The 2008 Iowa caucus in Ada County was one of the largest ever. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.
The 2008 Iowa caucus in Ada County was one of the largest ever. Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Look Away from Iowa

February 7, 2020

Democratic caucuses took place across Iowa on the evening of Feb. 3, 2020, but official results could not be released to the public until 5 p.m. EST on Feb. 4, and at that time, only 62% of precincts were reporting.

The delay was attributed to “inconsistencies” in data caused by a “coding issue” in the app used to calculate the results of all of the caucuses, NBC News reports. The Iowa Democratic Party resorted to a “paper trail” to verify the results of the caucuses. Now, the Democratic National Committee is calling for recanvassing, which means checking the votes again.

The 2020 Iowa caucuses’ mishaps may have caused more people to bat their eyes at the results of the election, but the intense minute-by-minute coverage demonstrates how much the American people and media, with all of their influence, value the Iowa caucuses. The results of a flawed, undemocratic election in a state so unrepresentative of the nation should not hold as much weight as they do in the fate of the nomination and presidential election.

The Iowa hype all started in 1972 when the date of the Iowa caucus was shifted to make it the first primary state. As the 1976 presidential primaries approached, underdog Jimmy Carter believed that a win in Iowa would garner the media coverage he needed to win the presidency. While his peers largely ignored the state, Carter campaigned relentlessly. His efforts succeeded and set a precedent for Iowa for years to come.

In spite of the lack of official results, Democratic candidates including Mayor Pete Buttigieg made claims about their performance in the 2020 Iowa caucuses to cash in on the importance Iowa holds in voters’ minds.

The results of the Iowa caucus now have the chance to sway the rest of the 2020 presidential election, but they are hardly indicative of what the country actually wants.

According to the Pew Research Center, 73.8% of America’s voting-age population is white and 12.4% is black. 91.6% of voting-age Iowans are white and 3.2% are black. The state of Iowa is already unrepresentative of the country, and the caucus process only deepens the divide.

In Iowa, the Democratic caucuses take place at 7 p.m. CST. Voters must meet at a specific caucus site where they will stay for hours. Attendees migrate to different areas to indicate support for different candidates. Candidates who do not meet the threshold of support from 15% of attendees are considered not viable for getting delegates. At this point, attendees must realign with other viable candidates. Other attendees have the opportunity to sway them to their candidate’s side. The numbers are converted to delegates for each site, and the total delegates across the state determines how Iowa’s 41 state delegates are divided. If there is a tie at a caucus site, the fate of a delegate can be decided with a literal coin toss.

The public nature of the caucuses is already dangerous. Privacy protects voters and allows for true results; publicness allows for sway for fear of shame. The malleability of one’s vote in a caucus plays into this even more. And the idea that candidates could get no votes at all if they don’t meet a specific number—one far too high for such a crowded field at such an early stage—defeats the purpose of a primary.

A coin toss should never decide the fate of our democracy. The reliance on a certain number of delegates over the popular vote makes the caucuses feel scarily similar to the electoral college. For all the influence they have, the results of the Iowa caucuses don’t even reflect what the people at each caucus site really think.

The primary elections will continue through June in time for the 2020 Democratic National Convention from July 13 to July 16 where a Democratic presidential candidate will be nominated. Infographic by Nayeli Shad. Information courtesy of 270toWin.

With caucuses being a one-time event at a specific time and location lasting for hours on end, the pool of people who can attend is far too small. A 2009 study by Thomas Patterson of Harvard Kennedy School found that, on average, a 2008 caucus attracted less than a fourth of the voters that a primary did. To combat this, Iowans who could not attend the 2020 Iowa caucuses in person held “satellite causes” around the country and globe. But even with those steps, the people who need their voices heard the most are still unlikely to attend. This includes people who work multiple jobs to make ends meet. What’s left is middle class and affluent, mostly white people who are passionate about the Democratic party and politics. That does not represent over 300 million Americans.

Unfortunately, Iowa is seen as just that when it is looked to as the marker for the rest of the presidential election cycle. Iowa determines candidates’ electability in many Americans’ eyes, thus affecting voting patterns in subsequent primary elections. Iowa and its reverberations in the next few primaries can cause candidates to drop out before they even see how they fare in the rest of the country. Both tactics work hand in hand to diminish the list of candidates, giving less options to voters in states with later primaries. In this way, Iowa hugely skews who has a chance at the Democratic presidential nomination to a point that is undemocratic.

Strides are being made to reform the nomination process. In 2016, 15 states held presidential caucuses. This year, only three states are holding caucuses: Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming.

The decreased reliance on the flawed caucus system brings some hope for the nomination process in the country, but Iowa still poses a huge problem. Iowa is the first state to hold a primary or caucus and Nevada is the third. Following the fourth primary (South Carolina), a mass of states vote on “Super Tuesday,” which falls on March 3 this year with 14 states holding primaries that day.

With Iowa being the first primary state and Nevada the third, the weight placed on caucus results is far too high, especially this year where those are two of only three states holding caucuses. Their effects on Super Tuesday, which is looked to as a huge marker for the presidential election, are far too much.

In six of the 10 Iowa caucuses since it became the first primary state, the winner of the Democratic caucuses became the Democratic presidential nominee. Only once, in 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton, has the nominee not placed in the top 3 in Iowa or gotten below 20% of the votes in Iowa.

As long as Iowa is the first primary state and continues to operate under the caucus system, the crucial democratic process of selecting a presidential nominee will forever be in danger. The only way to ensure a fair nomination and election is to have one nationwide primary day, but until then, the first primary states should better represent the country’s wants and needs if they’re going to hold as much power as they have. That is not Iowa.

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