There is a time-tested method to gain disproportionate national press attention by a presidential candidate whose Iowa caucuses campaign is on the ropes. To create an impression of uncommon political bravery, that candidate need only make a series of frontal assaults while in Iowa on the Iowa caucuses themselves.
Not since 1988, perhaps, when Al Gore, finding his own fledgling campaign to be sinking in the dust of Iowa’s hustings, secured headlines by attacking the caucus system, has any Democratic candidate for president gained such attention by launching a faux-courageous Iowa caucuses attack as has Julian Castro, most recently.
Had Castro gotten as much press attention earlier-on, while promoting his candidacy for president on its own merits, the outcome of his campaign efforts might have been different, and better.
Whatever else may ail the Democratic Party’s nomination system, it would be odd if the Iowa caucuses system — the same system, populated largely by the same people, who, in very recent years, elevated the candidacies of people irrespective of race (Barack Obama) or gender (Hillary Clinton) — were to be disproportionately blamed for the system’s shortcomings.
Not often discussed in the criticisms and defenses of the caucus system are the original animating principles and factors that were no less important back in 1972, when Iowa’s populist giant, Harold E Hughes, proposed fundamental presidential nomination process reforms, that included a caucus option for Iowa, than they are today.
First, while Iowa need not necessarily always be first in the nomination process, it is also the case that Iowa provides a remarkably level playing field for any such process to begin. With 3 million people dispersed among 99 counties and approximately 950 cities, there are no political machines here. Anyone seeking the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in any election cycle in Iowa must start from scratch. Such a situation does not characterize many states. Iowa’s uniqueness in this respect is a strength, not a weakness. Getting Iowa off the earliest stages of the nomination process will not likely improve the outcome at the end of the line.
Second, Iowa’s relatively small population, spread out over as many as seven media markets makes investments in media-driven campaigns problematic, if not economically-challenged. A campaign with limited resources, invested in skillful boots-on-the ground workers and volunteers, can do as well — or better — than well-heeled media-centered approaches, assuring that, in most years, most candidates will test-drive their messages in front of in-person live gatherings before they are catapulted into the more populated media-saturated larger states, places where large-budgeted celebrity candidates have built-in advantages, after the Iowa caucuses experience concludes.
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Third, a major — perhaps the most important, and deeply undervalued by the Gore-Castro critiques — virtue of the Iowa caucuses is that such meetings convened for a two hour period in more than 1600 locations across the state allow opportunities for real people to get together in real places with real neighbors for boisterous good times (a few hours of more authentic excitement than even Netflix movies can deliver its subscribers): no ringers, no known fraud, and, in the end, results that produce, sometimes brutally, very credible evidence to the rest of the nation as to which of the fledgling candidacies should likely not go forward.
Some of the caucus reform proposals — whether wittingly or not — would appear to be fashioned to turn the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucuses into some other version, although more deeply flawed, of the old-school Iowa Republican Straw Poll.
Other proposals — the electronic satellite caucuses come to mind — would appear, at best, to deny the accountability that face-to-face in-person caucuses assure or, at worst, to invite the infiltration of non-resident operatives. To what end? At what, if any, gain?
The Iowa caucuses — one important part of Hughes’s post 1968-convention reforms designed to break the unit rule method of nominating presidential candidates, to reduce the dominating influence of powerbrokers and to democratize the nomination processes, generally — were never intended to create a perfect system.
Rather, as a small, yet important, early step of the nomination process, it is hard to imagine a substantially improved system under which the Iowa caucuses were to be significantly altered or eliminated, as has been most recently proposed by a disappointed Julian Castro on his way out the door.
James C. Larew is an attorney practicing in Iowa City.