What this means, in effect, is that beyond a certain point, it doesn't matter if your candidate can turn out 200 or 10,000 participants in a particular precinct, because that precinct has only so much delegate-purchasing power. It matters not just how many participants a candidate can turn out, but whether he can turn them out all over the place. A candidate who won a lot of the precincts narrowly would wind up winning a bigger portion of the delegates than a rival who piled up votes in one corner of Iowa—even if that corner yielded a higher overall number of supporters. It's all the disproportional representation of the Electoral College, in miniature. And that was the price for forming the Union, not a guide for running elections.
This is especially true because in most precinct caucuses, a Democratic candidate who does not get 15 percent support from the participants is deemed "nonviable." Supporters of these candidates can go home, or they can join another candidate who has made it over the 15 percent bar. (One reason why the Edwards campaign is optimistic is that they believe they are the favorite "second choice.") In the moment, this makes for a great show, as rival candidates importune the "nonviables" to join with them. Over the course of the evening, the appeals range from high-minded to horse-trading: ("Come with us and you can be one of our delegates to the county convention").
But the drama doesn't answer one basic question: Why can't the public learn how many of the participants actually voted for the different candidates? The Democratic Party has these voter-preference numbers—but will not release them to the public, as this New York Times op-ed pointed out. Instead, the percentages reported on election night reflect only the share of state delegates each candidate has won. Why? No one seems exactly sure. But it means that a candidate who turned out more total supporters than anyone else, across the state, could wind up in second or third place—and no one will know.
In defense of all this, Goldford stresses that "we have to remember that the caucuses are not an election. They're simply this expression of preference defined a certain way." But this is, of course, the greater fiction. Candidates who spend millions of dollars on advertising, or 100 days in the state, are doing so because the caucuses have become the first quantifiable test, the one that will affect their chances everywhere else.
They are not about to question the process. And Iowans, for all their estimable qualities, know full well that they have a good thing going, with local officials and journalists courting them for months and pandering politicians embracing corn-based ethanol. ("If they held the first caucuses in Idaho," someone once said "we'd be subsidizing gasoline made out of potatoes.") The only way Iowa has kept its first-in-the-nation process is by conducting caucuses; shifting to a primary would deprive them of their Brigadoon-like emergence every four years as the center of the political universe. They're not going to be allowed to run a straight-up primary before New Hampshire. So, they keep doing it their own way, to their benefit and to the detriment of the rest of us.