The unending presidential campaigns are coming to life again. Barely six months after Americans went to the polls to select a president, candidates hoping to be Joe Biden’s successor are already visiting Iowa.
There’s only one question to ask: Why?
For the candidates that’s easy. They want to be president. Iowa’s caucuses begin the nominating process. So, for them, the road runs through Iowa. But the question isn’t for the candidates. It’s for the Republican and Democratic parties.
Why are they letting Iowa kick things off yet again after the state parties badly fumbled two of the past three caucuses?
The position of Iowa as the first nominating contest is a historical accident. The caucuses didn’t matter much until 1976, when Jimmy Carter led the five candidates in the Democratic contest. Contrary to popular belief, Carter wasn’t on top of the results. He actually came in a solid 10 percentage points behind “Uncommitted.” Still, Carter’s surprising showing proved a springboard to the nomination and, later, the presidency. The legend of the Iowa Caucuses was born.
For most of the past half-century, the combination of Iowa and New Hampshire proved a reasonably good way to winnow the field. Iowa isn’t an expensive media market, but it’s a large enough state to test a campaign’s logistics. New Hampshire is considerably smaller, but also considerably more expensive. Flunk organization in Iowa and you’re out. Flunk fundraising in New Hampshire and you’re finished.
There were always grumbles about the states’ roles. No one can claim either is representative of the rest of the nation, at least not with a straight face. But they served to weed out weak candidates so the rest of the states had stronger contenders on their ballots. Tradition and a perceived sense of competency in both were enough to protect their roles.
That sense of competency is gone today. Iowa’s caucuses, which are run by the state parties rather than election officials, shattered it.
In 2020, the Iowa Democratic Party flubbed the results. Caucus chairs couldn’t get a new app to work, and the backup phone lines were overwhelmed. Many gave up after hours of trying, deciding to wait until the next morning to give reporting another shot. The results trickled out. Pete Buttigieg was the top delegate recipient and Sen. Bernie Sanders the highest vote recipient. That set up dueling claims to the win. Recanvasses sought by both Sanders and Buttigieg confirmed the outcome on Feb. 27, 2020 – 24 days after the caucus.
While that debacle is better known, what happened in 2012 may be more disturbing. That time it was the Republicans. Returns were amazingly close, but eventual nominee Mitt Romney was declared the winner. He wasn’t. The count from Appanoose County, a speck of land in southeast Iowa, was wrong.
The county reported Romney had received 22 votes at one precinct, but one of the people who counted the ballots on caucus night said Romney received only two. The Iowa Republican Party initially tried to brush off the claim, saying the whistleblower didn’t have the authority to blow the whistle. It then tried to avoid declaring a winner altogether, claiming results were too close to call. Finally, some 18 days after the caucus, the party admitted Sen. Rick Santorum had won, not Romney.
In both 2012 and 2020 the errors blunted the actual winners’ momentum and denied them the positive coverage that accompanies winning contests, potentially altering the outcomes for later states. The fact it happened with both major parties means neither is competent enough to depend on.
With all the attention being paid to whether people can trust elections, it’s more important than ever that we be able to trust the results of early nominating contests. Any other state in the Midwest would be more representative of the national demographics, and none of have the baggage Iowa has racked up in the past decade.
The result is inescapable: The Iowa Caucuses have had their day. It’s time for the national parties to step in and formally change where the leadoff contests take place.