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The Dysfunctional Iowa Caucuses
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As the Iowa caucuses draw near, we should take a close look at how the Hawkeye State runs its presidential nominating system.
Caucuses call for just a handful of people to determine the nominee of any given party. In most states, registered voters report to a precinct, select a candidate via secret ballot, and the politician who garners maximum support wins delegates for the national convention.
Iowa mandates that members of a party meet as a group in various precincts, state a preferred candidate, and elect delegates for a county convention. The winner in each precinct by no means secures delegation; such a victory is not binding.
Next, county delegates select delegates for the state convention. Finally, state delegates decide who goes to the national level. It is the national delegation which ultimately awards support to a candidate.
Taking electoral power away from the public and placing it into the hands of a private few often has dire consequences. Such a scenario encourages radicalism; small bands of ideologues with unpopular ideas can infiltrate the system and buoy a candidate who has no chance in the general election.
This situation is by no means exclusive to Iowa. Virginia, whose Republican Party nominates statewide candidates through a convention, got a taste of its own medicine in 2013.
In May of that year, activists selected an obscure minister named E.W. Jackson for the GOP’s lieutenant gubernatorial slot. The man had no experience in public office whatsoever. This is not always a bad thing; if successful businesspersons, earnest intellectuals, or civic-minded journalists want to run, then there is a good chance that any one of them is better than the typical career politician.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s claim to experience rested on his ministerial work. That’s about all.
In a 2011 press release sent out by STAND, which describes itself as “a national grassroots organization” Jackson created, “dedicated to restoring America’s Judeo-Christian history, faith and values”, he spoke about “the insidious and dangerous hatred by homosexual activists of any Christian who dares try to live out their biblical values. The problem in society today is not hatred of homosexuals, but hatred by homosexuals of anyone who refuses to say ‘amen’ to their sexual behavior.”
He also mentioned that “leftists and homosexual activists....need to be stopped before they get carried away in their zeal and do bodily harm to someone....our Constitution says, ‘freedom of religion’ and not ‘freedom from religion.’”
Virginia is a purple state trending blue. Jackson and the hardcore social right are well out of its mainstream. Needless to say, he was defeated in a landslide on election day, and the same went for Republicans seeking the governorship and attorney general’s office.
If it were not for the Virginia GOP’s decision to nominate candidates via a convention packed with hyper-partisans, this disaster might have been avoided. Had a primary been held, all GOP voters would have been able to decide on a nominee. Of course, this method gives moderates a serious chance to succeed.
The convention method, like its brother-in-spirit caucus process, promotes radicals who care more about making a statement than actually winning.
Until the VA-GOP chooses to embrace primaries, this nonsense will persist. The activists who dominate at convention time are seldom focused on appealing to the mainstream. They live in a world not of facts, but emotional decision-making.
They care only about their ideology and its adherents, not reason and the broader community.
Indeed, with the nomination of E.W. Jackson — not to mention Ken Cuccinelli for governor and Mark Obenshain for attorney general — the Republican Party of Virginia has proved that it is a joke. A colossal, destructive, and depressing one, but a joke nonetheless.
Too bad the punchline is political tolerance and the rational debate it allows for.
Those who defend the Iowa caucuses would be wise to learn from this quagmire. There is no sensible point in continuing with so antiquated and dysfunctional a system. If cooler heads prevail, perhaps by 2020 Iowa will be a primary state where candidates who have something serious to say will spend their time.
One can only hope.
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at