By Kent R. Kroeger (February 9, 2020)
As an Iowa native, the news coverage of the 2020 Iowa caucuses has been excruciatingly painful to digest. Even my favorite checkout clerk at the local Stop & Shop, knowing I’m from Iowa, teased me this weekend as I paid for my daily donut and energy drink.
“You’re from Iowa, right? Do you want me to help you count your money?” she said, amusing herself.
America, we get it. Iowa screwed up and Iowa’s ‘First-in-Nation’ caucus status is probably a dead man walking. But in Iowa’s defense, the voter caucus system is so poorly conceived, it is like trying to herd kittens while wearing roller skates on an ice rink during a tornado warning.
I don’t think any U.S. state could pull it off any better than Iowa did last week. After all, the Iowa Democratic Party had to tabulate votes for 1,681 precincts (or about 17 precincts within each of Iowa’s 99 counties). In previous caucuses, before the infamous Iowa caucus phone app streamlined the process — sort of — not really, 99 county coordinators would phone in the results to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters — which had a phone bank of maybe a dozen phones. Sure, it wasn’t as efficient as automated voting machines — as will be brutally apparent when New Hampshire kicks out its primary vote totals within a couple hours after the polls close this Tuesday — but the Iowa caucus system usually gets the job done before midnight.
Oh, who am I kidding?
The Iowa caucuses have always been a collective train wreck that would be improved if they were just simple dumpster fires.
Over 40 years, I’ve attended six Iowa caucuses — five with the Democrats and once with the Republicans (when Ron Paul ran for president in 2012). In every Democratic Party caucus I witnessed one or more of the following on those cold Iowa evenings:
a noteworthy discrepancy between the number of registered voters that had signed in and the final vote count,
bullying and voter shaming as caucus voters grouped to show their candidate preferences (one 2020 caucus voter shared on Twitter a particularly disturbing instance of a Warren supporter bullying an African-American couple),
labor union precinct captains hectoring fellow union members to stay united for the labor-endorsed candidate (as I witnessed for Walter Mondale in 1984 and Richard Gephardt in 1988),
minors included in candidate preference headcounts (one of them being my 10-year-old son who accidentally ended up a Martin O’Malley voter in 2016),
and every caucus I’ve attended has had that one person (who I always assume is a Unitarian — just a hunch) who holds up the whole process by an additional 10 or 15 minutes when they complain about some minute detail in the caucus rules.
Someday the Iowa Democratic Party will realize: they can have smooth-running caucuses or Unitarians, but not both.
And why don’t I include my one Republican caucus experience in the list of caucus meltdowns? For one, the 2012 Republican caucus I attended in Des Moines could not have been run any better.
The Iowa Republicans have long used secret ballots (the only proper way to vote in a democracy); whereas, the Iowa Democrats physically herd caucus-goers based on candidate preferences even as the Party started using paper ballots in this most recent caucus.
But more important than the voting method in bringing order, there are few human gatherings as homogeneous as a group of Iowa Republican caucus-goers: white, Lutheran, and over 60 years old (only a slight exaggeration on my part — some are Episcopalian).
In contrast, Iowa Democratic caucus-goers come from varied backgrounds but share one common characteristic: an inability to play well with others. If you asked an Iowa Republican to list the sports they played in high school or college, they would list team sports like football, basketball, and cheerleading; as opposed to Iowa Democrats, who over-index on hiking, yoga summer camp, and competitive bird-watching (yes, there is such a thing).
Team sports require cooperation and the submission of one’s own ego to a group cause. Yoga requires a level of self-absorption observed elsewhere only among serial killers and NFL wide receivers.
The ugly truth is most Democrats don’t put a high value on placing their own narrow interests beneath a broader, common good. (Well, Tulsi Gabbard does, and look how the Democratic Party treats her.)
In other words, the Democratic Party’s preoccupation with identity politics is not conducive to drama-free caucuses. Add to identity politics a cult-like deference among Iowans for tradition no matter how out of step it may be with modern times — how else do you explain why Iowans didn’t replace 6-on-6 girls basketball with the 5-on-5 game until 1993? — and you get the disaster the world witnessed in real-time last week in Iowa.
Lewis Carroll may have foreseen the Iowa caucuses chaos when he wrote in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland about Alice and a group of river-soaked birds and animals as they contemplated how to dry off:
‘What is a Caucus-race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.
‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’ (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)
First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘everybody has won, and all must have prizes.’
That pretty much summarizes the Iowa caucuses, which — like Lewis Carroll’s Dodo bird — are about to become extinct and their turbulent glory deeply missed…not really.
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