What in the World Is an Iowa Caucus Anyway?
In just a little more than 100 days, my fellow Iowans and I will brave the depths of wintry desolation to cast the first official votes in the 2016 presidential race. As anticipation towards the night of February 2nd builds, everywhere I go I’m asked two questions.
“Who’s going to win” and “what in the world is an Iowa caucus anyway?”
Despite the fact the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses have been with us slightly longer than Star Wars, even many informed Americans really have no idea how they work. Thus, they have no idea why the results so often defy conventional wisdom. This explains why when I tell them what’s happening on the ground here, which usually goes against the political class’ narrative, they’ll instantly push back with “but that’s not what the polls say.”
Ah, yes, the all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful polls. Or as I pointed out last week here at Conservative Review, the greatest scam of the 2016 election.
Unfortunately for our intelligentsia, Iowans of various persuasions could give a rodent’s backside about what the polls say. Iowans are fiercely independent by nature. The number of voters currently registered as “no party” (or independent voters) exceeds what either the Republicans or Democrats have in the state by almost 100,000 voters. For decades the state sent bi-polar stalwarts Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley simultaneously to the U.S. Senate.
With a few exceptions, party labels also mean little in Iowa, and politics here is driven more by relationships than ideology. For example, our current Republican governor just raised the gas tax 36% at the behest of his benefactors, which his Democrat predecessor refused to do when it was proposed to him. He’s also responsible for growing government larger than any Democrat governor in the state’s history, too.
These factors point to two reasons why the Iowa Caucuses are tough to forecast for those outside the state—Iowans like to make up their own minds, and tend to back candidates they develop a personal relationship with.
Enter the caucus process itself. The caucuses are a throwback to the way the founding generations of the country would’ve voted, except they’re even more personal.
While our forefathers would’ve likely gathered at a courthouse or the county seat to make their choice, in 106 days Iowans will assemble in schools, churches, and even homes to caucus. But like our forefathers, the caucus process of voting requires a level of accountability that a primary or general election does not. Depending on where you go to caucus, you may be asked or required to give an account for whom you’re voting for and why. Doing so in front of your peers tends to cut down on the “I’m voting for party hack ‘A’ because so-and-so told me they were the most electable” type voter.
Furthermore, each campaign will typically have a proxy there to speak on their behalf at each caucus site, and sometimes the candidate himself stands up to make his own pitch. That’s why you want to win over key activists, pastors, business leaders, etc. Because having someone with community cache give your pitch to their fellow locals can carry a lot of weight. Or you can just do what Mike Huckabee did in 2008 and send the legendary Chuck Norris to a key caucus site as your pitchman. After all, who’s going to argue with him? Everybody knows you don’t tell Chuck Norris whom you’re going to caucus for. He tells you.
This segues into one of the key determinations of the Iowa Caucus outcome—horse-trading happens right there on the site.
For example, often people will go to caucuses with several candidates they’re willing to support. But when a key figure in the group stands up to make his/her pitch, you and the people you came with might look at each and say something like this: “Well, that candidate was on my list, so if that’s where the momentum is going that’s who we’re supporting.”
That’s how Rick Santorum dramatically out-performs his polling numbers on caucus night. Because a bunch of Michele Bachman and Newt Gingrich supporters realized during the pitches and horse-trading their candidate wasn’t going to win, so they decided to back the conservative candidate that had the late momentum instead. This also explains why endorsements like Bob Vander Plaats of The Family Leader carry so much weight as well, for they tend to send a message to the grassroots who’s got “old ‘mo” on their side.
Plus, depending on where you caucus, you might have to sit through a long night of parliamentary discussions about delegates, the platform, etc. Participating in a caucus is not like voting in a primary, which is almost like on-demand, drive-through voting by comparison. When participating in the Iowa Caucuses make sure to pack a Snickers—you’re not going anywhere for a while. This tends to weed out lazy and uninformed voters all the more, because typically the most committed are the ones more likely to devote that kind of time. Especially during a frigid Iowa winter on a school night.
This dynamic is the same in both parties. While the liberal media loves to complain about evangelicals dominating Iowa (and they are about 60% of the vote, which is actually less than the evangelical turnout in South Carolina), Leftist progressives also dominate on the Democrat side for all the same reasons.
Most people remember that Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton here in Iowa eight years ago to launch his successful run for the White House, but what they usually forget is Hillary actually finished third. John Edwards actually placed second that year, running on pretty much the same Leftist message Obama was running on. Instead of splitting the vote, there were more than enough socialists to go around for both of them to outpace Hillary.
Hence, if you want to know who’s going to win Iowa look at three things:
You cannot build a successful organization in Iowa without successfully engaging Iowans on a personal level. It’s the chicken and the egg, not or. Therefore, ignore whatever the name ID beauty pageants disguised as polls are telling you at the moment. Instead, look at the depth of organization and the level of enthusiastic support a candidate has. For that is what will drive their real numbers come caucus night.
Oh, and if you’re still buying the lie that Iowa’s not really all that important, you might want to go ahead and read this next.
First published at Conservative Review
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