Caucuses are no way to pick a president

Posted: January 04, 2012

By John Nichols

The Republicans who would be president, the super-PACs, and the surrogates had already spent more than $12 million on television ads - almost half of them negative - before the final weekend leading up to Tuesday's Iowa caucuses. That doesn't count thousands of radio ads, mailings, lighted billboards in Des Moines, and the cost of staff.

Add it all up and there is a good chance that, when all is said and done, the candidates will have spent $200 per vote to influence the roughly 110,000 Iowans who were expected to participate in the Republican caucuses. And the really unsettling thing is that the caucuses are just for show. While the results may so damage some candidates that their runs for the presidency will be finished, the process will not actually produce any delegates to the Republican National Convention.

That is because, as the Des Moines Register noted, "Iowa delegates are not bound to vote for a specific candidate at the national convention, and no percentage of delegates is given to any one candidate [on caucus night]." Iowa Republican Party executive director Chad Olsen told the paper that the Republican caucuses act more as a "temperature gauge" on how Iowans feel about the candidates, and convention delegates use the results to inform their decisions.

Seriously? All this for a glorified straw poll?

That's the problem with the caucus system, which uses an only slightly better model on the Democratic side. Huge amounts of money are spent to influence a very small percentage of the electorate.

Less than 20 percent of Iowans who are likely to vote Republican in November were expected to participate in Tuesday's caucuses. An even smaller number began the process of choosing representatives to county conventions, who in turn elect delegates to the district and state conventions at which Iowa's national delegates are actually selected. Ultimately, party insiders are all but certain to form the Iowa delegation and choose how it votes at the convention.

I don't begrudge Iowa a place at the start of the calendar. But the caucuses are not the right way to begin. The progressive movement of a century ago fought for open primaries, in which all voters could easily participate and the power of political bosses - and, ideally, outside money - could be overwhelmed by popular democracy.

There are good arguments to be made that primaries no longer hold such promise, and I am not suggesting that open primaries will in and of themselves cure all that ails our politics. But the Iowa campaign of 2012 confirms that the caucuses are more prone to being warped by money and rules that favor party bosses.

Iowa maintains a caucus system not because it is the best way to choose a nominee, but because its first-in-the-nation status depends on a long-standing arrangement with New Hampshire, which claims the right to hold the first primary. Under the deal, Iowa can go first as long as it does not hold a primary. Unfortunately, that means Iowa must hold caucuses.

The parties have lacked the courage to demand a reform of this arrangement. But they should do so before the 2016 race begins. The presidential nominating process should not be defined by caucuses - in Iowa or anywhere else.


John Nichols writes for the Nation. This was distributed by Agence Global.

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