By Donald Kaul
The Iowa caucuses may be over by the time you read this. But it doesn’t matter. The caucuses are the second-most fraudulent event on the nation’s political calendar.
The first, of course, is the Ames Straw Poll. It’s entirely meaningless, but political reporters pay attention to it because if they didn’t, their editors would make them cover a real story, like a meeting of the local water board.
Quick! Who won the Ames Straw Poll in August?
Did you forget already? I thought so.
Michele Bachmann won it and was immediately anointed a serious contender for the presidency. That’s of the United States, mind you. By Thanksgiving, her candidacy had shrunk to Lilliputian proportions. Told you so.
The Iowa caucuses are the oddest oddball of the political year. They have virtually no predictive value, but reporters and commentators act as though they do. Historically, they are as apt to choose a loser as a winner.
Don’t believe me? Here are some of the people who have won the caucuses that preceded presidential elections past: Democrats Tom Harkin and Dick Gephardt, and Republicans Mike Huckabee and Pat Robertson. None of them ever got within spitting distance of their party’s nomination. Bob Dole won the Iowa caucuses once. It wasn’t the year he secured the GOP nomination.
In 1988, Democrat Mike Dukakis and Republican George H. W. Bush both finished third in their respective party caucuses and went on to win their nominations. In 1980, Ronald Reagan finished second in Iowa and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
The first President Bush won Iowa the year he lost the nomination to Reagan. He lost it in 1988, the year he defeated Dukakis.
In 1976, Democrats put up a strong array of strong candidates. The contenders for their party’s nomination included Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, former Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, Rep. Morris Udall of Arizona, Sen. Scoop Jackson of Washington state, and Sargent Shriver, who had been George McGovern’s running mate four years earlier. Oh, and the relatively unknown former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter.
Carter finished ahead of them all in Iowa and was propelled to a successful run for the presidency, more’s the pity. In fairness to Iowa voters, it should be pointed out that Carter finished second to “uncommitted.”
The rules for the caucuses — one set for Democrats, another for Republicans — are almost impossible to fully understand, though in my many years of covering them as a reporter and newspaper columnist I always found that drinking helped. The Democrats keep breaking apart into ever-smaller groups with more emphasis on making sure every group, gender, race, and sexual preference is represented than on whom the candidate should be.
The Republicans, as I understand it, vote in their precincts on caucus night, pass the results on to the press, then forget about them. Months later, at the state convention where delegates to the national convention are actually chosen, everyone votes for whomever they choose without reference to the caucuses.
These things take place at hundreds of venues in the dead of an Iowa winter and can consume as much as two or three hours, with no absentee voting. Nor is there a secret ballot.
It’s no more or less democratic than a Russian election, I suppose.
Out of this mess comes an avalanche of stories. I’m guessing that many will have headlines such as this one: “Newt Gingrich has seized the reins of the campaign.”
The best thing about the caucuses is that they are really fun. Iowa campaigns are retail politics at their most charming, and the people are great.
I remember one caucus at which Orville Armstrong, a legendary if rough-hewn Polk County supervisor, became incensed at what the speaker in front of him was saying, so he punched him between the shoulder blades, sending him flying over a row of chairs. You don’t get action like that with a secret ballot.
As far as being a crystal ball into the future, however, reporters would be better served by reading the entrails of frogs.
OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.