With the non-stop media coverage of the upcoming Iowa Presidential Caucuses, it is hard to ignore. Indeed, the lead-up to the caucuses over several months focuses a great deal of attention on a relatively small state. Whether Democrat or Republican this has got to be a good thing for Iowa. The so-called “early states” in the Presidential candidate selection process vie with each other to be among the first to weigh in on the choices.
Since this year there is no contested race among the Democrats, the media focus has been entirely on the Iowan Republicans and who they will choose on January 3 at their caucuses. Based on the coverage one might conclude that Iowa is a heavily Republican state but Democratic registration exceeds that of Republicans by about 50,000. Interestingly, Iowan Non-affiliated registrations exceed those of either the Democrats or the Republicans. In round numbers, Democrats = 661,000, Republicans = 615,000, and Non-affiliated = 683,000. In the 2008 Presidential election, Barack Obama won by 9.5% but in the 2004 election, George Bush won the state with a 0.7% margin.
While most states select their delegates to their nominating convention by a vote known as a Primary, in Iowa the selection occurs in a series of caucuses. What everyone is hearing about these days is only the first step in the Iowa process. On January 3, registered Republicans who wish to participate will convene at 1,784 precinct locations across the state. After hearing presentations from participants urging them to support one candidate or another, they will vote in a secret ballot. The results of that ballot, tabulated across all the state precincts, is what the media will broadcast as determining the order of the “winners”. Actually, what really happens is that delegates are being elected at these precinct caucuses to go to County conventions (there are 99 Counties in Iowa) to represent their candidate. At the County conventions, the delegates will select another level of delegates based the candidate with the most support. These delegates will then go to the Republican Presidential nominating convention in August.
Caucuses are sometimes criticized because their timing makes it difficult for many people to attend – evenings in January, and no absentee voting. As a result a small number of committed participants can often affect the precinct –level outcomes. On the other hand, there is an argument that caucuses force their participants to be very well educated in the differences between their candidate choices. In 2008 there was a record turnout of Republicans at their causes – about 120,000. Those in the business of predicting these things are divided on whether this year will exceed that number or not. We will soon know. An interesting note to this is that Iowans can switch their party registrations up to the moment they enter a caucus. This gives a level of uncertainty to the results as more devious voters may choose to do that in order to influence the outcome. Some suggest this is the motive of the Occupy Iowa Caucus movement.
We will know very soon and then it is on to New Hampshire on January 10.