In 2000, Vermont governor and future presidential candidate Howard Dean offered a grim assessment of presidential caucuses in an interview with a Canadian television station. “Say I’m a guy who’s got to work for a living, and I’ve got kids,” Dean said. “On a Saturday, is it easy for me to go cast a ballot and spend 15 minutes doing it, or do I have to sit in a caucus for eight hours? I can’t stand there and listen to everyone else’s opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world.” Dean was savaged for this comment by his Democratic opponents and by the Iowa press, as it showed him attacking the very same Iowa caucus that he hoped to win in 2004.
Yet, while Dean’s comment was somewhat hyperbolic — Iowans typically do not spend eight hours at a caucus site — his overarching point was apt. The Iowa caucuses make voting needlessly difficult, effectively disenfranchising large segments of the electorate. They also take place in a state that enjoys special first-in-the-nation status, despite the fact that it contains no major cities and hardly any people of color. It’s as if Rube Goldberg designed a method of polling voters, implemented it in an unusually unrepresentative state, and then decreed that this state’s votes would receive greater weight than any other state in the union.
Rube Goldberg’s Election
The two parties conduct their caucuses using somewhat different methods, but they share one common trait. Unlike a primary election, where the polls typically stay open for most of a day to allow people to vote at their leisure, caucus participants typically must present themselves at 7pm if they wish to be able to vote. Thus Gov. Dean’s concern about the working voter with children who is unable to find time at this particular hour to make it to the caucus site.
In the past, this requirement has significantly depressed turnout in Iowa. In 2008, the last year when both parties held a competitive caucus, an estimated 227,000 people attended the Democratic caucus and 120,000 caucused as Republicans — for a total of 347,000 caucus goers statewide. That compares to over 526,000 voters in the New Hampshire primary just a few days later — despite the fact that New Hampshire has less than half as many people as Iowa.
The Iowa Democratic Party has taken some steps to mitigate this problem. This year, “Satellite Caucuses will be available by application at sites that have a sizable number of Democrats who’ve demonstrated a clear need to add an additional caucus site,” according to the party’s website. Josh Levitt, a spokesperson for the party, told ThinkProgress that this could provide a solution for some voters, such as nursing home residents who are unable to travel to a caucus site, or for a factory or other workplace where a significant number of Democrats work a night shift. By the party’s own admission, however, this solution is only available “at sites that have a sizable number of Democrats.” Voters who hope to take advantage of such a site also were required to submit an application by November 20th, so it does not appear that these satellite caucuses will enable a parent who experiences an unexpected family emergency on caucus night to vote.
(Levitt reached out to ThinkProgress after this piece was published to offer some additional details about the satellite caucuses. He says that over 200 people signed up for such a caucus, and the number of people expected to attend each satellite caucus ranges from “more than a hundred people” to “fewer than 20 people.”)
Additionally, the Iowa Democratic Party will also allow military personnel stationed outside of Iowa, military families “living abroad,” Peace Corps members, diplomats and “students and other Iowans living abroad” to vote via a “tele-caucus.”
Once the voting begins, the Democrats use a complicated process where voters group together based on their preferred candidate. If a particular candidate has less than 15 percent support at a particular caucus site, that candidate’s voters must redistribute to other, more popular candidates if they wish for their vote to count. The Republican process, by contrast, is deceptively simple. Typically, a supporter of each candidate will give a brief speech, then Republican caucus participants will mark their preferences on an ordinary ballot.
Yet the caucus itself is actually only the first order of business in a long process that includes several layers of delegates and conventions. This can lead to final results that bear little resemblance to the voting on caucus night. In 2012, for example, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) took third in the Iowa Republican caucuses on the actual day of voting. Yet, after his supporters proved more determined or more skillful in manipulating the Iowa GOP’s internal processes, Paul walked away with 23 of the state’s 28 delegates to the Republican National Convention. So much for the Iowa voters who turned out to nominate Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, the #1 and #2 finishers in the 2012 caucuses.
A different kind of anomaly could produce anti-democratic results in the Democratic caucuses this year. Iowa Democrats award county delegates based on “a county-by-county analysis of Democratic performance in the last governor and presidential elections.” But the counties awarded extra delegates under this system won’t necessarily be the same counties where the most Democrats show up to caucus.
As MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald notes, this could make many of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s votes effectively count less than Secretary Hillary Clinton’s votes. “More than a quarter — 27 percent — of Sanders supporters come from just three counties of Iowa’s 99,” Seitz-Wald writes, noting that these counties all include one of the state’s largest universities. “But those three counties award only 12 percent of the total 1401 delegates at stake statewide.” Seitz-Wald reports that the Sanders campaign is encouraging college students to return home to caucus in counties where their votes will carry more weight, but that’s a heavy ask for students who need to be in class the next morning.
So the caucuses themselves are a procedural mess. And there’s also another huge issue with the Iowa Caucuses — the fact that they take place in Iowa. A study by economists Brian Knight and Nathan Schiff determined that Iowa and New Hampshire’s special status as the first and second states to vote in each party’s nominating contest effectively turns these states’ residents into super-voters. “The economists estimated that an Iowa or New Hampshire voter had the same impact as five Super Tuesday voters put together,” according to the New York Times — a result that Knight and Schiff describe as “a deviation from the democratic ideal of ‘one person, one vote.’”
To a certain extent, this problem is difficult to avoid. Unless either party wants to conduct all of its nominating races simultaneously — a process that could lock out all but the most well-funded candidates — some state must go first. But Iowa and New Hampshire are not particularly representative states to be given this special status. For one thing, neither state has a major city. The largest city in either state, Des Moines, has only 209,220 residents according to a 2014 census estimate.
Additionally, Iowa and New Hampshire are unusually white. According to 2013 census data, Iowa is 92.5 percent white and New Hampshire is even whiter at 94.2 percent. African Americans make up only 3.3 percent of Iowans and 1.5 percent of people from New Hampshire. Hispanic or Latino residents make up 5.6 percent of Iowans and only 3.3 percent of people from New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, the entire United States is 77.7 percent white, 13.2 percent black and 17.1 percent Hispanic or Latino.
Giving Iowa and New Hampshire most-favored-state status, in other words, encourages candidates to pay less attention to issues that are especially relevant to voters of color. It also means that the disproportionate role these two states play in shaping the rest of the nominating contests will occur without much input from people who are not white.
This piece has been updated to include additional details about satellite caucuses.