Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In defense of the Iowa caucuses

An op-ed in today's New York Times assailed Iowa's caucuses as "undemocratic," criticizing them for not releasing the first round tallies from the initial caucus head-counts (see The Des Moines Register for a primer on the Democratic caucuses).

I don't like the argument that they should release the "popular vote" tallies. If you're going to have a caucus system, it doesn't make any sense to undermine the caucus results with potentially conflicting tally results.

Besides, the rationale for the caucus system is pretty good, in my opinion. The whole point of the caucus is to force candidates to pay attention to the whole state and to reward those precincts with high participation in the caucuses year in and year out. When you have a field of so many candidates, does a primary win with, say, 38% (Kerry, NH '04) really mean something? Caucuses help the winnowing out process, so that you end up with at most 3 or 4 candidates per precinct. Plus, it really does give it that town-hall feel, since the result reflects the preference of the precinct, not individuals.

Some aspects of the caucuses are truly arbitrary, to be sure... like the 15% rule (why not 10% or 20%?). Not enough is said about how much the location of that viability cut-off truly affects the final results. But because of that rule, any popular vote tally would have little to no predictive power, anyway. It'd essentially be meaningless, and would serve only the spin-doctors of losing campaigns.

Now, if you really want to change the caucus rules, as the authors of that op-ed obviously do, that's one thing. But I don't know why you would want to simultaneously keep these rules and also release preliminary tallies that would undermine the final result. Without a clear outcome, Iowa's impact on the nominating process would surely be diluted. I have no idea why the op-ed's authors, who are all Iowans, would want that to happen.

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