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. I
n 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.