Despite being an immigrant to Iowa who personally enjoys participating every four years in that precinct caucus thing you may have read about, I have long been of the opinion that America would be better off without it.
Even in old-fashioned primaries, the most motivated voters- the party activists, who tend to be on the far reaches of the political spectrum- tend to dominate. But in the Iowa Caucuses, they sweep all before them.
More, you see, is involved in caucus participation than merely showing up for a few minutes and expressing one's choice in the quiet of a nice, private voting booth. The caucuses- especially for the Democrats, whose business for the evening not only involves a "beauty contest" straw poll, but the actual assignment of delegates to county conventions (who choose delegates to state conventions, who choose delegates to the national convention) based precisely on presidential candidate preference. It also involves memorializing the county and state parties on possible platform matters. It means taking a public stand not only on the candidates, but on the issues- and doing it all in public, in front of your neighbors. And it takes a whole evening, to boot.
Precinct caucuses thus are not everybody's cup of tea! Not to put too fine a point on it, the closer to the political Center a voter is, and the less agenda-driven, the less likely he or she is to even bother. Showing up takes a certain measure of commitment- and commitment is found in largest measure among the highly ideological. Which means that the extremes of the political spectrum drive the whole process.
As a result, the pre-caucus period in Iowa tends to be silly season among the presidential candidates, who vie with one another to appeal to the state's most politically extreme voters. In order to win the Iowa Caucuses, Republicans have to run far to the Right of the average American voter, while Democrats have to run far to the Left. The Iowa Caucus skews the whole process by giving a huge artificial advantage to the candidate in each party who is best able to appeal to the fringe.
This causes two problems. The first is that Iowa often ends up giving its boost not to the most thoughtful candidate, but to the one whose followers shout the loudest- and who is best able to appeal to the zanies. The candidate who is chosen is more likely to be the best ideologue than the best potential president.
The second problem is that the process is given at least an initial nudge in the direction of causing an already polarized nation to face a polarizing choice. Rather than resolving divisions, presidential elections end up exacerbating them. Perhaps Iowa's tendency to appeal to the wingnuts and the moonbats (to use the pejoratives each favor for the other) isn't finally responsible for our polarization, but it certainly doesn't help. The Iowa Caucuses do not reward a talent for consensus-building, compromise and healing; they actually punish it.
There was a time, of course, when there were only a relatively few primaries, and even fewer caucuses. Those we had were largely "beauty contests;" the actual selection of delegates to the national conventions, and thus of the presidential nominees, was done by the party professionals, chomping those fabled cigars in those famous smoke-filled rooms. I had the interesting fortune to be in the middle of the demise of that salutary custom. As I've mentioned before, I worked for the candidacy of the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968- whose followers tended to smoke other things, if they smoked at all- and managed to get mildly gassed in the middle of the Michigan Avenue riots during the Democratic convention that year (I was stationed at the Pick-Congress Hotel, just down the street from the epicenter of the conflict at the corner of Michigan and Balbo). Like most of my political persuasion, I saw the nomination of Hubert H. Humphrey- who had lost the only primary he had entered- over primary warrior McCarthy as an undemocratic travesty. I'm sad to say that I was one of those who called for the misbegotten McGovern Commission "reforms," which turned the nominating process over to the rank-and-file voters in the primaries and caucuses- which meant, as a practical matter, over to the ideologically-motivated activists.
Brenden Miniter believes that the process has been taken a step further by a more recent development- a development which is George W. Bush's fault. By that he does not mean simply that Mr. Bush is a divisive figure, but rather that it was under his watch that the Republicans at last perfected a technique which at least in some places (my native Chicago comes to mind) Democrats have always excelled at: getting out the vote. To be sure, ever since McGovern, getting out the vote has been the name of the game when it comes to nominating a president. But now, to an unprecedented degree- because of Mr. Bush, Miniter argues- other, lesser offices have become effectively "McGovernized."
Back in my days as a member of the "Independent" (i.e., liberal Democratic, anti-Machine political dilettante) movement in Chicago- born precisely of the (perceived) success of the "Clean for Gene" crowd in the primaries of 1968- I worked for several campaigns which actually defeated Daley-endorsed candidates for the City Council (though only on the liberal Lakefront), and even on the ethnic Northwest Side in several Democratic legislative primaries, simply by doing what the precinct captains had always done, but doing it better than they did: identifying the favorable voters, and by hook or by crook getting them to the polls. There was, of course, a natural limit to how successful this movement (exemplified by Professor-turned- Alderman Dick Simpson's Independent Precinct Organization) could be; then, as now, it was only possible to win elections by identifying favorable voters and getting them to the polls when there are enough of such voters to begin with to enable your candidate to compete.
Ever since 1972 and the McGovern "reforms," of course, precisely the same process has been the key to nominating presidents. The same lack of voter familiarity with the candidates (especially early in the process) which I would argue has made the caucuses and primaries such a terrible way to select a presidential nominee has essentially made the activist doorbell-ringer the new kingmaker. That's why Mitt Romney- by no means the best-known among the potential 2008 GOP candidates in Iowa, or the one with the greatest potential for popularity among the party activists- is the "smart-money" favorite to win the Iowa caucuses at the moment: he's out-organized everybody else, to the point where even at this early date it's going to be hard for his rivals to catch up.
Especially in caucuses, but also in close or-conversely- wide-open elections, it's generally the party or candidate which does the best job of getting its people to the polls that which wins. Under President Bush, Republicans at long last realized that. In 2000, in 2002, and in 2004, GOP victories were the direct result of unprecedented get-out-the-vote efforts, and in 2004 the result was actually a record turnout for a presidential election.
Miniter's thesis is that identifying one's own core voters and getting them to the polls- the nuts and bolts of the political process, as traditionally practiced by the big city machines- has, having gone national, replaced the impulse to reach out to the Center and attract undecided voters. Why bother, when you can do just as well by sufficiently motivating your own base? It's no longer a matter of nominating a presidential candidate by manipulating an ill-informed electorate, and motivating the ideologically aware. Now the appeal to the Base trumps the record even when it comes to lesser offices.
In an even more profound sense than the Iowa Caucuses, Miniter argues, the success of such efforts has given extremists disproportionate political power. The undecided vote is no longer as important as The Base. Responsibility and statesmanship are no longer political commodities nearly as powerful as red meat.
Hence, Ned Lamont appears likely to defeat a distinguished and far-better qualified statesman in today's Connecticut Senate primary (a temporary setback, I trust, and a prelude to the triumph of an independent Lieberman candidacy in November). Hence, Lincoln Chaffee is in trouble in Rhode Island (though for him I will shed fewer tears). The Base is everything. Alienate the base, and you're done for- even if your appeal to the more thoughtful members of the electorate is far more compelling than that of your opponent.
Miniter seems to me to have a point. Lamont's candidacy seems to be, ironically, the ultimate vindication at the statewide of the "participatory democracy" which largely disenfranchised all but the most active and usually extreme voters in the selection of our presidential nominees as a result of the McGovern "reforms." Just as the McGovern guidelines took the presidential nominating process away from those motivated to win by appealing to the largest number of voters and gave it to those who scream the loudest, so the ascendancy of neo-McGovernites like Lamont heralds the emergence of the Base- mobilizing scream (or whine, as the case may be) as a way of winning in its own right.
Whether or not President Bush is to blame, I don't know. But we were far, far better off with the smoke-filled rooms, and a world in which statesmanship, thoughtfulness and service were crowned with electoral success, than in this brave new world in which elections are won the those who manage to scream most loudly the banal things The Base most wants to hear.