So, Mitt Romney has won the popular vote here, by the extraordinary margin of eight votes over Rick Santorum, out of over 100,000 votes cast. The winner of the popular vote total is not significant in terms of determining the composition of the Iowa delegation to the GOP national convention. Iowa will end up sending 25 delegates, out of over 2,000 total. Winning precinct caucuses determines how many delegates will attend the state GOP convention in Iowa, which will determine later in the Spring, who the national delegates will be. In other words, there are several degrees of separation between what happened last night and the GOP convention.
Santorum’s success is already the big story in the national media and has vindicated his brand of retail politics. He spent a fraction of the money that Romney and Rick Perry did — the relatively paltry sum of $500,000, compared to the millions spent by Romney and Perry. He visited all ninety-nine counties, held over 350 town hall meetings and covered every nook and cranny of the state. It remains implausible — despite some media chatter to the contrary — that he could win the nomination. But it will certainly keep the pundits busy talking about the ongoing lack of enthusiasm among GOP voters for Romney.
In any event, I did visit a caucus site last night to observe the proceedings. Some precinct caucuses are quite large and several hundred voters will show up. Others are much smaller. I attended a precinct caucus in Des Moines in which 27 voters turned out. The usual protocol at GOP caucuses is that each candidate can have one surrogate speak on his or her behalf for up to five minutes (it was four at our precinct). The candidates themselves appeared at larger, higher profile caucus sites. For example, in Black Hawk county, there is only one caucus site for the whole county. An estimated five thousand people showed up and Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann were there to make their own cases. Des Moines, by contrast, has dozens of sites - some are large and some are similar to what I observed last night.
At the precinct I attended, surrogates spoke for Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Rick Perry. Once those finished, the precinct captain asked if anyone else wanted to speak and a Ron Paul supporter made some very brief remarks. There was a brief back and forth about Paul’s views on Israel and the national security credentials of the candidates — one woman described Bachmann as “practically CIA” because she receives classified briefings as a member of the House Select Permanent Committee on Intelligence. After that, the attendees cast secret ballots and the results were announced aloud prior to adjournment. At the precinct caucus site I attended, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich won, with six votes each. This will likely to translate into one delegate each to a regional convention, which will then determine the composition of the state convention and so on, as described above.
The Republican caucuses work quite differently from the Democratic ones. At Democratic caucuses, participants sit or stand together in different parts of the room, with other supporters of the same candidate. Then surrogates can speak on behalf of candidates, after which people can move from one candidate to another. It’s a much messier, more fluid process, with more emphasis and made for a more interesting observing experience in 2008 than was the case last night.
There are strong and valid criticisms of Iowa’s disproportionate influence on the nomination process. It’s a small state, demographically unrepresentative of the country and those problems are exacerbated by the fact that caucuses are low turnout events, requiring as they do substantially more time commitment than does just showing up to pull a lever.
On the other hand, I appreciate the open deliberation of the caucus process. There’s at least some effort to persuade people to re-consider their preferences (for the reasons mentioned above, this is truer on the Democratic side than the Republican). There is, potentially, an actual discussion of issues — that happened briefly last night about support for Israel at my caucus site. The caucuses also present a rare opportunity for ordinary folks to standup in public and make arguments. The conversation at the precinct caucus I observed wasn’t especially well informed (I am being a little polite). But still, this feels something like real, direct democracy, however limited and problematic. That Iowa should not go first — and certainly not in every election cycle — seems clear. But I do find myself somewhat heartened by the open forum that the caucuses afford.
In the bigger picture, I second a number of Matt Taibbi’s criticisms of the entire spectacle of our presidential election seasons: provocative arguments and candidates who might shake-up our political discourse tend to get marginalized; on some of the biggest issues of the day, like Wall Street’s influence on politics and American militarism, there is much less difference between the parties than election year coverage suggests; and there is an illusory quality to our elections and election coverage, which exaggerates the degree to which ordinary Americans influence meaningfully the political process.
OK, signing off.