The Iowa Caucuses: What to Expect

Iowa voters head to caucuses tonight to cast the first ballots in the nation’s months-long process of selecting the Republican and Democratic nominees for President.  With President Obama facing no serious opposition on the Democratic side, attention is focused on the Republican contest, where seven candidates are actively campaigning to win the party’s nomination.

What is a Caucus Anyway?

The Iowa caucuses have been described as a “gathering of neighbors,” and the process differs markedly from that which Texas voters are accustomed.  In Texas, voters participate in primaries to select their party’s nominee.  In terms of the process, a primary election is much like a general election: a voter goes to his designated voting place sometime between 7:00 am and 7:00 pm, votes, and leaves.

In the Iowa caucuses, however, voters assemble at 7:00 pm on election night in one of the state’s 1,784 precincts, often meeting in a home, school, library, or other community venue.  On the Republican side, the opening of the caucus is followed by a period of persuasion, where caucus attendees can speak on behalf of their candidate.  Once “debate” is closed, caucus participants vote for their favored candidate, and the results are compiled by party officials, who pass on the results to media outlets.

The Democratic caucuses are even more complicated, involving a multi-stage selection process, allowing for persuasion and negotiation between stages, and forcing candidates to meet a vote threshold before being allocated any delegates.

For both parties, the caucuses are a one-time thing.  Early voting is not permitted; absentee ballots are not given, and late comers are barred from entry.

Why Iowa?

Some voters suspect that Iowa’s privileged position on the calendar is the result of a back-room political deal.  In fact, it was an accident of circumstances.

When the Democratic Party overhauled its nomination procedures in 1972, Iowa leaders were forced to develop a schedule of party events that would allow them to get the precinct caucuses completed prior to preparing for county caucuses, congressional district caucuses, and the state convention.  To give them sufficient time to prepare for these other meetings, party leaders pushed the precinct caucuses back to January 24, 1972, which happened to be the earliest of any of the contests.

Four years later, Iowa Republicans decided to hold their caucus on the same date as the state Democrats, and over the past three and a half decades, the tradition of Iowa as the nation’s first nomination contest has become institutionalized.

Kingmaker?

Months prior to the caucuses, the media descend upon Iowa’s small towns to cover the candidates, who traverse the state in search of votes.  Most candidates will travel to all of Iowa’s 99 counties and voters, on average, will meet three presidential candidates.

Despite its vaunted place in the nomination process, Iowa has only a mixed record of success in selecting the eventual nominee.  On the Republican side, for example, Iowans have become somewhat notorious for voting against the establishment candidate—an expression, perhaps, of their desire to be more than a rubber stamp for party hacks.

Since the Republicans’ adoption of the current system for selecting party nominees in 1976, the Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses has only gone on to win the nomination half the time.  In 2008, for example, Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, but was unable to translate his victory into a serious challenge to McCain’s frontrunner status.

But if Iowa isn’t a kingmaker, it can still dash royal aspirations.  Poor showings are deadly, especially for second-tier candidates, who often lack the funds necessary to continue their campaigns.  The caucuses are often followed within a day or two by announcements of withdrawals.

Assessing the Candidates

The key to thriving and surviving in Iowa is managing expectations.  As Ted Kennedy once noted, “I finished second in 1980, and it killed my campaign.  Mike Dukakis finished third in 1988, and it launched his.”

Of course, it’s notoriously difficult to conduct accurate polls in caucus-holding states.  Traditional polling is difficult enough, without having to predict who will turn out in freezing temperatures, or who might take advantage of Iowa’s election-day voting registration, or how many Democrats might temporarily “switch parties” to make mischief in the Hawkeye caucuses.  This year’s polling may be off even further by a large number of “persuadables,” voters who may change their mind at the caucuses.

Nonetheless, the final polls released this weekend are likely to form the threshold against which the media judge the candidates’ performances.  The latest polls show Romney and Paul leading the way, with Gingrich, Perry, and a surging Santorum forming a second tier, and Bachmann and Huntsman bringing up the rear.

Mitt Romney: An outright victory would provide him with additional momentum in New Hampshire, where he currently leads, and make him the presumptive nominee. His money, organization, and national stature make it likely that he will be able to weather a second-place finish.  A third-place finish, on the other hand, will damage his perceived electability, open the field, and make for a longer primary season.

Ron Paul: Although he has little chance of winning the nomination, a first or second-place finish will give Paul increased visibility and leverage that will help him promote his libertarian policies in the media, with the electorate, and at the party convention.

Newt Gingrich: A former frontrunner, Gingrich now has the most to lose.  He still has a national standing, and something of a southern base, but a fourth or fifth place finish will damage his current (and soft) lead in South Carolina.

Rick Perry: Following a string of campaign gaffes and a precipitous drop in the polls, Perry has announced that he will not campaign in New Hampshire.  If he survives Iowa, he’ll need to make a strong stand in the south.

Rick Santorum: Plagued by fundraising difficulties, Santorum has relied largely on old-fashioned retail politics, making 250 appearances in the state, the most of any candidate.  Late polling suggests that he may be gaining traction at the 11th hour, and a second or third-place finish could give him momentum.  A first-place finish would be a delight for Santorum—and for the media, who would welcome a primary season with legs.

Michelle Bachmann & Jon Huntsman: The only candidate in the race from Iowa, Bachmann nonetheless remains mired in single digits, and is likely to beat only Huntsman, who is sitting out Iowa.

Iowa Surprise?

With just over 100,000 voters expected to participate in the Iowa Caucuses, party leaders should have the results released to the media by 10:00 pm, making for a short night of vote counting.  It is worth noting, however, that Republicans won’t be the only ones watching the returns—or voting.  With 15% percent of the voters expected to be Democratic crossovers, there could be a surprise in this “gathering of neighbors,” making for a long night of political punditry.

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