The 2008 contest for the Presidential nominations in both major parties begins its more-or-less-official phase tomorrow with the Iowa Caucuses. For several of the candidates, it will hardly seem a beginning; John Edwards, for example, has been organizing and campaigning in the state since 2003. He has probably spent more days in Iowa than he spent in Washington during his full term in the Senate. Iowa requires the same sort of personal attention as New Hampshire’s “retail politics,” with an added emphasis on organization. Organization is necessary because Iowa isn’t holding a primary. Their “caucuses” attract undue attention from the media, and therefore by the candidates, and have ever since a surprising second-place finish propelled an unknown Southern Governor to the nomination and then to the Presidency in 1976.
Unfortunately for the electoral process, the caucuses warrant no such coverage. On the Republican side the balloting amounts to a “beauty contest” or straw poll (underlining the utter uselessness of the Ames Straw Poll the previous August). No delegates are committed; they will all be chosen later at a state convention. The Democrats do choose delegates, but in such a way as to defy description. There is no secret ballot – caucus participants must stand in a group for their candidate. Then the process of winnowing out the “non-viable” candidates begins, when people may be persuaded, cajoled, or harangued into joining another group. The whole event can take two hours or longer. Even then, Democrats can’t tell you who “won” right away, because the bedrock concept of “one man, one vote” doesn’t apply: they “weight” each precinct based on its past record of voting Democratic. In 1988, Gephardt was thought to have edged out Senator Paul Simon in a squeaker – but when the actual delegates were allocated, he won by a more comfortable 31% – 27% margin.
If you happen to be too sick, or physically unable to attend, tough luck. There are no absentee ballots. If you work nights like many hospital and restaurant employees or police and firefighters, too bad. You don’t get to participate. Likewise for active-duty military.
Now, Iowa parties are perfectly entitled to select their convention delegates any way they choose. But, if they held state conventions, no one would pay much attention. So instead they set up the illusion of a primary without actually holding one. The press pays close attention because they have nothing else to do. The candidates fight for recognition because the press is there. Millions of dollars of political advertising flows into the state, but that is barely the tip of the iceberg of this scam.
Iowa’s phony position as the “first” political contest of the Presidential race ensures their billions of dollars of federal ethanol subsidies are safe from reformers, and that competing ethanol from other countries will be kept out by unfair restrictions. Taxpayers and consumers are robbed to feed the giant Iowa subsidy hog because the politicians won’t cut it off, lest they wish to run for President some day (and most fantasize about it constantly).
So enjoy the meaningless charade of the tiny fraction of Iowans who’ve been badgered into braving the cold to waste a couple of hours pretending to practice democracy tomorrow night: you paid for it.