Iowa – so what?

It’s caucus day in Iowa, and the most recent polls show former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with a thin lead over Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a more distant third.

And as one of them pops the champagne corks and looses the confetti tonight, I’ll say… so what?

First, consider who is voting. Iowa has a total population of about 3 million, which is less than half of that of the San Francisco Bay Area; only about 2 million are registered, active voters. About 30 percent of Iowa voters are Republicans, but only a fraction of them actually vote in the caucuses: In 2008, it was a record turnout of 119,000, which was only about a fifth of the active registered Republicans at the time. This, in a state that’s 88.7 percent “white, not Hispanic,” as the Census puts it, and where self-identified evangelical Christians wield disproportionate influence by comprising 40 to 60 percent of caucus-goers.

Second, consider the process. Unlike a traditional primary election where you vote or mail in your ballot and then move on, a caucus – a community meeting at which voters express their preferences – can take some time (each campaign can have a surrogate speak for up to five minutes), meaning those who must work or can’t get out of the house for that long can’t vote. There are no absentee ballots, which also eliminates the votes of active-duty soldiers and college students who have left the state for the winter break.

The Iowa caucuses have been the nation’s first major event of the presidential electoral season since 1972, but it’s hard to keep calling them a bellwether when candidates like Ron Paul and Rick Santorum – who clearly don’t have the ground game, fundraising or policy stances to carry other states – are within striking distance of a win there. The ability to influence a tiny slice of one small, homogenous, rural state says hardly anything about who’s likely to win the nomination. Just ask Mike Huckabee.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood


  • RR senile columnist

    You are so right. I say expel Iowa from the Union. It is so insignificant, I am ashamed as a Bay Area resident to share a citizenship with White Protestants, farmers, non-Hispanics, middle-brows, etc.

  • Josh Richman

    Nobody’s begrudging Iowans their right to vote, RR; I’m just saying it’s hard to see that small subset of voters as any sort of reliable harbinger of things to come given they’re so unrepresentative of most voters across the nation, even within the GOP.

  • John W

    The entire “American Idol” system we have for nominating presidential candidates is suboptimal. However, in a way, I think it’s good that the process starts out in a couple of small states, where the candidates have to engage in retail politics, rather than just buying the airwaves. Whether those two states should always be Iowa — especially with it’s caucus system — and New Hampshire is another question.

  • John W

    The Moonlite Bunny Ranch brothel has endorsed Ron Paul. And Pat Robertson says God has revealed to him personally who the next president will be. However, he apparently is not at liberty to reveal to us whatever God revealed to him. Is this a great country or what?

  • RR senile columnist

    Iowa is a straw poll, no more. Its prominence stems from the news coverage it receives. If serious observers scoff, fine. TV news channels aren’t likely to care until viewers stop
    watching the reports from Iowa.

  • Rick K.

    Also, the caucus is not a secret ballot. Some participants (esp. low-level employees and rank-and-file union members) may be forced to vote against their conscience because their employee and/or union bosses demand that they support a particular candidate. But we can thank Iowa for sinking Queen Hillary’s and King Bill’s self-coronation in 2008. Mr. Richman had more insight in these few paragraphs than one likely would find in a full hour of national cable TV coverage of this over-hyped political boondoggle (which I refused to watch as it is generally a waste of air time). And don’t get me started about the “Iowa straw poll” last summer.

  • John W

    Re: #6 “Iowa is a straw poll, no more.”

    It’s a straw poll (won by Bachmann) and a caucus (decidedly not won by Bachmann). In fact, Iowa is only one of many caucus states, which were the key to Obama beating Clinton in 2008.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Bottom line: Iowa is important because the news media says it is. Iowa’s primary won’t decide anything except news coverage for a matter of days, then New Hampshire will have its time in the spotlight.

  • John W

    Iowa goes first, so the media cover it.

    If we’re going to use direct democracy to select presidential candidates, then I think it’s a good thing that we have a series of individual state primaries (or caucuses) to vett and narrow the field of contenders before we move into the multi-state primaries. I just think the process should start later (like March) and that it shouldn’t always be Iowa and New Hampshire going first.