Iowa's undemocratic caucuses are no way to choose a presidential candidate.

A wartime lexicon.
Dec. 31 2007 12:02 PM

The Iowa Scam

The undemocratic caucuses are a terrible way to choose a presidential candidate.

Huckabee takes a morning run in Des Moines, Iowa  Click image to expand.
Huckabee takes a morning run in Des Moines, Iowa

It is quite astonishing to see with what deadpan and neutral a tone our press and television report the open corruption—and the flagrantly anti-democratic character—of the Iowa caucuses. It's not enough that we have to read of inducements openly offered to potential supporters—I almost said "voters"—even if these mini-bribes only take the form of "platters of sandwiches" and "novelty items" (I am quoting from Sunday's New York Times). It's also that campaign aides are showing up at Iowan homes "with DVD's that [explain] how the caucuses work." Nobody needs a DVD to understand one-person-one-vote, a level playing field, and a secret ballot. The DVD and the other gifts and goodies (Sen. Barack Obama is promising free baby-sitting on Thursday) are required precisely because none of those conditions applies in Iowa. In a genuine democratic process, these Tammany tactics would long ago have been declared illegal. But this is not a democratic process, and besides, as my old friend Michael Kinsley used to say about Washington, the scandal is never about what's illegal. It's about what's legal.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

Every now and then, in the avalanche of tripe coverage that is provided by a mass media that (never forget) is the direct beneficiary of the huge outlays of money the candidates make, a sentence of ordinary truth shines through. Thus the following, from the bended-knee profile of Mike Huckabee, by Zev Chafets in the New York TimesMagazine, describing events in the last week in October, when:

[T]he Hawkeye Poll of the University of Iowa was published. Huckabee had 13 percent, in a virtual tie with Rudy Giuliani for second place, behind Mitt Romney with 36. At that point, the Huckabee bandwagon didn't seem all that amazing to Iowa veterans. "Actually, it is pretty straightforward," said Prof. David Redlawsk, director of the University of Iowa's Hawkeye Poll. "About 45 percent of 85,000 or so Republican caucus voters are evangelical Christians. Roughly half of them automatically vote for the most socially conservative candidate in the race, and it looks like they have decided that's Huckabee. The other half can be won over, too—if they think he's electable."

So, once you subtract the breathless rhetoric about "surge" and "momentum" and (oh, Lord) "electability," it's finally admitted that the rest of the United States is a passive spectator while about half of 45 percent of 85,000 or so Republican caucus voters promote a provincial ignoramus and anti-Darwinian to the coveted status of "front-runner" or at least "contender."

Now, something as absurd and counterdemocratic as this can be so only if the media say it is so, and every four years for as long as I can remember, the profession has been promising to swear off the bottle and stop treating the Iowa caucuses as if they were a primary, let alone an election. Credit Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post for being the first writer this year to try to hold his fellow journalists to that pledge:

Without that massive media boost, prevailing in Iowa would be seen for what it is: an important first victory that amounts to scoring a run in the top of the first inning.

"It stinks," says veteran political reporter Jack Germond. "The voters ought to have time to make a considered decision, and the press ought to be a little less poll-driven, and we're not." Between the coverage and the hyper-compressed campaign calendar, he says, "the whole system this year is absolutely a disgrace."

The term of choice for the more thoughtful reporters, in describing the Iowa rules, is "arcane." Kurtz used it, as did his colleague Dan Balz, in briefly telling the truth about the even more scandalous situation on the Democratic side:

With its arcane caucus rules, Iowa remains a small battlefield. Only 124,000 Democrats voted last time, less than a quarter of those eligible. So if Barack Obama, say, edges Hillary Clinton by 2,000 votes, he'll be hailed in headlines as a giant-killer despite the tiny margin.

That's true enough, but how can an establishment media critic be so absolutely sure that all his colleagues will, in fact, behave this badly? Can it be, as I hinted above, that the other "arcane" process (the arduous and dubious "money primary") is mainly determined by the imperative need to buy advertising spots in the same media that knowingly cover a phony process as if it were a real one?

It's only when you read an honest reporter like Dan Balz that you appreciate the depth and extent of the fraud that is being practiced on us all. "In a primary," as he put it, "voters quietly fill out their ballots and leave. In the caucuses, they are required to come and stay for several hours, and there are no secret ballots. In the presence of friends, neighbors and occasionally strangers, Iowa Democrats vote with their feet, by raising their hands and moving to different parts of the room to signify their support for one candidate or another. … [F]or Democrats, it is not a one-person, one-vote system. … Inducements are allowed; bribes are not." One has to love that last sentence.

I was in Des Moines and Ames in the early fall, and I must say that, as small and landlocked and white and rural as Iowa is, I would be happy to give an opening bid in our electoral process to its warm and generous and serious people. But this is not what the caucus racket actually does. What it does is give the whip hand to the moneyed political professionals, to the full-time party hacks and manipulators, to the shady pollsters and the cynical media boosters, and to the supporters of fringe and crackpot candidates. It is impossible that the Republican Party could be saddled with a clown like Huckabee if there were a serious primary in Iowa, let alone if the process were kicked off in Chicago or Los Angeles or Atlanta. (Remember that not Iowa but its "caucuses" put Pat Robertson ahead of George H.W. Bush in the race for the GOP nomination in 1988.) The process might be a good way for Iowa to pick its party convention delegates, though I frankly doubt even that. It is an absolutely terrible way in which to select candidates for the presidency, and it makes the United States look and feel like a banana republic both at home and overseas.

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