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Despite Media Hype, Iowa's Democratic Caucuses Will Have No True Winner

Horserace journalism obscures caucuses' true value: How Iowa Democrats settle on a candidate.
 
 
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For weeks, critics have said the Iowa Caucuses are less than democratic. They exclude elderly and disabled voters who can't get there. The same is true for soldiers overseas and college students on winter break. They are in a state that is mostly white. And contrary to the national media hype, there is no clear winner -- at least on the Democratic side -- that commits delegates for the party's national convention.

All that is true. But the Iowa Caucuses are really useful if you follow politics. Yet most of the national media won't cover that part of the process. And the state's Democratic Party is not helping either, by not releasing the raw data of the sequence of votes on Caucus Night. Those votes -- and the debate and compromises that go with it -- could inject some realism and perspective into the rest of the campaign.

Because unlike any other state, what the Iowa Caucuses offer is the chance to see people deciding whom to pick after their first choice for president does not make it in the first round of voting. That forced compromise and the debate accompanying it -- coming at the start of the presidential season -- is close to how people vote on Election Day.

"The caucuses were never designed to have a winner," said Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer scientist who is one of the nation's leading experts on electronic voting. "Fights about who won are a matter of interpretation, since the caucuses elect delegates to the county conventions, who elect delegates to the state and congressional district elections, who elect delegates to the national party conventions."

On the Republican side, that party conducts a straw poll on Caucus Night and releases the raw numbers. They also elect delegates to county conventions. But the Democrats have another system, Jones said, and one whose nuances are little-understood -- especially by most of the political reporters now in the state.

"For the Democrats, the caucuses are not about giving raw popularity numbers, they are about forcing people to make compromises and play politics," he said. "In a way, they accomplish the kinds of things that instant runoff voting accomplishes, but do so through social mechanisms instead of mathematical computation."

Instant runoff voting, which exists in some cites and states, ranks candidates. If there's no clear winner with more than 50 percent, then candidates with the fewest votes get taken out of the mix. When that happens, their supporters' second choice gets counted for one of the remaining candidates until someone has a majority. Iowa's Democratic caucuses are like that. If a candidate does not get 15 percent of the vote, that candidate's people must vote for someone else. That compromise -- that part of the process -- is what is valuable for the rest of the country.

Why? Because hearing what people say -- especially after some have campaigned for a candidate who didn't make it -- will reveal more about the strengths and weaknesses of the "front runners" than any simple majority vote. If, as some polls have predicted, the campaigns of Joe Biden, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson do not get an initial 15 percent share, Iowa's Democratic Party caucus process will force their backers to pick another candidate and talk about why they are going that way.

"The difference between the first and second alignment (votes) tells you a huge amount about the candidates that no simple primary election could tell you," Jones said. "What the first alignment might show you is the vulnerability of the party to a Ralph Nader, since those Kucinich voters are the ones most likely to vote for Nader if given a chance -- and this is hidden in the final alignments."

This is where the Iowa Democratic Party is not helping -- because it will not release the raw numbers of the sequence of votes. In fact, some voting integrity activists, such as Bev Harris of BlackBoxVoting.org, believe citizens groups should organize to report these tallies.

"I'd love it if they released all of this information uniformly," Jones said, "but that would certainly confuse the sound-bite people, since the sound-bite people in the media want a simple horserace and not real information. I'm disgusted by the number of out-of-state reporters I've met who try to cover the Iowa Caucuses without taking the time to understand how they work or what the different numbers can tell you."

"Caucuses show you something else," he said. "If push comes to shove and your candidate has limited support, who would you support? Caucuses force people to make such accommodations. Primaries don't, unless you start running primaries using some kind of ranked-choice scheme."

But this political nuance -- where idealistic or pragmatic supporters of the second-tier candidate go -- is likely to be lost in most of the coverage following Iowa's Jan. 3 caucus. Unlike the rest of the country, Iowa and New Hampshire, regardless of their shortcomings, experience the candidates up close and in person. Their voters are as informed as any are likely to be in modern America.

And as for the criticism that Iowa is not like other states, recent U.S. Census statistics suggest otherwise. Iowa is 60 percent urban, which is on par with Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Virginia and Minnesota. And Iowa's per capita income, at $47,500, is on par with Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Michigan.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and co-author of What Happened in Ohio: A Documentary Record of Theft and Fraud in the 2004 Election , with Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman (The New Press, 2006).

 
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