Presidential Caucus & Primaries: Part 1
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Iowa Caucus and how important it is to the Presidential nomination and I realized I had a lot of questions.
What is a caucus? What is a Primary? Are they really all that important? What is my role in it?
First of all a caucus and a primary are two different ways of deciding the same thing which is basically which presidential hopeful should be the winner at the National convention in the summer.
Caucuses and Primaries are basically the first step in the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl that is the Presidential Election.
In California, where I live, we vote in a Primary. Which is basically like every other election where we go to a polling station and vote for the candidate we’d most like to see on the Presidential ballot in November. Every registered voter in the state is permitted to vote in the Primary so it never occurred to me the process and rules might be different in other states.
Well, I was wrong.
In certain states like Oklahoma, Louisiana, Idaho and Florida the primaries are only open to registered PARTY members. So, if you are undeclared or independent, you you are not able to take part in the Presidential nomination process in your state in any significant way which is truly problematic if you start thinking about voter rights and the unbalanced power of the two major national parties.
Other states, like Iowa, don’t do primaries at all. They do what are called caucuses which are essential open party meetings by precinct, district or county. Caucuses again are only open to registered party members but, because they’re time consuming and only on a certain day at a certain time, only about 1 in 4 registered voters even bother attending. Some say, only 1 in 6. All in all a very measly number.
If you do come to a caucus you’ll find people making speeches, trying to sway your vote one way or another. They can take hours and are often dominated by the most vocal and politically minded groups which can be daunting for undecideds or “unsures". After the candidate discussions Republican’s use the traditional secret ballot while the Democrats actually have to stand in groups in whatever gym or town hall or public venue they’re gathered in and attempt to convince people to switch to their candidate. Plus, if your candidate of choice has less than 15% of the vote in that precinct (over 1600 precinct’s in Iowa alone) they’re not eligible for any delegates so their supporters can either convince people to join them, join with another candidate’s group or simply go home and refuse to be counted.
Some states (like Iowa) allot delegates depending on the number of votes each candidate receives - so a third place win would still receives a percentage of delegates as they move forward and could theoretically win multiple other states and end up the top candidate going into the national convention. Other states (like Ohio) are winner take all states where all delegates go to the winner of that district with the other candidates getting nothing. It’s rather like a mini electoral collage in that way.
I should clarify that precinct caucuses are only the first step in a four step process on the way to the National Convention. Precinct delegates go on to elect District delegates who vote for State Delegates and state delegates go on to represent their candidate at the National Convention where the votes are tallied for the Presidential Nominee.
Usually by the time we get to the National convention in the summer (July 25-28th, 2016 this year) the Presidential candidate has basically been decided and the vote is merely a formality. In fact, the conventions have often been referred to as coronations rather than elections.
This year could be a bit different however with the out of the box candidates polling so well. There is a real chance that the competition between Donald Trump and whoever his rival shows himself to be and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders could come right down to the convention itself with the powers that be having the final say. The power of the “elites” will be especially evident in the Democratic party because they have what’s called Super Delegates who could ultimately make the final call and disregard the entire primary election results. But I’ll explain that closer to the election itself…
Caucuses: Part II - Why is the Iowa Caucus so Important?
So, if a caucus are simply the first step in a long drawn out process and Iowa only has 1% representation at the National Convention, (52 out of 4700 delegates at the Democratic National Convention) why do we keep talking about it? Why do the Iowa caucuses matter?
Well, technically it shouldn’t matter. No more than any other state should matter. But, we care because we’ve been made to care. It’s a myth made real. You tell me it’s important so I think it’s important and it therefore becomes important.
Back in 1972 some smart Iowans made the choice to move their caucus date to January therefore supplanting New Hampshire as the first primary vote in the country. There are many reasons they might have done this (to support Jimmy Carter, to sidestep some rules, to have more hotel rooms available than they expected to have in the summer) but the bottom line is, at the time, no one really noticed or cared.
By 1976 the Democrats and Republicans had agreed to caucus on the same day in Iowa to capitalize on media buzz and the powers that be told the candidates they should really be in Iowa to be seen by all the national media that was going to be there and then turned around and told the national media they should really be there because all the candidates were coming. It was pretty clever and it worked perfectly.
Iowa’s importance became a self fulfilling prophesy. People said it was a big event so people spent money and time like it was a big event and the media covered it because people were spending so much time and money therefore actually making it what they said it was. Couple al that with the fact that since 1980 every single Presidential nominee has won either Iowa or New Hampshire (with the exception of Clinton in 1992) and the myth has become fact.
Iowa positioned itself as the Kingmaker state and people have bought the story. So it’s the PERCEPTION that Iowa’s important that really makes it important. It’s also the first time ACTUAL people are ACTUALLY voting because up until now everyone’s been reliant on polls and polls can be very wrong. The candidates will now be judged on whether their performance has met the EXPECTATION that’s been set for them (by the media and the political elites). So, if someone has been campaigning hard in Iowa (like say, Ted Cruz) and is expected to come in first but they come second or third they can be PORTRAYED as a huge loser even if they’re not.
The results come in and the media hypes it up. Winners and losers are named. Candidates lose their support, funding dries up and voters in other states start acting on the signals they believe the first few states are sending out.
So, Iowa stays important and both parties seem fine with the status quo. Plus no one can agree who else could be the front line or come up with an alternate way to do things. Even states that have tried to change the Iowa’s importance - like Louisiana in 1996 - and “jump the line” have been shot down incredibly fast having their contests boycotted or deemed “meaningless” by national elites and press. Nowadays there is such a harsh penalty on states that move their nomination contests too early that no one even bothers to try and leapfrog Iowa anymore.
PART III: What should we be looking for in Iowa in 2016
So, if the Iowa caucus basically sets the tone for the primary season, what are we expecting to see in the Iowa caucus?
Well, the GOP will be looking to see if Donald Trump can actually get people out to vote for him. Despite his large lead in the polls there’s a lot of people who think his support is grossly overstated. Does he have a good ground game? Ground Game being the ability to get people out to actually vote and going door to door. Are his voters people who will actually show up? Are they even registered? Are people, when it comes right down to it, actually more likely to vote for a seemingly more electable candidate at the last minute?
If Trump comes second it proves he’s the real deal and won’t be going away any time soon. If he comes third or less he’ll be portrayed as a loser who flamed out and who was all bluster and no delivery. If he comes first however the momentum of such a win will carry him higher and faster than anyone expected. as Vox’s Andrew Procop says: “If Trump wins Iowa, prepare for a media frenzy like you’ve never seen before.”
Ted Cruz is the expected winner so, if he doesn’t win it’s going to be a major blow to his campaign. Remember, it’s all about perceptions. Marco Rubio is currently polling in third place in Iowa and is expected to stay there but, if he comes second or first, it’ll be a huge amount of positive media buzz for him going into New Hampshire. If he somehow falls further behind however - especially behind another establishment friendly candidate like Bush or Christie - the whispered doubts around his campaign and if it’s competent to run a national election will seem more realistic and all that positive buzz (and potential elite support) will solidify behind the other establishment candidate. Should any other GOP candidate surge ahead in Iowa they will quickly become the rising star to watch.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has recently pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa and has long been ahead in New Hampshire so he’s now in the position to seriously compete in both of the early states. However, if Clinton wins both states outright his momentum could really take a hit and essentially hand her the nomination. He he wins either state their battle will continue for quite some time. Martin O’Mally is currently polling at 5% in Iowa which is 10% below what would even allow his supporters to compete in these caucuses so it’s safe to say we can expect him to drop out pretty soon.
There is an increasingly plausible scenario in which Sanders wins both Iowa AND New Hampshire and the political elites, financial backers and voters in other states start to really second guess Clinton and her “inevitable” campaign. But, what we’re reminded to keep in mind is that both early states are heavily white and don’t really represent the more diverse Democratic voter. The real test for the Democrats will be the third state to caucus: South Carolina where we’ll see if non-white voters - who for the most part currently seem uninterested in the Sanders campaign - are able to be swayed by the positive media coverage that would inevitably come out of a sweeping Sanders win Iowa and New HampshireHampshire or, if it’s really just Hillary that’s able to connect with them and their votes.
It’s actually kind of exciting once you understand.
Just know that if you want your voice heard in the who might be the Presidential Nominee. Go vote at a primary or caucus. Please note you must register if you are in a closed district.