The Iowa caucuses are often held up as both a strong indicator of how a presidential campaign will play out and a somewhat perfect representation of the state of democracy in America. Unfortunately for everyone but the handful of highly politically-engaged, racially homogeneous Iowa voters who, by sheer accident of history and precedent, almost assuredly pick the next Democratic nominee for everyone else, this could not be further from reality. The Iowa caucuses are the single most undemocratic aspect of the presidential nominating contest, an antiquated tradition not worth the paper the state’s general election ballots are printed on. Their strange stranglehold over the American electoral system must be reexamined.
Every four years since 1920, the state of Iowa has held caucuses to determine the allocation of its delegates in the Democratic and Republican primary elections. After the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party chose to spread out its primaries to different months in different states and the Republicans followed suit. Since Iowa had long used the caucus method (which will be described in more detail later) rather than traditional primaries, it was given the right to be the first delegate contest in the road to the nomination. Since 1972, Iowa and New Hampshire have been the first two states in the nominating process and their contests draw intense media scrutiny for a number of reasons.
First, as the first two contests, Iowa and New Hampshire represent the first chances to monitor how well a campaign is registering with voters and caucus goers. A good showing in Iowa from a surprise candidate or an underwhelming showing by a favorite like Hillary Clinton in 2008 can indicate trends in the electorate, which can then either take a campaign to a new gear or lead to questions being asked. Secondly, performing well in Iowa and New Hampshire has traditionally been crucial to securing the Democratic nomination. Since 1976, only Bill Clinton won the nomination without winning finishing first among named candidates in the first two states. Third, Iowa is widely regarded as a swing state in a general election, as it has cast its electoral votes for six Democrats and six Republicans in the last 12 elections. More importantly, it has voted with the eventual victor in nine of those elections, including in each of the last four. This status means that it serves as an ideological test case for which candidate backgrounds and policy proposals will appeal to Iowans in a general election and would perhaps flip the outcome of the election. Despite it accounting for just one percent of the total delegates awarded at the Democratic convention, Iowa’s symbolic value makes it seem crucial to candidates.
The caucus system is also unusual in that its methodology differs greatly from that of the various primaries that are held in the majority of states. First, unlike primaries (which are run by the states themselves), caucuses are run by state parties. Secondly, instead of going to polling places and each registered individual casting a ballot, caucus goers travel to precinct meetings and publicly congregate with those who support the same candidate that they do. If a candidate has 15 percent of the vote of the people physically present in the room, their supporters are locked into supporting that candidate. If they do not have 15 percent, they are dropped from the running and the candidate’s supporters have an opportunity to realign with another candidate. Voters that are behind a particular candidate must convince undecideds and those backing an eliminated candidate to join their coalition to win. Notably, “Undecided,” or “Uncommitted” as it is known in Iowa jargon, is technically a candidate, and were it to constitute 15 percent of the voters in any given room, it would lock those voters out of selecting a candidate.
Iowa’s prestige as a primary prize derives not only from its unique method of awarding delegates and tradition, but also from dumb luck. Iowa moved its caucuses to the front of primary season at the fortuitous moment of 1972, just the same time that the Democrats reformed the nominating process to give more weight to American voters than party bosses. Additionally, once George McGovern surprised party elites by winning the 1972 Democratic nomination, pundits looked to his surprise second place finish in Iowa as a missed indicator of the general appetite for a McGovern nomination. Pundits looked back on his victory in Iowa as a demonstration of the strength of the antiwar movement and Iowa emerged as a perceived bellweather for intra-party trends.
Iowans took advantage of this newfound outsider curiosity and mobilized to amplify media buzz. As Tom Whitney, the former chair of the Iowa Democrats told Iowa Public Television, "Basically after the ‘74 [midterm] elections, we organized a very, very significant kind of effort to convince first the candidates that they ought to be in Iowa because the national press was going to be here, and then to convince the national press that they should be in Iowa because the candidates were going to be here." Since then, the Iowa state parties have fought hard to retain their “first-in-the-nation” status on the basis of precedent.
This system has infuriated critics on both sides of the aisle, from former Scott Walker aide Liz Mair to Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro. Both the process of caucusing and the disproportionate impact of such a small, racially homogeneous state on national politics are incompatible with American democratic norms, yet persist.
The Caucus Problem
At the root of the issue with the Iowa caucus is the concept of the caucus itself. As laid out earlier, the difference between a caucus and a primary is not merely rhetorical. Indeed, the caucus could be best understood as a funhouse mirror version of a primary reflecting all of Americans’ worst, most conspiratorial assumptions about how primaries function.
This leads nicely into the first issue with the caucus system. Since caucuses require being physically present in a single place for hours on end and are decided by the ability of a person to persuade other caucus goers to support their candidate, many people are left out of this process due to everyday circumstances. Working people, younger people, members of the military, college students, and parents with children often do not have the means or availability to be in a specific place at a specific time for hours on end, excluding them.
More broadly, caucuses are bad for democratic participation as a whole. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, the caucus system consistently produces lower turnout rates, with an average rate of 32 percent for primary states and under 10 percent for caucus states. Nine of the eleven states with the lowest turnout are caucus states. For context as to just how low turnout is, in Iowa, 120,000 Republicans participated in the 2008 party caucus in Iowa, representing .04 percent of the American population and yet casting disproportionate influence on American elections. In no other democracy on Earth does a population roughly the size of Michigan Stadium’s capacity or the population of College Station, Texas effectively determine a nomination for a major party.
At the same time, caucuses depress turnout due to the fact that there is no absentee voting or voting by mail in caucus states. College students and members of the military are essentially barred from participating from outside of the precinct location. These common sense policies allow for the voices of all citizens to be heard in elections and ensure that no American shall be deprived of the right to vote for pursuing their education or protecting those very freedoms. Iowa is an especially egregious offender because it also bars independents from participating in caucuses without switching their party registration, creating an undue burden on those who may like a single candidate but may not be party loyalists. This voter suppression of swing voters and non-voters creates gigantic holes in the assumptions that can be gleaned from caucuses.
Worse still, Iowa caucuses are subject to different spending disclosure deadlines and rules than primaries. This is far more than a mere annoyance to political reporters in Iowa City, as high-spending candidates can blitz Iowans with ads from their robust Super PACs without fear of the potentially damaging revelations of who is behind the ads. Due to a dubious ruling by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) in 1979, the release of spending information is delayed until after the decisive early contest because caucuses are not regarded as elections. The FEC justified this holding by classifying primaries as elections and caucuses as elections only if they had the authority to select a candidate. Iowa’s caucuses are not regarded as elections due to the fact that technically caucus goers caucus for delegates to the state convention who will stand in for a candidate. This distinction is almost purely academic. For example, electors of the Electoral College are not always bound to vote the same way their state did, but nobody challenges the contention that presidential elections are elections. There is relatively functionally almost zero difference between that and the caucus, and thus the grounds for this decision are without merit.
Additionally, the process of realignment, or convincing those who had cast votes for eliminated candidates to support one’s own candidate, encourages the caucuses to be comprised chiefly of those who are already highly engaged in politics, as well as those who are the most committed and ideological. The act of convincing relies on volunteers understanding candidates’ positions on various issues like the backs of their hands and being skilled communicators well-versed in talking points. Also, since these voters tend to either be well-informed or view themselves as being well-informed (which, believe me, are not the same), they are more prone to succumbing to the condition of thinking like a pundit more than a voter moved to like certain candidates based on their positions or values. They may vote based not on whom they prefer to be president (the actual point of primaries and caucuses) but on who some mythical white uncle from rural Michigan would find least appalling, suppressing the true will and preferences of the people of Iowa while flagrantly misrepresenting both the intelligence of their colleagues and the demographics of the Midwest. Who is to say that party elites who fall asleep and wake up to MSNBC are any more worthy of deciding the allocation of Iowa’s delegates than are political newcomers who may have been inspired by a rally they stumbled upon or a candidate’s speech they saw go viral?
In essence, this misconception is the motivating logic of caucuses: that media nostalgia for symbolic single acts of democracy shall matter more than expanding broader, more nondescript participation in democracy. The irony of the Iowa caucus being decided by party insiders, interest group preferences, and elites when it was originally part of a concerted effort to reduce elite control over the nominating process cannot be ignored. The caucus system has failed America’s political parties and ought to be entirely rejected by a party that claims to be the party of voting rights and the working class.
The Iowa Problem
At this point in the piece, even the most educated reader may yet be wondering whether this same story could be written about any other state were it to lead the primary season and have a caucus system. However, it is important not to discount the role of Iowa and its politics.
First, Iowa is about as representative of the diversity of the United States as Olive Garden is of authentic Italian cuisine. Iowa is over 85 percent white and not Latinx, compared to the U.S., which is just over 60 percent white and not Latinx. But racial diversity is not the only kind of diversity Iowa is lacking. Only 5 percent of Iowans are foreign born, compared to 13.4 percent of the American population. Finally, just over 60 percent of Iowans live in urban areas compared to 80 percent of Americans overall. As Iowa is more rural, more white, and is home to fewer immigrants, this will privilege certain policy proposals that appeal to a community that looks absolutely nothing like America.
The chief policy that is privileged by Iowa’s status is ethanol subsidies. The corn-based fuel pours nearly $5 billion into the Iowan economy annually and supports 40,000 jobs in the state. Ethanol is subsidized by the federal government through the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program, which was established by the 2005 Energy Policy Act and expanded through the Energy Independence and Security Act. The RFS requires renewable fuel, defined as being made from biofuel, to be blended into transportation fuel in increasing quantities each year, leading up to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
There are numerous problems with RFS and ethanol subsidies writ large. A 2016 GAO report found that the program was unlikely to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Once regarded as an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, new climate science has cast doubts on ethanol’s purported positive impact. As Michael Grunwald writes, “Over the past decade, a growing body of climate science has complicated the politics by suggesting that ethanol is not really a ‘cleaner-burning fuel.’ It was once considered an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, because even though manufacturing it and driving with it spews carbon into the atmosphere, growing corn plants sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. But newer studies that take a wider view of its impact have found that the land-use changes triggered by using productive farmland to grow fuel can end up increasing overall emissions: Taking an acre out of food production creates demand for additional land to replace that food, and the acreage that gets converted tends to be forests and other natural lands that store more carbon than corn fields.” Secondly, the production of ethanol requires growing corn in quantities so large that water shortages occur and fertilization causes phosphorus and nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River.
Finally, and perhaps most tragically, ethanol production has negative impacts on developing countries. Since the U.S. is far and away the world’s leading producer of corn, diverting a sizable chunk of it to ethanol production has led to demand shocks in global corn supply, driving prices up 21 percent globally. This hurts people in poorer nations that tend to be corn importers, driving those who are already struggling closer to malnutrition.
Yet almost every Democrat in the 2020 race has endorsed ethanol subsidies, even as the much more eco-friendly electric vehicle becomes cheaper and cheaper. While government slashing Tea Party Republicans like Ted Cruz have opposed the RFS program and John McCain once refused to campaign in Iowa due to his opposition to RFS, every major Democratic candidate who has taken a campaign position on the issue supports ethanol as a transition fuel to more readily available electric vehicles, even as some of them have cosponsored bills to phase out its use in Washington. Why? Because every Democrat to win the Iowa caucus since 1980 has supported ethanol subsidies in some form. Several, including Hillary Clinton, later flipped and withdrew their support for RSF but only after Iowa. Traditionally, backing the RFS subsidies has been the only choice Democrats have had in Iowa, even in spite of growing calls for a Green New Deal and new scientific evidence.
In short, Iowa itself is as much the problem as the method used to select its nominees. The DNC should welcome efforts to change the nominating lineup if it wants primaries that debate the issues that pertain to all Americans. Instead of fetishizing individual, symbolic acts of democracy and idealized notions of retail politics, the DNC must ensure its primaries look like the diverse country and democracy America is.
A.J. Manuzzi is a third-year International Relations major in the School of International Service. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Agora and currently serves as an Editor-at-Large.
Photo credit Phil Roeder, Creative Commons