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Iowa governor Branstad, inviting candidates into the caucus pool, as depicted by Brian Duffy. (Cityview/Brian Duffy)

The Iowa Caucuses -- too ingrained to fail?

COMMENTARY | May 18, 2011

What with the religious right's takeover of Republican politics in Iowa and other oddities, such as the $35-a-vote summer straw poll, reasonable observers might expect the Iowa GOP caucuses to just decline and disappear. But then, what would candidates do before New Hampshire? And what would happen to those political writers in the Hawkeye State and those who love going to it?

By Herb Strentz

Judging from recent news coverage in the Des Moines Register, the press and others are not so much covering and commenting on the Iowa caucuses as they are providing life support for the questionable, and perhaps now irrelevant, caucus process.

That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from two recent developments regarding Iowa’s almost 40-year status as the first-in-the-nation bellwether for presidential candidacies.

For one thing, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Republican caucus in 2008, says he will not be a candidate this time around.

For another, Fergus Cullen —a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP — surfaced Sunday May 15th with a column in the Register.  He said Iowa was losing political clout because of people in “tinfoil hats” in the state party.  That comment was interpreted as characterizing an Iowa GOP dominated by the religious right. But Cullen now says his “tinfoil” reference was intended to be to birthers and other oddballs and not the religious right.  

Cullen also regretted that his column upset Iowans and said, “I have nothing against the Iowa caucus – I refer to NH and Iowa as ‘childhood friends…The concern I think Iowans should have is that candidates conclude it’s no longer a level playing field where they all have a chance to succeed…so some start to skip it.”

The withdrawal of Huckabee, with his record of popularity in Iowa, could be viewed as raising questions about the viability of the caucuses, given the lack of interest voters nationally and in Iowa are showing toward most of the remaining GOP hopefuls. But the Iowa media didn't portray it that way. Rather, the news was that the GOP field was wide open, thereby — as the Register headline had it — raising the profile of the Iowa straw poll, a truly absurd if traditional run-up event. 

The straw poll is a summer exercise in fund-raising for the Iowa GOP in which candidates for the party’s presidential nomination see who can buy the most votes. In 2007, Romney won the straw poll because he contributed $158,600 of the $500,570 spent on votes that were cast. A ticket allowing one to vote cost $35.  Not every dollar translates into a vote because some tickets to participate in straw poll activities go unused. (In 2007, the Iowa GOP also pocketed about $400,000 paid for tickets that were not used.) But the correlation between money contributed and votes counted is solid.

The news media then dutifully report the winner, not as the biggest spender, but as the people’s choice for the nomination. That outcome is either confirmed or rejected by the caucuses some six months later.

It’s weird, yes, and that is one reason the caucuses have come under criticism. In fact, in his column, Cullen says the Iowa GOP has let the  “straw poll get out of hand due to greed.”

Okay, so for openers we have a positive spin on Huckabee’s deserting the race and Iowa. Then we have Iowa’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, finding it necessary to counter Cullen by pointing out that the governor has been in all of Iowa’s 99 counties over the course of a political career of some 30 years and that he has never seen anyone in Iowa wearing a silver hat, let alone tin foil.

Branstad also characterized Iowa as “a full-spectrum state” and declared that even the religious right folks have interests in jobs and the economy.

Branstad’s correct insistence that not all Iowans are nuttier-than-fruitcakes was covered in a news story following up on Cullen’s comments and in a column by Kathie Obradovich, the Register’s chief political writer.  In the same column, Obradovich also characterized concerns about the religious right’s influence on the caucuses as “rehashed criticism.”

But in a column on March 8, summarizing a GOP candidate forum sponsored by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, Obradovich chided Huckabee, Mitt Romney and other potential candidates for not attending the evangelicals’ forum.  And she quoted Branstad as telling those at the forum: "I want you to know, these people of Faith & Freedom here tonight are people who show up at caucuses."

How does one reconcile Branstad’s “full-spectrum” characterization of Iowa voters with his recognition of how the religious right dominates the caucus process?

It’s apples and oranges. People cite respected polls and the turnout at a general election as evidence of the full-spectrum of Iowa voters, conveniently ignoring the fact that the full-spectrum does not turn out at the GOP caucuses.  But the religious right does, and that was one point of Cullen’s column.

And while the religious right may have concerns about jobs and the economy, those concerns did not get the most attention in the GOP-controlled Iowa House of Representatives this session. Social issues were tops on the agenda of the most vocal Republican legislators who repeatedly offered legislation that was suspect in terms of the Iowa and U.S. Constitutions.

Small wonder of the need for damage control for the caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 6, 2012, and why moderate candidates and donors question if Iowa is worth their time and money.


Posted by Jack
05/21/2011, 03:39 PM

Why even have a caucus or any form of popularity vote in Iowa? It has less than one million citizens, less than one percent of the country. Its demographics don't quite match the general population so the small n for extrapolation purposes is useless. The place barely deserves the two senate seats it holds. Iowa has little predictive validity. The press has given it, and the other small early cucus states far too much attention and potential influence in the electoral process.

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