With all the TV advertisements, news reports and campaign mail, it would be easy to assume the Iowa caucuses are a really big deal and everybody cares about it. Between now and Feb. 3, you might hear someone say you have an obligation to exercise your democratic powers.
In the real world, outside electoral politics, most people don’t care.
Record caucus attendance was set in 2008, when Republicans and Democrats in attendance totaled about 360,000, or about 19 percent turnout among Iowa’s 1.9 million active registered voters at the time. For comparison, you would only have to fill up Kinnick Stadium about five times to reach that number of people.
Even the biggest caucus night on record is underwhelming compared to routine political contests in Iowa. Later the same year, 73 percent of registered voters voted in the general election. State and even local elections regularly have more turnout that Iowa’s hallowed presidential nominating caucuses.
It’s easy to see why more Iowans don’t flock to caucus sites — they are one-time events, at a specific time, in the evening, during the winter in Iowa. Both Iowans and out-of-state onlookers see it as a confusing and outdated system, designed to serve political elites and activists but not normal people.
The prep work necessary to understand the rules of the caucus is an abomination on its own. Parties scramble to distribute instructions to their members, while the media devises flashy graphics and charts to explain the process. Iowans are even encouraged to attend special pre-caucus training events so they understand the process.
For Iowa Democrats, precinct leaders are advised to take an 11-module online training course. If you really want a thorough and detailed understanding, there’s also a 77-page “delegate selection plan.” Caucusgoers are especially confused this year as Iowa Democratic Party is rolling out what officials call the “most significant changes to the Iowa caucuses since 1972.”
The Republicans’ process is more straightforward — we talk about the candidates and write down our choice one time; no running around the room or crunching delegate numbers — but the time and place requirements still make it inaccessible for many.
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Participation in the caucuses is only open to registered Republicans and Democrats, so independents, Greens and Libertarians are excluded from the process. Voters can change their registration for caucus night and then change back, but it’s an impediment to participation nonetheless.
It’s important to recognize that all these barriers are not design flaws, but rather intentional features of the system. Caucuses are specifically intended to benefit party die-hards, while alienating the huge majority of people Iowans who do not put partisanship at the center of their lives.
Caucus if you want to. There is nothing wrong with playing along with a stupid game if that’s the only game in town.
But if you feel frustrated, confused or unmotivated this caucus season, if you’re underwhelmed by your options, don’t fret about staying home on caucus night. Anything else you do instead will probably have about as much impact on the government as caucusing would.
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