Iowa Caucuses Aren't Even Representative of Iowans, Let Alone the Nation

`What IS a Caucus-race?' said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

`Why,' said the Dodo, `the best way to explain it is to do it.' (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (`the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no `One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out `The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, `But who has won?'

-Lewis Carrol, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale"

Yesterday, a mini-tempest in a micro-teapot came up over something NBC's Andrea Mitchell said in regard to the Iowa caucuses. "The rap on Iowa: It doesn’t represent the rest of the country, too white, too evangelical, too rural," she said. It is, apparently, a terrible thing to make a demographic observation that is true and wingnut bloggers responded to it with their usual "Help, I'm being oppressed!" histrionics.

But the fact of the matter is that the caucuses are barely even representative of Iowans, let alone the rest of the nation.


The 2012 Republican presidential caucuses begin at 7:00 p.m. on Jan. 3. Iowa Republicans who wish to participate may locate their caucus site using the Iowa Secretary of State’s poll location tool. Republican caucuses for the state’s 1,774 precincts occur in public buildings, schools and homes, and some precincts share caucus space with other precincts. Every precinct in Adair County, for example, will caucus at Greenfield’s Nodaway Valley High School next Tuesday night.

So, if you can't blow an hour of your night precisely at 7:00, you're out of luck. If you want to vote absentee, you're out of luck. And then things get even dumber:


In the Republican caucuses, each voter officially casts his or her vote by secret ballot. Voters are presented blank sheets of paper with no candidate names on them. After listening to some campaigning for each candidate by caucus participants, they write their choices down and the Republican Party of Iowa tabulates the results at each precinct and transmits them to the media. In 2008, some precincts used a show of hands or preprinted ballots. The non-binding results are tabulated and reported to the state party, which releases the results to the media. Delegates from the precinct caucuses go on to the county conventions, which choose delegates to the district conventions, which in turn selects delegates to the Iowa State Convention. Thus, it is the Republican Iowa State Convention, not the precinct caucuses, which selects the ultimate delegates from Iowa to the Republican National Convention. All delegates are officially unbound from the results of the precinct caucus, although media organizations either estimate delegate numbers by estimating county convention results or simply divide them proportionally.

Is each precinct winner-take-all? You got me. I can't find a direct answer to that anywhere, but it seems to be the case. Not that it matters any -- the delegates aren't bound by the will of the voter. The caucuses are at their heart an arcane, non-binding advisory referendum. Think of the electoral college, only worse.

The idea that this could represent the opinion of the average Iowa Republican is more than a little suspect. Troops overseas or even stationed in a different state are out. Elderly and disabled voters who can't make to the caucus location are out. People who find the hour inconvenient are out. And the voters are few and ideologically skewed.

[Ezra Klein:]

...The momentum coming out of the caucus can cement Romney as the nominee or vault another contender to the nomination. But let's all take a deep breath and agree that that is completely insane.

In 2008, the Iowa Republican Caucus got record turnout: 120,000 people. That is to say, four percent of all the residents of Iowa. And those 120,000 people represent four hundredths of one percent of the total population of America.

And it's not a representative four hundredths of one percent of the American people. It's not a representative four percent of Iowans. It's not even a representative four percent of Iowa Republicans. The likely caucusgoers are further to the right than the average Iowa Republican.

Whoever comes out on top tonight will likely say that the "Iowan people have spoken." It won't be true.


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