The Iowa Caucuses: A Model Of Participatory Democracy?

At first glance, today’s Iowa caucuses look like a model of participatory democracy. In 1,774 precinct meetings all around this Midwestern state, the process of choosing a Republican Party candidate to do battle with Barack Obama on November 6 will commence.

IowaRepublicans are hoping for a turnout of around 100,000 people. Anything significantly less will be a disappointment, anything more a sign of enthusiasm and commitment to making Obama a one-term president.

Over the coming months, till June if no winner emerges earlier, caucuses and primary elections are scheduled to take place in each of the other 49 states. Voters need simply register as Republicans or Democrats in order to choose candidates for the presidency, both houses of Congress, state legislatures, and a host of other state and local positions.

It certainly looks like democracy flourishing. It looks like people power in action.

Consider this: the seven remaining Republican candidates in Iowa have made 739 visits to the state since June, according to the Washington Post. The social conservative Rick Santorum has made 266 visits and taken in 370 towns. He is said to be “surging” in today’s vote. Michele Bachmann, a conservative congresswoman from Minnesota, has made 200 visits.

For months, the candidates have met with voters in all manner of work and social settings. Voters have had the chance to eye-ball the candidates and quiz them on the issues. A seemingly endless series of television debates has taken place. Town hall meetings have been ubiquitous.

An American commentator this week described Iowa as the “Andy Warhol caucuses where everybody has their fifteen minutes of fame”. He was reflecting on the topsy-turvy nature of the polling which has shown most of the candidates at or near the lead for brief periods. It’s Santorum’s turn this week. Before Christmas, it was the former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, and the libertarian Ron Paul. Earlier, Texas Governor Rick Perry was briefly flavour of the month. Bachmann sparked up early and then flamed out.

It’s easy to mock many of these candidates. All seem to be unelectable in some way, either through policies, past performance, personal behaviour or presentational problems.

But they also represent distinct strands of opinion within the Republican Party. The libertarian and social conservatives, with varying degrees of Tea Party backing, portray themselves in a fight for small government and moral values against the more moderate, establishment Republicans epitomised by Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts.

To be depicted as a Washington insider is the kiss of death in the contemporary Republican Party. Romney even downplays his one term as Governor, stressing his long career as a problem-solver in business. Newt Gingrich, the once long-serving congressman and speaker, author of the scorched earth politics of the Clinton era, now presents himself as a revolutionary figure coming to shake up Washington.

The Iowa caucuses are the first step to culling this field of candidates and passing judgment on their standpoints. It’s both a philosophical battle inside the Republican Party and a very practical and pragmatic exercise in finding a candidate who can beat Obama. In this, Iowa has a mixed history. It opted for George W Bush in 2000, but sent a different message in 2008 by choosing the social and religious conservative Mike Huckabee.

Today, meetings will be held in private homes, church halls, school gymnasiums and other public buildings to make the 2012 choice. Sometimes, as few as a couple of dozen participants will show up. In most cases, speeches in support of the various candidates will be given. Debate, argument and lobbying will take place, as candidates are progressively eliminated.

A state-wide winner will be known sometime during the evening when all 1,774 caucuses have reported their results. It is said that there are only three tickets out of Iowa, possibly four this year. The three lowest polling candidates are likely to disappear in the coming days and weeks.

It’s a marvellous spectacle, but stop a minute and look at some of the numbers.

Iowa has a population of about 3 million people. In the presidential election of 2008, nearly 1.5 million Iowans voted. If 100,000 people vote today, that will only be around 15 per cent of those who voted Republican in 2008. Iowans seem more content to let others decide who the general election candidates will be.

This low turnout has a number of significant implications. It allows the enthusiasts and the zealous to dominate. It means that the better organised candidates, those with bodies on the ground and money in the bank, are the ones who can pay to get out the vote. Whilst organisational talent is a political skill to be valued in its own right, in an American election it can only be achieved with cash.

The barrage of negative advertising pumped out in Iowa over the past few weeks, much of it against Newt Gingrich, is testimony to the importance of money in the US election system. It is estimated that $12.5 million has been spent on TV ads to influence the small fraction of voters who will participate in today’s vote. Since a Supreme Court decision permitted independent political action committees to use unlimited sums of money in support of candidates, “Super PACS” have arisen as nominally independent but integral parts of the various campaigns.

Primary elections are more common than caucuses. Only next week’s primary in New Hampshire allows for extensive person-to-person contact between candidate and voter. In the other states, there isn’t time for the door-to-door campaigning that months in Iowa allowed. There are no pitches on behalf of candidates. The carnival atmosphere of Iowa is absent. Voters simply turn up and vote. The campaigning takes place mainly on television. Organisationally, it is the telephone, direct mail and the internet that dominate. That and polling and advertising. And more polling and more advertising. The Super PACs will be working overtime.

And if the number of caucus-goers in Iowa is small, it’s no better in the primaries elsewhere.

Turnout in US primaries is lower now than ever before. An American University report on the 2010 mid-term primaries showed a turnout of 17.8 per cent of age-eligible citizens, the lowest ever, apart from 2006 when it fell to 16.1 per cent.

Democratic Party turnout was 8.2 per cent in the 42 states which held state-wide primaries. The Republican Party turnout across 46 states was 9.8 per cent. It was the first time since 1930 that the Republicans eclipsed the Democrats.

Even in 2004, in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, primary turnout was a mere 17.2 per cent, of which 9.7 per cent was for the Democrats and 6.4 per cent for the Republicans. The War on Terror did nothing to encourage voters to engage more with candidate selection.

Primary and caucus voter turnout is usually higher in presidential election years when the incumbent is retiring. The 1972 election, when Richard Nixon slaughtered George McGovern, was the high water mark, with 30.9 per cent of eligible voters casting ballots. In 2008, with nominating contests in both parties and a right royal battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, turnout reached 30.2 per cent.

The caucuses and the primaries are a great spectacle. They make our party processes seem drab by comparison. But it would be wise not to see them as exemplars of participatory democracy.

In no way can they be seen as representative of broader public opinion. Richard Nixon and others have made the point that successful candidates in the Republican Party tack to the right in the primaries, whilst Democrats tack to the left. Both move to the centre in the general election.

One intriguing question in this primary election season is whether the Republican Party’s voters are shaping the candidates or whether the candidates are leading the voters. The influence of the Tea Party and the ongoing search for “anyone but Romney” suggests it is the former.

Nevertheless, and at the risk of subsequent embarrassment, the course of the Republican nomination race is reasonably predictable, barring an upset in Iowa or New Hampshire. Mitt Romney is the best placed candidate to win. He has money and organisation on his side. Apart from the cashed-up Rick Perry, most of his opponents lack one or the other, or both, and that’s before you take into account their ideological quirks.

If Romney can poll around 25 per cent in Iowa, even if he doesn’t win, it will suggest that enough Republicans see him as credible and electable. It may take a few more primaries to topple Santorum, Gingrich, Paul and Perry, but at this stage it looks the most likely course of events.

This article was first published on The Drum.

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