The trouble with the Iowa caucuses isn't that there's anything wrong with Iowans. It's the bizarre rules of the process. Caucuses are touted as authentic neighborhood meetings where voters gather in their precincts and make democracy come alive. In truth, they are anything but.
Caucuses occur only at a fixed time at night, so that many people working odd hours can't participate. They can easily exceed two hours. There are no absentee ballots, which means the process disfranchises the sick, shut-ins and people who are out of town on the day of the caucus. The Democratic caucuses require participants to stand in a corner with other supporters of their candidate. That eliminates the secret ballot.
There are reasons for all this. The caucuses are run by the state parties, and unlike primary or general elections aren't regulated by the government. They were designed as an insiders' game to attract party activists, donors and political junkies and give them a disproportionate influence in the process. In other words, they are designed not to be overly democratic. Primaries aren't perfect. but at least they make it fairly easy for everyone to vote, since polls are open all day and it takes only a few minutes to cast a ballot.
Little wonder that voter turnout for the Iowa caucuses is extremely low--in recent years about 6% of registered voters. Many potential voters will proclaim their civic virtue to pollsters and others and say they will show up at the caucus--and then find something else to do Thursday night.
All of which means that the endless polls on the Iowa caucuses are highly suspect. Iowans have been bombarded by well over a million political phone calls in recent days. They range from "robo calls" from interest groups touting one candidate or another to breathless teenage volunteers inviting the voter to a local coffee with some obscure relative of a candidate.
Smart voters tune all this out and screen their calls, making it difficult for pollsters to reach them. Even when they do answer the phone, many people refuse to participate in surveys. Pollsters can't call people who only have cell phones. So you get implausible results like last Friday's Los Angeles Times survey that found Barack Obama in third place on the Democratic side and Mike Huckabee running away with the GOP contest. The Times's pollsters surveyed just 174 likely Republican voters and 389 Democratic one, with a whopping margin of error of plus or minus seven percentage points among Republicans and five points among Democrats.
Iowa voters' allegiances are notoriously volatile. A new Associated Press poll of a large sample of voters estimates that 40% of GOP voters had changed candidate allegiances since November. In 2004, polls a few days before the caucuses suggested suggested Howard Dean would be a shoo-in. He finished a distant third, behind John Kerry and John Edwards.
Then there are the problems of reporting the results on election night. At least the Republican caucus is a one-man, one-vote affair where people write their preferred candidate's name on a slip of paper, and whoever gets the most votes wins.
Democrats have a mind-numbingly complex system in which participants divide up into "candidate preference groups" by standing up. No paper ballots are used. Those candidates who don't get support from 15% or more of those attending a local caucus are deemed not to be "viable," and their supporters have to realign with some other candidate.
"That's when it gets kind of crazy," says Mark Daley, a former spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party. "There will be people screaming back and forth . . . and senior citizens with calculators trying to do the math." Only after all this are county convention delegates allocated among the candidates and the results phoned in to the state Democratic Party. Delegates aren't actually allocated until the Democratic county conventions in March.
Not all local caucuses are equal. The "entrance" polls of voter preferences that you will see reported Thursday night are likely to be from urban areas, which may shortchange candidates like John Edwards, Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson, who have campaigned more heavily in rural areas. "It's entirely possible that John Edwards could come in a stunning second when all the votes are in, but the country will have gone to bed thinking he only took third place," says Howard Fineman of Newsweek.
Rural Iowa matters for another reason in the Democratic contest. In order to encourage candidates to campaign in farming areas, state Democrats have tilted the delegate allocation so that rural areas are disproportionately represented in the final results. This sometimes can lead to bizarre results. As Roger Simon of Politico.com notes, "the turnout in some precincts is so small that a single family--let's say four people--can determine the winner. In other precincts, only one person will show up and win for his candidate by being the only person in the room." In small-turnout caucus meetings, ties are resolved by a coin toss or drawing lots. In 2004, four precincts saw literally no one show up to vote in the Democratic caucus.
There are other anomalies on the Democratic side. Some precincts use a different threshold level than 15% for the viability of a candidate. "Residency" rules are incredibly elastic. No one checks identification, and anyone who claims to live in the precinct is allowed to vote. In other words, very little prevents the unscrupulous (such as out-of-state campaign workers who have "lived" in Iowa for a few weeks) from having a role in the process. Each caucus also elects a "permanent chair," who can have an outsize role in the process. Ned Chiodo, who has been appointed temporary chair of his local caucus by the state Democratic Party, told Politico.com that a permanent chair "controls the flow of the meeting. You have influence. You may be able to pick up a vote or two here and there for your candidate."
All of these arcane rules, combined with the fixed time and place voters mush show up in order to influence the result, make the Iowa caucus a test of organization as much as actual voter support. "The candidate that provides the most babysitters or literally drives older people to the polls the most can have a real edge," Tom Tauke, a Republican former congressman, once told me.
Thus the Iowa caucuses are far from a Normal Rockwell exercise in small-town democracy. They may not be as bad as the "smoke-filled rooms" of yore, but give me a simple primary election any day. I can't wait for New Hampshire.