The myth is that the Iowa caucuses are the purest form of American participatory democracy because the process forces presidential candidates to humbly campaign among ordinary people - farmers, waitresses, factory workers, schoolteachers - and that somehow this down-home homage to small scale glad handing will bring forth a unique wisdom for the rest of the country to follow.
But it's all bunk.
The undemocratic and unrepresentative nature of the caucuses is obvious to everyone concerned, except to the presidential candidates who shamelessly pander to Iowa voters in every way possible, keeping their silence about this hypocrisy.
The first rule of a presidential campaign is never to insult the Iowa caucuses. The second rule is to support all farm subsidies, including corn ethanol, despite the fact that most subsidies benefit huge agribusinesses, and to always be against any regulations that seek to control sewerage overflow from the huge pig farms.
To succeed, candidates from both parties are required to adjust their positions to court white voters, elderly voters, conservative social concerns, and a demagogic anti-immigrant rhetoric. All this is done to garner support from Iowans who are not very representative of the country as a whole.
The first problem with the Iowa caucuses is that they are not an election in any rational definition of the term. The media and the public will never really learn who won the most votes in the Democratic caucus. What we get after the voting is done are "delegate equivalents" won by each candidate. The winner of the "popular vote" will not be the winner declared by the networks. Rural counties are wildly over represented - clearly violating the "one man, one vote" Supreme Court ruling.
It's not that the Democratic Party does not know the actual "one-man, one-vote" totals. It is just that they will keep it a secret. Republicans are more forthright; they report the actual votes.
For the most part, the Iowa caucuses are grossly undemocratic because the zany process excludes large numbers of voters. Fewer than one in twenty voters will attend the caucuses.
Among the disenfranchised are the National Guard and other members of the Armed Forces serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, families with young children who can't spare several hours without a babysitter, sick people, elderly people in nursing homes, blue collar workers who have to work nights, people who want to keep their political preferences private, and scores of other groups that have a right to be heard.
Absentee ballots are not allowed. Your ballot is not secret. And if you don't get there by 7 pm, you can't vote.
The result is that the attendees are very different from the average Iowa voter and the average Iowa voter is very different from the average American voter.
Nevertheless, these Iowa voters will have up to 20 times the influence of voters in other states when it comes to picking the next president, according to a recent study of past elections by economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff from Brown University.
The authors speculate that if states other than Iowa and New Hampshire had voted first in 2004, the nominee (and perhaps the president) might have been John Edwards rather than John Kerry.
This year especially, the problem is exacerbated because there will be almost no time to come back from a bad showing. With the New Hampshire primary only five days away, the Iowa winner will benefit from a massive springboard effect for subsequent primaries and maybe even deliver the eventual nomination.
This is due to the fact that the Iowa result establishes "electability" and "electability" is a major factor in how up to 60% of voters choose whom to vote for. Most polls show that Democrats and Republicans would rather nominate a candidate who can win, rather than one who agrees with their positions.
Because of the bitterly polarized climate in this election cycle, Democrats are more than desperate to win and Republicans are clinging with their fingernails to a slippery slope to retain their power, perks, and policies.
Many of the major candidates have been tagged with the "unelectable" label. Establishing "electability" in this election is fundamental. A win in Iowa highlighted by the media can change this for Hillary, Obama, Rudy, Huckabee, and Romney.
These odious caucuses are democracy at its worst and it is irresponsible of the media, the political parties, and the courts to continue this anachronistic travesty.
Why are we letting this Byzantine system play such a large role in choosing our next president?
Ratings and money for the networks of course.
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