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Why Iowa Doesn’t Matter

Michael J. Ring

The Iowa caucuses are over. Let the spin begin:

Al Gore and George W. Bush are victors because, well, they won.

Bill Bradley won a moral victory because he held Al Gore to less than a 2:1 margin.

Steve Forbes won a moral victory by finishing only 11 points behind Bush, allowing him to emerge as the conservative alternative.

Alan Keyes won a moral victory with a solid third-place showing despite running his campaign on a shoestring, allowing him to become the true conservative for those who don’t trust Forbes.

And so these games will continue until New Hampshire.

But how much should the rest of the nation draw from the Iowa caucuses? Not much.

Except for weeding out the weakest of the weak candidates like Orrin Hatch, the Iowa caucuses prove and predict little. They are an exercise in political curiosity and not much more.

The problem is the caucus system itself. The process used in Iowa is dominated by party ideologues and foot-soldiers, effectively disenfranchising a large percentage of the population.

To a political tyro or the faint-of-heart, the process is very intimidating. Iowa Democrats do not employ a secret ballot; a caucus attendee must publicly state a preference for a candidate. Iowa Republicans do have a secret ballot, but gathering with a small group of neighbors and listening to them talk about politics can still be disconcerting for the politically uncourageous.

The great utility of the primary system is its ability to attract Independents to the polls. Since Independents are the fastest-growing group bloc of voters nationally, and their numbers now top 40 percent of registered voters in many states, a truly reflective nominating process must include these voters.

In theory, Iowans registered as Independents could switch their registration to either of the parties to attend the caucus. But few actually do.

Many voters choose to register as Independent not because of centrist ideology but because of a distaste of political parties and gridlock politics. Do you think a lot of Independents who loathe “politics as usual” are going to enjoy a Democratic or Republican caucus fight between union bosses or evangelical Christians?

With the effective exclusion of Independents and political novices, it’s no wonder that the overwhelming majority of Iowans skip the caucuses altogether. Indeed, voter turnout at Monday’s events was estimated at a miniscule 11 percent. Such poor turnout allows party bosses to control the caucuses; it’s no wonder their favored candidates, Bush and Gore, won. The small number of caucus attendees also amplifies the effect of a special interest group like evangelical Christians -- hence the success of Forbes and Keyes.

Iowa’s track record of predicting future presidents is poor. In 1980, Iowa Republicans chose George Bush in their caucus; Ronald Reagan won the White House. In 1988 Dick Gephardt and Bob Dole won the Iowa caucuses; Michael Dukakis and George Bush were the party nominees.

Next week’s vote in New Hampshire will also be overplayed, but not to the extent to which Iowa’s caucuses were overcovered. New Hampshire does matter more. The Granite State’s primary process allows Independents to vote and offers a secret ballot, thus allowing all voters to feel comfortable exercising their right. Turnout will assuredly be a lot higher than 11 percent. And since 1952, only one person -- Bill Clinton -- has been elected president without winning the New Hampshire primary, and Clinton’s close second-place finish after surviving the Gennifer Flowers scandal in 1992 was a moral victory. While we don’t need to have the candidates stalked by an army of media around the clock in New Hampshire for the next week, we should pay some attention to the final result.

With the primary schedule approaching warp speed, there are a scant few weeks remaining until both parties have selected their presidential nominees. And in those weeks the Iowa caucuses will quickly fade from memory -- a milestone on the presidential campaign trail significant for being first, and nothing more.