that is too easily used to disenfranchise valid voters by entrenched community interests/power structures.

    That said, I always voted in MN rather than IA because I felt that was my residence, and if I were ever to claim, say, social benefits, I would claim them from MN rather than IA. I also paid more taxes in MN and cared more about local issues there than in IA. But I was also the type of person who was organized enough to arrange for an absentee ballot, and my voting station was always prompt and responsible about sending them out.

    Not everyone is organized — be that voter or voting station — so again, if it’s between voting or no (due to absentmindedness or to draconian registration regulations or to error), I vote voting. I did my darndest to register college students who had missed their absentee deadlines in their “home” states before the deadline passed in IA, printing the registration form in the Scarlet and Black and driving the completed forms to the county seat myself. Grinnell students more than surpass the state’s test for residency for voting, so it’s not really our place to say they can’t vote (and are you going to tell me you’d argue for disenfranchising legal measures to keep them from doing so?).

    You can argue the other side — that with each resident, the city and state receive more tax funds for programming and services and what have you. We are actually then HURTING the town by living there most of the year and *not* claiming residency and voting there. Students’ interest in public services, health services, safe streets and parks, lower taxes etc. are all as valid as anyone else’s who breathes the air or drinks the water there, no?

    Guess I don’t really follow your logic on not voting in Canada. If you don’t want to educate yourself on local issues and prefer to skip those elections, fine — but why wouldn’t you vote in national elections that have an impact on your education, your health care, your foreign policy, your national security?

  10. Mike says:

    Thanks, Tink.

    I knew some GOP precincts use secret ballots. I’m not sure all of them do, but I defer to you.

    I haven’t been able to find the GOP’s method for apportioning delegates, which is one of the big problems on the Democratic side. Do you know if they assign a number of delegates to each precinct before the voting? If not, how do they select the people who attend the county/district/state caucuses?

    The GOP do, of course, share the fundamental problem of requiring everybody to show up at the same time and go through a community rigmarole in order to vote.

    Good point about Iowa’s predictive power.

  11. Mike says:

    Uh-oh, the expat and I are posting simultaneously. Time for bed.

  12. […] you live in an “agriculture state”? And (while we’re on the subject) another thing about […]

  13. David Russell Haines says:

    I was a Grinnell College student in 1976. When I got to the caucus, my deeply admired Grinnell College professor glowered at us all and said “we’re nominating Jimmy Carter!” — and we all dutifully crawled under his legs (figuratively) — including an untenured teaching prof bucking for tenure, who nearly licked the professor’s bottom with his tongue) and did as he said! The Soviet Union had nothing on the Iowa caucus! What a load of crap! (I transferred to Columbia the following year — not that I didn’t love the Grinnell geeks, but it gets lonely out on that praire…)

  14. nmac says:

    I graduated from Grinnell in 1949.
    Since then I have watched the college move further and further to the left as some of you have observed. ‘Conservatives not wanted’ has become the norm of their belief system. (They are too stupid to be admitted anyway)
    They reached the peak of their “leftness” at last years commencement. Angela Davis was the honored guest speaker.
    Until now, I had given generously to the college, no more!
    “old Geek”

  15. poetloverrebelspy says:

    nmac, I find it hard to believe that today’s students and faculty are more liberal than the abolitionist Congregationalists who founded the place or all those graduates of the 1910s who went on to become architects of the New Deal. As the politics of this country move further and further right, the campus remains “left of center” — a more conservative place than any time in history. Perhaps you are unaware of the campus Republicans group?

    While Grinnell grads go on to do amazing things and to contribute in their multivariate ways to society, very rarely does one find a true liberal (or conservative) radical or architect of major social change.

  16. nmac says:

    Poetloverrebelspy: Certainly, the history of Grinnell is as you stated. A major belief of Grinnell’s founders was “service” in service to God. They saw their actions as” just the right thing to do.” After all, they were expressing their everyday values in what they said and did. Liberal or conservative were never a part of their vocabulary.
    It has only been in recent years with the movement toward “secular progressive” that I have become concerned about what the term “liberal” has become to mean for many people. It is not what Harry Truman or even John Kennedy meant.
    For me, the breaking point came with the honoring of Angela Davis, and all she stands for, at last year’s Grinnell commencement. Maybe Grinnell should return to its roots “in service to God”

  17. Mike says:

    Most of what I know about the college’s history just comes from Alan Jones’s book, but it seems like the college was a fairly buttoned-down place in the 40s and 50s. Rallies for Nixon, homecoming floats glorifying the atom bomb. There was a big push to raise admission standards in the late 50s (am I right in thinking this was a nationwide thing?) and when the college became a more “merit”-oriented place in the early Vietnam years, it also happened to turn pretty sharply to the left.

    Unlike some trustees when I was there (who themselves graduated before that turn to the left), I never thought it made sense to try and admit more conservatives in the name of intellectual diversity. There’s lots of diversity of thought on the “left,” too. But I think having a college Republicans chapter is probably healthy, and I certainly don’t mind honoring Davis.

  18. Jancey says:

    For what it’s worth, I think the College Democrats are working with J. Krohn to be able to come into town, sleep in the PEC, caucus, then leave. Not sure if it came to fruition, but I know the plan was being bounced around when I was there in October.

  19. Mike says:

    Thanks, Jancey. (It’s hard to imagine the Dems’ operation drawing a huge number of students, but I’m sure that’ll help.)

  20. Jancey says:

    Yeah, I’m a pretty dedicated voter, and I admit that I loved caucus-ing (well, i loved the idea. I agree with many of your above points- in reality i think it’s kind of inefficiently bizarre.), but I don’t think I would come back just to walk to a certain room/designated wall in Bailey Elementary! Maybe they’re trying to sell it as some kind of political love-in slumber party at the PEC.

  21. “But the real winner here is the candidate who appeals to those students’ professors, janitors and bartenders. They’re just a few of the bizarre interest groups who will wield way too much power in this year’s presidential election.”

    Do you ever stop to listen to yourself?

    Janitors and bartenders actually choosing the caucus winner, instead of the enlightened college students?!

    You call that bizarre? I call them the working men and women of this country that know the importance of a strong paycheck, good schools for their kids, and security for their parents. They know more about what politics actually means to their lives than any 21 who has never been outside of the cozy world of school.

    I’d rather have them choosing the Iowa caucus winner than a bunch of Grinnellians who will run out of Iowa like a bat out of &^%$ within 4 years.

  22. Dana says:

    Ann ’89,

    Taken out of context, yes, that quote sounds incredibly egotistical. But I think that within the context of Mike’s whole post, it should be clear that what he is pointing out is that the Grinnell caucusing district is bizarrely swollen with the presence of college students anyway, based on the number of them that vote there. His point is not that the college students know better, it’s that the whole caucus system in Iowa leads to extremely skewed representation of demographics, and gives caucus-goers an inordinate amount of power in the entire nationwide pre-election process.

  23. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I’m sort of amazed at the hostility towards college-aged voters. They meet the residency requirements, period. End of sentence.

    I think what *actually* pisses people off is that they EXERCISE their right to vote, unlike the “working men and women of this country . . . [who] know more about what politics actually means to their lives” (if they know, Ann ’89, is that why they don’t participate?). In any election in Grinnell, town outvotes gown (assuming all students intended to vote in Iowa) 9 to 1 if they show up to the polls. Is it the student body’s fault that voter and caucus turnout is low? Political apathy is another form of “voting”; if the locals were bothered with the results, wouldn’t they begin turning out more regularly?

  24. […] Though it is unlikely that Obama will be non-viable here in Grinnell 1st Ward (the most delegate rich in the state, with representing about 0.2%), Edwards will be my second […]

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