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Wisconsin primary voters, don’t read too much into the Iowa caucuses

Iowa’s system excludes too many people.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

On February 3, the Iowa caucuses will be held, and for me, a former Iowan, they’ll bring a certain interest and a wave of nostalgia. The media will go nuts, my friends will head to schools and community centers to stand for their candidates and maybe even end up on the cover of The New York Times in a crowd photo. 

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And as someone who lived in the Hawkeye State for 21 years, it will feel just like I am an Iowan again. Because I won’t be at a caucus.

Many Iowans won’t. They can’t. It’s impossible. So before we here in Wisconsin wonder just what we should take away from this first test of 2020, it’s paramount to understand not what the Iowa caucuses are but what they are not: representative. In fact, they are such a perfect form of institutional voter suppression it’s a miracle the Wisconsin GOP didn’t think of it. 

Here’s why: 

On the GOP side, the caucuses are pretty straightforward. Caucus-goers (as opposed to voters) cast a ballot for their preferred candidate in a non-binding straw poll. Then, delegates to the county convention are chosen, so it’s important to stick around even after you’ve cast that ballot. Ted Cruz emerged from this process as the GOP winner in 2016. 

The Democratic side is a big hot mess, which in 2020 will surprise absolutely no one. Caucus-goers physically gather in a group for their candidate, maybe under a sign with the candidate’s name on it. Depending on the attendance, this can take quite a while. Hours, in fact. Depending on how close the totals are, it might be hard to distinguish who supports who (which happened with Clinton-Sanders caucus-goers in 2016). 

A candidate must have the support of 15 percent of the room to be “viable.” If your candidate is not viable, you make a second choice, sometimes at the kindly prodding of a candidate’s supporters who want you to come play with them. (You will never feel so wanted in all your life, so that’s a perk.) After this game of political musical chairs, another count is made to seek viability. Essentially, the Democratic caucus is a political junkie’s notion of heaven and an introvert’s vision of hell. 

Once re-caucusing is complete, county delegates are assigned. And that’s just the CliffsNotes version of how the numbers and process can sometimes work. Hillary Clinton emerged from this madness to win Iowa in 2016.

If the process weren’t discomfiting enough—having to stand there and tell the world who you support, not knowing if your boss or neighbors or customers might judge you accordingly—it is available solely to those who can show up at 7 on a Monday night to physically lend support. Same for the GOP “vote.” No absentee ballot. No early voting. In 2016, there were 357,983 caucus-goers in Iowa, just slightly more than the number of Iowans who have been interviewed by national media in diners across the state in the past two years. By comparison, 1.6 million Iowans voted in the 2016 presidential election. 

Despite being an Iowa resident for five presidential cycles (six, counting when I was in college and voted absentee in Wisconsin) I participated in exactly one caucus. In 1984 I was an anonymous Des Moines Register night-side sports copy editor who happened to have Monday nights off. A geek who was invigorated by this participatory process, I stood nearly friendless to lend my support to Alan Cranston. You might not have heard of him. You might not have heard of an awful lot of people who are in Iowa in February but long gone by April in Wisconsin. 

After that, forget it. For the next cycles I was a sports writer with a basketball beat that sent me hither and yon during the winter. By 2000 I was a columnist for the paper and I wasn’t about to stand around and tell the world who I supported. The political buzz in Iowa was exciting, but every four years I seethed because I did not feel represented.

This has always been a big elephant in the room with the caucuses, the criticism that dare not speak its name. This winter, however, one of the candidates spoke out. Julian Castro, in Iowa no less, criticized the caucuses on a variety of fronts including racial diversity. Many media framed it as an easy #CaucusSoWhite issue, but his criticism went much deeper. 

Castro, who dropped out of the race on Jan. 2, also included New Hampshire in the criticism about diversity in the early races. Elizabeth Warren declined to answer a question about that in a forum co-hosted by Democracy Now! in South Carolina in November. But Castro went beyond race and also expressed concerns about the Iowa caucus process. It was such a surprising take that the conservative Washington Times ran with the headline, “Julian Castro: Criticizing Iowa, NH status almost seen as more radical than supporting single payer.”

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One Iowa political blogger knows what it’s like to be a lonely voice in that wilderness—Laura Belin, who runs the left-leaning site Bleeding Heartland. An avowed Democrat, Belin has been critical of the process as a writer but also as a participant.

“I like to joke that being an Iowa Democrat who criticizes the caucuses is a lesson in how not to win friends and how not to influence people,” she says.

Belin has written frequently on the topic and if the reaction she gets on social media is any indication, you’d think she’d suggested the beloved Iowa Hawkeyes change their team colors from black and gold to pink and blue. She appreciates the attention the caucuses bring to Iowa but shares Castro’s concerns about their accessibility and privacy challenges. 

Belin offers up Connecticut, because of a similar size electorate of approximately 2 million people, as a comparison to illustrate the effect that lack of accessibility can have on the numbers. Connecticut’s 2016 primary was on April 26, with little engagement by either candidate at that point. Yet the Democrats drew 328,322 voters there compared with Iowa’s 171,109.

“It just shows you that even with less effort to mobilize people, it’s just a lot easier to cast a ballot in a  primary,” she says. “Imagine how high the turnout would be in Iowa with all the field offices and everyone working so hard to get people out. It would be a massive turnout.” 

In Wisconsin, primaries have a long history thanks to Robert LaFollette’s progressive reforms of the early 20th century. What had been backroom wheeling and dealing became a full-fledged primary, with the first presidential primary held in 1912.

Iowa can’t change its caucus to a primary any time soon; it’s state law for Iowa to have the first-in-the-nation caucus just as New Hampshire’s state law says it must be the first primary. If Iowa changed, it would lose its spot. Iowa Democrats are trying to institute some changes. This year, for the first time, there will be satellite caucuses. While most will be held at campus and health care sites in Iowa, they are also being held out of state, including one at Marquette University. Four will be in Arizona, which means snowbirds will be represented but second-shift nurses at University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics won’t be. A virtual caucus plan was scrapped for cybersecurity reasons. 

Don’t get me wrong, the attention Iowa gets can be a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed watching my former colleagues emerge as political movers and shakers for many media organizations in Iowa and nationally. I love seeing people so politically engaged and learning which candidates my friends have met. My alma mater, Drake University, looked gorgeous when it came time to hold a debate. The newspaper that made me, the Des Moines Register, has likely survived further heinous cuts by corporate overlord Gannett because of its political coverage.

The Iowa caucuses also give the electorate a unique chance to ponder a healthy, intriguing notion: If my candidate isn’t the choice to move on, who else best represents me and my values?

In our entrenched, all-or-nothing times, it’s an important question that voters everywhere need to ask themselves. It’s just a pity that in Iowa, with its important first-in-the-nation status, more people don’t get a chance to ask it.

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