Monday, February 01, 2016

Why Nobody 'Wins' the Iowa Caucus

2:43 p.m.
Why the Iowa Caucus Matters -- and Why It Doesn't

This blog essay is deliberately being written and posted the afternoon before the evening when Iowa's 1600-plus precincts will hold their Republican and Democratic Party caucuses. It's not designed as spin for any candidate's effort to explain the outcome after the fact.

The caucus process does matter -- just not in the way many people think (because that's the way the media told them to think). It's analogous to the way we will "elect" our president in November -- though, once again, not in the way we think (it is the Electoral College that picks the president).

One can accurately speak of the "winner" of the Democratic National Convention's presidential nomination process the week of July 25 in Philadelphia. Only one will be chosen from among however many potential presidential candidates there are at that time; the one selected can be said to have "won" the nomination. Similarly, only one of those nominated for president by our country's political parties will get the most electoral votes on November 8, 2016. That person can be said to have "won" the presidency.

So why does no one "win" the caucus?

The answer requires a little explanation of the categories of caucus significance.

(1) The nomination process. Technically, the precinct caucuses are the first step in a process of intra-party governance. The precinct caucuses are like town meetings of everyone registered to vote who has expressed a party preference. They are, subject to those limitations, open to all. What they produce are delegates to the next stage: the county conventions. The county conventions choose delegates to the congressional districts' conventions. They, in turn, select delegates to the parties' state conventions. And it is at the state conventions that the delegates to the parties' national conventions are chosen.

There will be 4,763 delegates at the Democratic National Convention. It will take 2,382 to win the nomination. Of those, Iowa will have 44 -- about 1% (roughly the same as Iowa's percentage of the national population). It is in this sense that even Iowa's ultimate national convention delegates will have relatively little impact on who is ultimately nominated. And if they have little, the delegates to the county conventions, selected in tonight's precinct caucuses will have essentially no impact at all.

So there will be no "winner" of the caucuses tonight in the sense of impact on the parties' governing processes or ultimate selection of their presidential candidates.

(2) The campaign. Even in terms of the campaign, except for one possible scenario, the caucus results mean little (separating out the media consequences, discussed next). With 50 states, there are a string of caucuses and primaries between now and the summer, starting with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. As they progress, and a candidate has a substantial lead in the race to line up the magic number of 2,382 delegates, an individual state's primary may take on relative significance. But in the early stages -- and Iowa is the first -- the outcomes are of relevance primarily in weeding out, or further propelling, candidates. (Of course, with a billionaire's backing, a candidate can stay in the race so long as the money keeps coming regardless of how disappointing the outcomes may be.)

It is in that sense, so far as the campaign is concerned, that a candidate can be a "loser" -- in the sense that the support proves to be so minimal that the wisest (or only financially feasible) choice is to drop out -- but one cannot be a "winner" in any meaningful sense. Not only is it not a winner-take-all contest, there is really nothing to "win." The result is one of dividing up shares of support. And so long as a candidate's share is above -- name your percentage; I'd say 20-30% with three or fewer candidates, maybe as 10-20% when more -- it is reasonable for him or her to continue on. If you want to call that "winning," OK, but by this definition essentially everyone "wins."

As of this afternoon it is impossible to know the outcome. But I think it reasonable, based on the polls, to assume that both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will end up with at least 30% of the "state delegate equivalents" (which is the measure) and rationally conclude there is no reason to consider dropping out.

(3) The media. It is the media, TV and newspapers primarily, that have turned the Iowa caucuses into a winner-take-all phenomenon in which the candidate who gets the most state delegate equivalents is declared by them to have "won" the Iowa caucuses, while all others have "lost." Given that Donald Trump is not the only American who prefers winning to losing, the declaration by the media of a "winner" is of significance -- even though it could not rationally have been but for their declaration.

A sub-set of this presentation involves "expectations" -- the candidates who exceed, or fail to meet, the percentages of delegates that the media's pundits said they would have. (It is, in this sense, as much a matter of winners and losers among the media as among the candidates.) But "expectations" in politics, as in sports, can be manipulated by the parties as well. That does not, however, reduce their potential impact in the media-created horse race.

The media-anointed winner goes on to New Hampshire with the wind at his or her back, and tries to hold on to the title until is is wrest from their grasp by a different candidate in a future primary.

This is, in the final analysis, why it really is important to be proclaimed the winner -- even though it is of little consequence otherwise in any rational analysis.

So do go to your precinct caucus. It is important. Besides it is fun. It is rewarding. You are engaging in an important, and meaningful act of responsible citizenship in a democracy.

But its most meaningful impact will be measured only in terms of the next couple of days' news cycles.

Nobody "wins" the Iowa caucus.

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