My home state really messed up last Monday night. The Iowa Caucuses are a treasure in the state of Iowa, making us a temporary center of the political world every four years. Interestingly, my caucus site was highly organized and went off without a hitch. In fact, it was the best run Iowa caucus I have ever attended, and I’ve been to many. But at the level above, where results were collected, aggregated, and reported – well, that was a train wreck. There were a whole lot of voices calling for the end of the Iowa Caucuses well before Monday’s counting debacle, but those voices were amplified one thousand percent after our folks failed to produce the results in any reasonable timeframe.
It seems like this conversation comes up every four years, and I find that to be a real shame. I might be a bit biased, having been born and raised here and having been a frequent caucus-goer for several years, but the Iowa Caucuses are a political event unlike any other. I think it would be a regrettable loss for our state and our democracy if we allowed this unfortunate technological foul-up to be the end of them. I’m prepared to admit that Monday’s counting and the delay in reporting that followed were bad things in need of correction. I also think that it would be terribly reckless to throw the baby out with the bathwater and eliminate the caucuses for good because of these mistakes.
A lot of the people who challenge Iowa’s vaunted “First in the Nation” caucusing status cite the idea that a state with a relatively low population that is mostly white shouldn’t have such a huge impact on deciding who either party’s nominee should be. I suppose that’s an argument that a reasonable person could make, but the way that we do things here in Iowa makes our caucuses a unique and very special part of U.S. democracy. Consider, for example, that both parties have about a third of the registered voters in our state, with a third being undecided or independent. That makes for a fairly level playing field as candidates compete for support, and it also gives them the opportunity to demonstrate their electability by showing that they can win over those undecided voters.
Candidates are also able to campaign in Iowa without spending tens of millions of dollars. VGM’s government relations team likes to joke that people can campaign in Iowa on “cheese and crackers,” and that’s true to a large extent. Iowans tend to turn out in droves to volunteer for the candidates that they support, and many open up their homes to serve as campaign headquarters, to feed and house campaign workers, or to host informal town halls where people can meet with and even speak to the candidates close up. As for the money that does get spent here around caucus time, it’s a huge shot in the arm for our economy. Iowa mostly thrives on agriculture, and the revenue that we receive from hotel stays, restaurant reservations, and other spending by campaigns and the media is welcome and needed during the winter months.
Perhaps most importantly, the Iowa Caucuses represent one of the few displays of true community building left in American democracy, particularly on the Democratic side of the equation (it is also on the Republican side but the rules and the process they use in Iowa is a little different than the D’s – if you’re not an Iowan you probably didn’t know that!). People gather together in the gyms where their kids go to school. They don’t argue or fight with one another. They don’t scream at each other over their views. They often see people they know standing on the other side of the room in support of other candidates, and that’s OK. As the night goes on, they have civil conversations as they attempt to bring those same friends and neighbors over to their side. This kind of civilized dialogue between citizens is a rare and precious thing in today’s America. Not division, not anger, not hate, but instead community.
The Iowa Caucuses attract passionate people who want to play a role in the political system that’s greater than the drive-by votes cast on Election Day by the militant and the unengaged alike. Selecting the candidates who will run for the highest office in our nation is not the same as voting in an election. November the 3rd will mark the culmination of the electoral process; the end of a long and divisive journey that will probably leave a few more scars on our political process. The Iowa Caucuses are the beginning of that journey, where people gather and engage with one another as citizens and human beings to choose a leader and a message that they believe will steer America toward a better tomorrow. There is a civility, optimism, and humanity in this process that is becoming impossible to find in our political discourse these days.
We made some mistakes this year, sure, but aren’t those things worth giving this process another chance?