All These Caucus Takes Are All (At Least Partially) Wrong


Every four years at a certain point in the cycle, the inevitable chorus of media hot takes begins. Iowa, it's too white. Iowa, it's not diverse enough. Iowa, it's a caucus state. This year has proven to be no exception- though the takes on Twitter have reached a critical enough mass that I feel like a response is worth typing out because I'm here to tell you: Your caucus takes? They're all at least partially wrong.

Here's a shocking confession from a resident of Iowa. We don't have to go first. We are, in fact, pretty white. But, take one step back and look at the first four contests: put Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina together and not only do you have a fairly decent geographical spread of the country, but you have a pretty decent amount of diversity thrown in as well. Do these four contests together paint a fairly representative picture of the whole country? I haven't the faintest idea- but together, they're far less white than just Iowa.

The problem I have with the whole, 'Iowa's too white and not diverse enough' argument is the subtext. All these national writers and Twitterati are really saying that a bigger, more diverse state like California or New York should go first. (I mean, they might not be, to be fair- but when people point out the lack of diversity in the heartland, they're usually saying it's more diverse somewhere else. Somewhere bigger. Somewhere with more electoral votes.) And yes, it's true. States like New York and California or Florida or Texas are bigger and have more electoral votes and are more diverse and probably more representative of the country as a whole. You can, if you like, make an argument that the bigger states should go first for all of those reasons I just elucidated. But here's my counter-argument to that:

If California or New York (Or Florida and Texas) had gone first in 2008, Barack Obama would never have been President.

Think about it though: in order to effectively campaign in states that big, you're not talking about retail politics you see in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina- you're talking about money enough to buy ads that can be seen by a statewide audience in some very expensive media markets. California or New York may well be more representative and diverse, but having them go first means that candidates with money and Establishment support get an instant advantage over candidates that maybe don't have the name recognition and need some running room to prove to voters they're the candidate worth picking. If California and New York were going first this year, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer would be in the top four candidates and I am not at all crazy about that idea and you shouldn't be either, because it ends with either President Mark Zuckerberg dropping us into a nightmarish Silicon Valley tech dystopia or some President Obnoxious Tech Bro pimping out raw water and anti-vaxx garbage using the Presidency as a bully pulpit.

The Presidency shouldn't pass between families like an ugly vase you keep re-gifting to the In-Laws you don't like every few years. (As we were flirting with in 2016 with Mrs. Clinton.) It also shouldn't become a 'property' for some asshole venture capitalist billionaire to 'acquire.' We've got a long list of problems with our democracy as it is. Let's not add to them.

So no, Iowa doesn't necessarily have to go first. But it sure as hell shouldn't be a big state either.

Then you've got to look at the concept of caucuses themselves- oddly enough, the takes are on firmer ground here. The Caucus itself is kind of a pain in the ass. You've got to give enough of a shit to give up your evening (arrange a babysitter, get time off work, etc) to go stand in an auditorium somewhere and be sorted and preached at. It is, I will admit, a glorious mess to behold. But there are some fundamental problems with it that are worth getting creative with.

First, why isn't Caucus Day a state holiday? Nobody goes to school. Nobody goes to work. Yes, the shenanigans of the caucus date and setting it makes that a little hard to pin down-- but at a certain point well in advance it gets locked in. A state holiday means that Caucuses can, potentially be scheduled for earlier in the day. At the very least, you won't have to contend with people going to work and then dragging themselves out to caucus after dinner. A state holiday has the potential to drive up participation, in my opinion and I'm honestly surprised one or both parties hasn't considered it before.

Second, Oregon does all it's voting by mail. I think say, 30% of the delegates should be awarded via a mail-in ranked choice voting ballot. Voters would have until a certain deadline (say six weeks out) to request either a Democratic or Republican ballot, rank their candidates in order of preference and then send them back in. These ballots wouldn't be opened until after the Caucuses themselves have been finished on Caucus night.

There are problems with this notion. It could potentially discourage people from actually going to the Caucus themselves. There's the little matter of putting the two parties on separate ballots as well. But, it could increase participation purely through convenience while including people who may not necessarily be able to get around or make it to the Caucus themselves in person. Certainly, it seems more viable than the online voting thing the State Democrats were kicking around before it got nixed by the DNC. You would probably have to reevaluate the percentage of delegates periodically- say, every ten-twelve years or so and maybe adjust upward or downward depending on participation numbers.

Third, we need to broaden the base of the caucuses. It's a flaw not just here in Iowa, but in the country as a whole. The primary system forces both parties to the far ends of the political spectrum, which is where the core of their committed party activists/faithful probably are. The problem is that the electorate as a whole isn't where the core of the parties actually are, so candidates inevitably have to tack back toward the center in the general. Now, technically, Iowa's caucuses are what I would call semi-open. If you get a wild hair up your ass as a registered Republican and want to go caucus with Democrats you can change your voter registration either before (as I did this year) or on site (as I did in 2012.) The latter was far more of a pain in the ass than the former, but hey- what if you just had to be a registered voter to show up and caucus? What about that? Caucuses generally take place at the same time, so if you have a Republican and a Democratic one going simultaneously, you'd have to pick one and go with that- but the 'party registration' requirement is just one more barrier to participation that just doesn't need to be there.

If I had my druthers, the First Four (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada) would get together and agree on a rotation system. So, Iowa and New Hampshire lead off one election, four years later South Carolina and Nevada do. You'd draw the focus away from one specific state and focus more on the grouping and the geographical/demography balance they bring as a group. Plus, it'd shake things up a bit, which I think would be good for the candidates themselves. There's a whole infrastructure locked into this Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada order- which is probably why people grumble every four years, but there's no real momentum for change- at least not yet. Shaking up the order would shake up the infrastructure and force potential candidates to change their strategies and it would be interesting to see how the outcomes could change because of that.

In Iowa itself, my druthers would be in favor of making Caucus Day a statewide holiday. Instead of floating online/virtual caucus stuff, I'd hybridize ever so slightly and have a percentage of delegates be chosen by ranked choice voting done by mail. I'd also drop the party registration requirement, so that all you need to participate is to be a registered voter in the state of Iowa. There are a few hurdles to these notions, I freely admit, but not impossible ones to clear. (Voters would have to request either a Democratic or Republican ballot or choose a Democratic or Republican caucus. I'm all for voter choice at the end of the day, but there might be concerns about potential fraud worth arguing about, but a lot of voter fraud rhetoric/complaints are largely overblown, I think.)

And that dear reader, is why these caucus takes are all (at least partially) wrong.

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