Sunday, December 30, 2007

Making Sense of Iowa Caucus Results

December 30, 2007, 12:15 p.m.

Making Sense of Iowa Caucus Results

I have earlier written of my suggestions for how to go about a comparative evaluation of a field of very impressive Democratic Party presidential candidates: Nicholas Johnson, "Op Ed: Caucus Choices Analysis [Dec. 22]," December 22, 2007.

Today I want to make a few comments about "the morning after the night before."

It's useful to always keep in mind the media's distortion of the significance of the Iowa caucus' process.

The media talks in terms of "winners" of the horse race that is their own creation. In fact, it is a gross misuse of the word "winner" to use it in referring to anyone in a virtual three-way tie in a delegate selection process that is not winner-take-all, and that is primarily a media event.

The Iowa caucus, like caucuses and primaries throughout the U.S., is ostensibly the beginning of the process of selecting delegates to a national convention at which the parties' nominees are selected. The Iowa precinct caucuses, which is what happens on Thursday, January 3, produce delegates from those precincts to Iowa's subsequent 99 county conventions, at which delegates are selected to conventions in each of Iowa's congressional districts, from which delegates are selected to the parties' state conventions, at which Iowa's delegates to the national conventions will be chosen.

Moreover, given how few national delegates Iowa will have (compared to states like California and New York), even if the Iowa delegates were selected on a "winner-take-all" basis -- which they're not -- it doesn't really make a hill of beans of difference who ends up with Iowa's national delegates.

So what is the caucus?

The Iowa caucus is little more than a media event. One of the most expensive ever -- in time, energy as well as money. The results will be "news" late Thursday night and Friday morning. That's it. Given that there will then be only four days until the New Hampshire primary, all eyes, television cameras, Internet and print media journalists -- and their audiences -- will be focused on New Hampshire.

The post-caucus "news" from Iowa is mostly spin. Clinton, Edwards and Obama will go on to New Hampshire regardless. The fact that one gets 31% of the delegates and another gets 30% or 29% is almost totally meaningless -- it certainly doesn't make one a "winner" and the other two "losers."

The story is all "expectations" -- meeting, failing to meet, or exceeding what the candidate's camp said they hoped for in Iowa. If any one of the bottom four were to end up as one of the top three that would be news; or if one of the top three would end up in the bottom four. But if they finish close to their current poll numbers (a virtual dead heat among the top three) the media will have to really stretch to make "news" out of that.

The only real news will be who, if any, drop out following Iowa.

The bottom four have, and will continue to have, much greater popular support among caucus goers and voters than will be reflected in next Wednesday and Thursday's news.


The math is such that, given the polls' indication that the top three Democrats are splitting fairly equally a total of 86 or 87% of the caucus goers, and given that a candidate needs at least 15% of those attending any given precinct caucus to be "viable" (that is, to have even a shot of picking up a single delegate to the county convention), it's going to be very likely that each of the other four (Biden, Dodd, Kucinich, Richardson) are going to have far more individual caucus goers favoring them than ever gets reflected in the late night ultimate delegate count.

Richardson is the only one of those four to reach double digits in the polls. He may get a similar proportion of caucus goers. But if the top three have 86% of the caucus goers in any given precinct there is no way he can come up with even one delegate from that precinct -- even if the Biden, Dodd and Kucinich caucus goers would all agree to support him, and there is no support for an "uncommitted" delegation, the odds of either of which are somewhere between very, very slim and none at all.

Thus, theoretically, Richardson could have the support of 10% (or more, if less than 15%) of Iowa's caucus goers in every precinct in the state and yet what the media will report (because it's what the precinct chairs will be reporting in to Des Moines) is not that he had 10% support, but that he got 0% of the delegates going to the county conventions.

It's been good for the country, and for the candidates, to have gone through this "retail campaigning" in Iowa -- as it will be as a result of their campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina. But it would be even better if the media would make more of an effort to understand and explain to the country what will really be going on here on January 3.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to conclude that the Iowa Democratic Caucus is a joke.

The caucus is controlled by the county central committee, who appoints a temp. caucus chairman. That chairman can be biased, rude, and dense. The central committee expects that chairmen to become the permanent chair.

Four years ago, I saw a Dean-biased chair try to screw the Kerry supporters out of representation.

Chairs also make arbitrary, and biased decisions.

Secondly, the formula for delegates is nuts. Even in the examples given by the Demo party itself, it is not one person one vote. In one example a candidate with twice as many caucus goers receives the same total county delegates as other candidates.

In the end, this is a centrally-controlled, undemocratic, biased process of selecting a Presidential candidate.

The Iowa Democrats need to move to a primary system to get rid of the biased crony system currently in place.