By Dan Spinelli
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and Political Science.
It’s strange, undemocratic, and every four years, it’s first.
Why, many casual political observers ask, has the Iowa caucus become a staple of the American presidential election cycle? With all respect to Iowans, what makes their state special enough to merit nonstop national media attention, county-by-county visits by the candidates, and an undeniable ability to boost candidates to unlikely success, from Jimmy Carter in 1976 to Barack Obama thirty-two-years later? At least the Electoral College, the other antiquated American voting institution, is rooted in the Constitution. Where did the Iowa caucus system come from?
To answer that question we must look back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when the presidential nomination system became radically democratized. Since the emergence of the two modern major political parties in the mid-19th century, party bosses generally commandeered the primary process to select their preferred nominee. Pressure during the Progressive Era encouraged some parties to open up their delegate selection to voters through state primaries, but even this process failed to stop Democrat Adlai Stevenson from earning his party’s nomination in 1952 despite not participating in a single primary. At the contentious 1968 convention, the Party selected Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was in support of continuing the Vietnam War, as the nominee despite nearly two-thirds of party members voicing support for antiwar candidates Sen. Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated a month before the convention. Regulations adopted after the convention resulted in the nationalization of state primaries to select delegates to the convention. A process once decided by party bigwigs at closed-door meetings now incorporated the party membership at large, but the rules still had problems. States were permitted to craft their own nomination procedures and most states, like New Hampshire, just reinstituted their primaries and enfranchised normal party members. Iowa opted for something different.
Admittedly, the decision to continue a caucus system was not altogether unusual at the time. For the better part of a century, informal caucuses of party leaders were the predominant form of picking presidential nominees. Thirteen states still use the caucus system today, albeit with varying rules and occasionally only for certain parties. At a caucus, registered party members meet at some regional location, usually a high school gym. Unlike in primary states, voting is not private. Each candidate’s supporters rally, cheer, and persuade their fellow voters to caucus with their preferred choice. This process is not as easy or as fun as it sounds. Caucusing can take hours, and some regions have cutoff times where voters must be present or risk being excluded. The rules for Iowa’s Democratic caucus are even stranger: at each voting location, candidates must collect at least 15 percent of the voters to have their totals even be counted. If a candidate’s supporters number under 15 percent, their votes either don’t count or are distributed to a more popular candidate — that is, if the voters can be convinced. The result is more of a rambunctious political rally than a closed election.
The problems with this system are almost too apparent to even point out: it’s incredibly undemocratic. Democratic candidates with little support in certain districts have their votes literally not counted. If the squashing of minority candidates wasn’t enough, the process also ridiculously hurts voter turnout: a total of 347,000 Iowans turned out for the 2008 caucuses while a week later in New Hampshire, over 526,000 people turned in ballots, despite the fact that Iowa has nearly twice the population of New Hampshire.   The process effectively shuts out those who work night shifts, as no absentee ballots are allowed for a caucus.
Further complicating the case for the Iowa caucus is the unforgivable reality that the caucuses, as confusing and difficult as they already are, aren’t even the final step in Iowa’s delegate selection process. In 2012, Republican Congressman Ron Paul finished 3rd in the caucuses, but ended up with 23 of the state’s 28 delegates after his campaign staff maneuvered Iowa’s internal tiers of conventions. Not even to mention the fact that Iowa, as the starting point for the presidential campaign process, is remarkably unrepresentative of the country. As Politico pointed out this week about Iowa, “It is 94 percent white, 2.8 percent black and 5.5 percent Hispanic, making it one of the five whitest states in the nation. It’s also the fourth oldest state [by age] in the union.”  Nearly 57 percent of Republican caucus-goers in Iowa consider themselves “evangelicals.” 
So why does this inherently undemocratic, unrepresentative process continue to guide election coverage in the months leading up to primary season (including at the Daily Pennsylvanian, for which your author went to Iowa to cover the event)? Inertia, perhaps. Pride in the state’s uniqueness. Amusement. Laziness. But really, if we can barely even figure out how the sausage gets made in U.S. politics, how are we to expect anything better from the process that lets us pick the sausage makers?
 Marcus, Ruth. "When Norman Rockwell Meets Reality — Why Many Iowans Don’t Caucus." Washington Post, January 31, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/at-ground-level-in-iowa-the-holes-in-the-caucus-system-stand-out/2016/01/31/369d358c-c833-11e5-88ff-e2d1b4289c2f_story.html.
 Millhiser, Ian. "Ban the Iowa Caucus." Thinkprogress.org. January 25, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2016/01/25/3727401/the-iowa-caucuses-are-an-anti-democratic-nightmare-that-shouldnt-exist/
 Greenfield, Jeff. "How Iowa Hijacked Our Democracy." Politico. January 24, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/01/how-iowa-hijacked-our-democracy-213557.
 Atwood, Kylie. "Ted Cruz Chases the Evangelical Vote in Iowa." CBS News. January 14, 2016. Accessed February 6, 2016. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ted-cruz-chases-the-evangelical-vote-in-iowa/.
Photo Credit: Flick User Gage Skidmore
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