The Iowa Caucus: Just What We Need

by | Jan 31, 2016 | In the News

The Iowa Caucus is kind of ridiculous. But for those of us from Iowa, it’s our ridiculousness. And for those of you not from Iowa, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing. Let me explain.

As a recent New York Times column demonstrates, critics frequently note that Iowa, a state with about 1% of the country’s population and a state that is not at all racially representative of the country,1 has disproportionate political influence because of having the first electoral event each presidential year since 1972.2

People also raise concerns about the actual caucus process. One does not vote in the Iowa Caucus as one does in a traditional primary. Instead, one votes by attending a local meeting at a designated time, which can exclude the homebound, people with irregular work schedules, and those with young families. Once there, at least for the Democratic Caucus,3 one votes with one’s body — you literally show your support for a candidate by going to her/his corner of the school gym or church where the meeting is held. Some argue that the non-secretive caucus is subject to unhealthy peer pressure.

Such criticisms of the Iowa Caucus are legitimate, but there are also good reasons for keeping it as it is.

Racially, Iowa is not representative of the country, but the state is right in the middle when measuring many other social and economic conditions. According to one study, Iowa was the most representative state in terms of economic factors.  Additionally, we are a swing state and almost always swing in the direction of the eventual winner of the presidential election.

Moreover, for those who have actually spent time in the state, one quickly sees that the Iowa people aren’t as identical as the stalks of corn that cover the land. One recent feature in the New York Times explains it well:

I could not stop thinking of the many quirks I had encountered throughout my week in Iowa: a self-made cowboy, a remade statesman, a farmer who welcomed the world’s leading Communist into his home, Maharishi followers and bootleggers, pie shakes and cheeseburger chowder. This was the Iowa I had not known, the America I knew in my bones was there all along. Its votes came first for good reason.

While the caucus system of listening to speeches and trying to convince your neighbor to join your corner of the school gym may seem bizarre and outdated, perhaps it is exactly what we need today. People actually have to listen to each other! With our increasingly siloed neighborhoods and Facebook feeds, one should not discount this more personal method of voting.

This practice of actually discussing and listening shows up in the campaigns themselves. Iowa’s population is spread pretty evenly throughout the state, rather than being concentrated in a few cities. In order to win in Iowa, a candidate generally has to have a well-organized campaign and make appearances at a school gym in Keota and a Pizza Ranch in Ottumwa. Iowans get more of an up-close look at the candidates than residents of other states and can potentially see a candidate’s ability to relate with people — a skill sorely needed in Washington today.4

In addition to complaints about the caucus process itself and Iowa’s relative lack of diversity, there can also be a subtext to some of the criticisms of the Iowa Caucus: the thought that Iowa is full of country bumpkins who should not have such influence over the rest of the country.5

Agriculture plays a significant role in the Iowa economy and is a point of deep state pride.6 While fewer than 5% of Iowans actually farm, most of us have personal connections to the land or have parents or grandparents who worked in agriculture. That being said, the often unspoken idea that a more agricultural state means a less educated population is simply not true. Iowa has the lowest high school dropout rate in the country and two of the eight most educated cities in the U.S.7

The Iowa Caucus is a chance for neighbors to engage each other on the many pressing issues facing our country. Does the caucus seem a little ridiculous to those unfamiliar with it — or even those of us who are very familiar with it? Sure, but when we’re talking about ridiculousness during this campaign season, let’s be honest, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is not at the top of the list.

  1. Iowa is more racially diverse than several New England states, but it is still one of the whitest states in the country.
  2. Why did it start going first? It was a historical accident.
  3. Those participating in the Republican Caucus actually cast ballots.
  4. Oh, and according to a very “scientific” analysis that includes factors such as the number of bald eagles per square mile and the number of Google searches for “Bin Laden dead,” Iowa is the most American of these United States.
  5. Sometimes, it’s more than just a subtext, such as when one of the leading candidates asks, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”
  6. When I became a vegetarian, my brother told me I was a traitor to my state, the largest pork producer. I countered by saying that I was supporting Iowa, the leading soy producer, by drinking soy milk.
  7. Yes, I am from one of them. And yes, I am incredibly biased.

Michael Rossmann, SJ   /   @RossmannSJ   /   All posts by Michael