University of Iowa expert says Iowa caucuses could become irrelevant

'The imprecision and uncertainty that necessarily surrounds the caucuses isn't what voters want'

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Iowa’s 2016 caucuses are in the books, and one University of Iowa analyst said — in some ways — this year was unlike any other, potentially signaling a shift in American attitudes and pressing the issues that have plagued Iowa’s caucuses for years.

“What’s different about 2016 is the parties aren’t controlling the process the way they did in the past,” UI political science professor Cary Covington said Wednesday during a “Lunch and Learn” event on campus. “They are not channeling the nominating process the way they have [previously.]

Covington said the Democratic and Republican parties now have shifted their focus from choosing the nominees to the process — setting up rules by which candidates compete. The parties, in essence, are acting as umpires, defining the arena without advocating for one person over another.

“If your focus shifts from substance to process, your legitimacy and your authority in the process is grounded in and based on the perception that you’re playing the game fair,” Covington said. “You’re calling the balls and strikes, and you better be fair to everyone.”

The growing public demand for a fair, decisive democratic process poses challenges for Iowa’s caucuses, which Covington said were never meant for precision.

“The imprecision and uncertainty that necessarily surrounds the caucuses isn’t what voters want,” Covington said. “So, looking forward, Iowa faces two choices, and I don’t think either is very appealing.”

One option, he said, is to accept the inconclusiveness of the caucuses, which becomes especially problematic in close calls — like the narrow margin separating Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders this year and Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum four years ago.

“When it’s a close call, a caucus can really only say, ‘Well it’s really close,’” Covington said. “It can’t say decisively you’re the winner, you’re the loser. Even in an election you have a hard time when it gets that close.”

To ask a caucus to be precise is unreasonable, according to Covington.

“Since it’s unreasonable, it can’t be fixed I don’t think,” he said. “And that’s where the undermining authoritativeness of the caucuses comes from.”

Candidates who come up short in Iowa — especially those who lose by narrow margins — will continue to challenge the Iowa process.

“That challenges legitimacy and therefore the media is going to say, ‘Well let’s not pay attention,’” Covington said.

The other option Iowa has is to revise its caucus process to make it more like a primary. But, according to Covington, New Hampshire has a law making it the first-in-the-nation primary, and it will come after Iowa if it starts to challenge New Hampshire’s first-primary status.

“We are not going to win that one,” he said.

But, even without precision, Covington on Wednesday stressed the role Iowa’s caucuses do play in the nomination process — that of winnowing the field and identifying losers, if not winners. He said Iowa shows the importance of organization and having a “ground game,” referencing the underperformance of Republican candidate Donald Trump and the overperformance of candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio last week.

He said the real Iowa winners are those who out-perform the polls, making Rubio Iowa’s biggest winner. Covington also pointed to national bumps Iowa results afford candidates.

After placing third in Iowa, Rubio saw his support climb 3.3 percent nationally and 6.9 percent in New Hampshire. Trump, on the other hand, saw his poll numbers drop 2.6 percent nationally and 1.5 percent in New Hampshire, according to Covington.

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