Tuesday, August 18, 2015

End of the Caucus?

  The Iowa caucuses are less than five months away and the every four year descent has begun by politicians to the state with less than one percent of the US population that has a supposedly outsized influence on the presidential primaries by virtue of their caucuses being first in the nation. Prospective candidates are visiting the Iowa State Fair this week in their attempt to make a good impression on the local population and get their face on the local and national news.

  The caucuses bring lots of money to Iowa and the state guards its first in the nation status zealously. Iowa received a boost in 2008 when Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic caucus. The win gave Obama’s fledgling campaign legitimacy and gave furthered Iowa's reputation as a state that could boost little known candidates to national prominence with a good performance.

  I think the 2008 Democratic caucuses were the high point of Iowa’s outsized influence in national primary politics and within the next 20 years the Iowa caucuses won’t garner more than a blip on the national radar. Some of this influence loss is due to the times we live in and some is self-inflicted.

  In 2012 the Iowa Republican Party declared eventual nominee Mitt Romney the winner of the Iowa caucuses on the morning of January 4th by eight votes over Rick Santorum. The media headlines were about how Romney ‘survived’ his first primary test. Santorum got some credit for his close finish in the stories while the headlines and pictures told the tale of Romney as the winner (see this New York Times story as an example). Two weeks later after Romney had won the New Hampshire primary Santorum was declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses by 34 votes.

  I don’t know if Santorum would have won the nomination if his victory hadn’t taken two weeks to confirm. I believe that Santorum’s picture and name would have headlined the media reports on January 4th instead of Romney’s which couldn’t have helped but boost his chances. Was the wrong winner reported due to incompetence or impropriety? No one can say for sure. I tend to lean on the side of impropriety with the revelations of so many Iowa politicians on the payrolls of caucus campaigns. It wouldn’t surprise me if moneyed candidates can rig or delay party controlled primary elections or the reporting of results. A similar situation happened in the 2012 Maine caucuses when Romney was quickly declared the winner when results of towns that were suspected of voting for Ron Paul were discarded. When the process is suspected of being corrupt politicians without influence tend to shy away from the process. It is no surprise to me that after 30 years the summer Republican Iowa Straw Poll fundraiser was cancelled due to lack of interest by the candidates.

  Aside from the incompetence or fraud exhibited in the last Iowa Caucuses making it look like a less than reliable indicator of Middle America the nationally televised Republican Party getting record viewership thanks to the participation of billionaire Donald Trump may pose more of a problem for the Iowa caucuses. These pre-primary debates have been held for the last few elections but never to viewership or anticipation that Trump’s participation brought. How does this increased attention affect the Iowa caucuses? By the time the campaigning for the caucuses begins in earnest the lesser polling candidates will have already been winnowed out and the remaining candidates will have had so much media exposure that the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primaries won’t bring much if anything new to light.

  As buffoonish as Trump has been made to appear by the media (If being a billionaire was so easy that any buffoon could be one there would be a lot more billionaires), he has managed to cash in on his celebrity and dominated the headlines like very few politicians. If he manages to win the Iowa caucuses it will show that mass media counts more than heading to hundreds of small town Iowa diners.

  Republican and Democratic candidates alike are campaigning in Iowa this year but are spreading their money among the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (Click to see Jeb Bush and Rick Perry's SuperPACs' plans). The so-called ‘SuperPACs’ are raising many times more money than any campaign that accepts federal funds is allowed to accept but can’t coordinate their actions with their chosen candidate. The SuperPACs main function as I see it is to blanket the county with mailings and media ads. A long shot candidate like Rick Perry has $1 million for his campaign while his SuperPAC has $17 million. Jeb Bush’s SuperPAC has over $100 million to spend. I can’t imagine how much Hillary Clinton;s SuperPAC is going to have available to spend.

  Much of the SuperPAC funding comes from unlimited contributions of the very wealthy. Why would a wealthy patron give huge amounts of money to a candidate’s SuperPAC only to see them stumble out of the gate with poor showings in tiny states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina (population 4.5 million)? Especially when the results of these states can be manipulated of misreported by incompetence or malfeasance? Just as the lack of participation has sent the Iowa Straw Poll to the dumpster I think it’s only a matter of time before larger states like Florida, Texas, or Ohio move their primaries up to the first few weeks to let the candidates and their SuperPACs spend their time and money there to pile up delegate leads and leave the poorer candidates to toil in the tiny states.

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