Sabato's Crystal Ball

All Eyes on the Hawkeye State

But should we be watching so early and closely?

Larry J. Sabato and David Wasserman, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics January 3rd, 2008

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If you’re from Iowa, maybe you should just stop reading right now. I don’t want to spoil your big day.

I have nothing against the Hawkeye State. To the contrary, my visits there have invariably been pleasant, and my dealings with colleagues and journalists based in Iowa have been delightful.

It’s just that (1) the caucuses this year are way too early; (2) the caucuses and the state are unrepresentative of the broader electorate; and (3) the rules of the caucuses raise real questions about fairness.

The Timing. Have you met anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to start the process two days after New Year’s, with campaigning having peaked over the Christmas holidays? Let’s remember why this has happened: Iowa and New Hampshire absolutely insisted upon going first, as always. Isn’t that a little bit greedy? Aren’t there 48 other equal states? Even if you buy their arguments about small states being better as the initial “screening committees” for White House contenders, there are twenty other states with just a few electoral votes. Any small state would take the lead-off post seriously. Yet Iowa and New Hampshire almost pushed the presidential selection process into early December 2007–an absurdity that could easily become reality four years from now if we don’t insist on change.

Representativeness. Iowa, like New Hampshire, is overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural. African-Americans and Hispanics in the Hawkeye State, for example, number just 2 percent and 3 percent of the population, respectively, and 38 percent of Iowans are located in rural areas. In the nation as a whole, nearly 25 percent of the population is African-American or Hispanic, and a mere 21 percent of U.S. citizens are found in rural localities. New Hampshire is even worse than Iowa, with a population that is 0.7 percent black, 1.7 percent Hispanic, and 41 percent rural. In the Democratic Party–the home of 90 percent of African-Americans and about two-thirds of Hispanics–the disparity is especially significant. The two first states to vote often determine one or both party nominees, yet racial and ethnic minorities will have played a tiny role.

Unfair Caucus Rules. Let’s keep in mind that the Iowa caucus requires a great deal from all participants, not least a full evening devoted to travel and meeting. The time commitment discourages many from joining in. Iowa’s population is about 3 million, of which approximately 2 million are registered voters. The news media are full of stories about an expected “record” turnout tonight. And what will that record amount to? In both parties combined, there may be as many as 250,000 people showing up for the caucuses, or 12 percent of the registered voters. Therefore 88 percent of Iowa’s registered population won’t be seen or heard from on caucus night.

That’s just the beginning. If an Iowan has to work an evening job, he or she can forget about the caucuses. To have your vote count, you must be there at 7 pm when the doors close. It’s just too bad for those who can’t get time off or afford to do without the income. How about Iowans who are members of the armed forces and stationed out of state? Sorry Charlie, you may be defending our freedom but there’s no provision for you to participate either. Absentee ballots and caucuses do not mix. As Governor Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) noted this week, if you are elderly or frail or ill, you are far less likely to endure hours of caucusing than a quick trip to the polls to cast a primary ballot.

Adding insult to injury, some Iowa activists and journalists actually condemned caucus participation by college and university students who live with their parents in other states three months of the year while feeding Iowa’s economy nine months of the year by enrolling in a Hawkeye institution of higher learning. Participation among the young often lags, and they should be energetically facilitated in every way possible. Some in Iowa apparently think the caucuses are a private club that must be kept “pure.” (We at the U.Va. Center for Politics devote much of our resources to youth voting, so we have strong views on this subject. See our Youth Leadership Initiative.)

We haven’t even mentioned the Byzantine caucus rules on the Democratic side. It would require a separate column to explain the process in detail, but suffice it to say that it almost takes a PhD in mathematics to advise Iowa Democrats on their delegate allocation formula. The party even refuses to release the simple hand-count of caucus participants for each presidential candidate, making public only the final delegate allocations. Thus, the raw popular votes for the candidates, which can differ considerably from the weighted delegate allocations, are never known. (The Iowa Democratic Party says it must do this to satisfy the national Democratic Party’s rules; if so, the national rules should be changed.) By contrast, the Republicans just take a hand-count tally, and release it. Of course, all the other inequities we have outlined still apply to the Iowa GOP.

Regular readers of the Crystal Ball know that we are fierce advocates of a thorough overhaul of the presidential nominating system, most definitely beginning with the dethroning of Iowa and New Hampshire–the regal duopoly that has outlived its usefulness. We invite you to take a look at my “Regional Lottery Plan” as well as a more detailed discussion in A More Perfect Constitution. Given the general unhappiness with the chaos in primary scheduling that has unfolded this election cycle, there is some modest reason to hope for reform prior to 2012. Given Iowa and New Hampshire’s ferocious defense of their excessive presidential perks, the emphasis must remain on the word “modest.”

However, the more immediate need is for all of us to keep in mind legitimate questions about Iowa’s system as we watch the results stream in this evening. The press’ breathless pronouncements about the “winners” and “losers” should be tempered somewhat by another reality–the deep flaws inherent in Iowa’s over-hyped caucuses.