Early in the 2016 Presidential election year all eyes will be on Iowa because on February 1st the state will host their first in the nation Presidential election process, the Iowa caucuses. Presidential candidates have long since been crisscrossing the state shaking thousands of hands. The television news channels are already featuring the latest results of polls taken in Iowa and it has been projected that the Presidential campaigns will spend as much as $30 million dollars in the state before the caucuses have been completed. No doubt on that Monday evening the major networks will have scores of reporters on hand waiting breathlessly to report the latest vote tabulations. However, if you look closely at how the caucus process works, and how few voters are involved, you will inevitably come away wondering why anyone would care which candidates will win in Iowa.
First you have to understand how both of the major parties go about selecting Iowa’s delegates to their national Presidential conventions. On caucus evening, usually starting about 7:00 pm local, voters in each of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts will begin to file into their Democratic or Republican caucus locations. There they will socialize, discuss who should get their votes, and hear speeches made by the representatives of each of the major candidates. Then, using their precinct’s local procedures, they will cast their votes for the candidates of their choice. It is the tabulation of these votes which will make nation news, but at this point the selection process for Iowa’s Democratic and Republican Party delegates to their national conventions has not even begun.
After the initial voting for Presidential contenders, the caucus attendees will also vote to select one delegate to represent their precinct at their party’s county convention which is to be held in March. On the Democratic side each of the 99 county conventions in turn select delegates to their district conventions which in turn choose delegates to the state convention. It is at the Democratic Party state convention in June that Iowa’s delegates to the national Democratic convention are chosen. The Republicans skip district convention step with their county delegates going directly to the state Republican convention which will also be held in June. Hence the direct votes for the Presidential candidates at the Iowa precinct caucuses are divorced from the processes used to choose the Democratic and Republican delegates to their respective nation conventions.
Another huge problem with the caucus system is how few people will actually attend the Iowa precinct caucuses and cast votes the evening of February 1st. In order to be able to attend a precinct caucus a voter must be a registered member of their party. In 2012 only about 20% of registered Democrats and 20% of the registered Republicans in Iowa attended their party’s precinct caucuses, but the actual attendance in the caucuses is far lower than that. In 2012, 31.5% of Iowans were registered Democrats and 31.2% were registered Republicans. The rest, 36.3% of voters, were registered as having “no party” and thus they could attend neither the Republican nor the Democratic caucuses. If you do the math, in 2012 only about 12.9% of the registered voters in Iowa took part in the Democratic and Republican caucuses and voted for the Presidential candidates of their choice.
The bottom line is that the population of Iowa makes ups less than one half of 1% of the nation’s voters and less 13% of the registered voters in the state bother to vote in the Iowa caucuses. In addition, that voting is divorced from the actual process by which Iowa delegates to the Democratic and Republican national conventions are chosen and that process will not be concluded until four months later. The only thing Iowa has going for it is that its caucuses are the first Presidential selection process in the nation. It’s well that Iowa has that distinction because otherwise no one would care a great deal how Iowans vote in their caucuses.