Keep Politics Fun; Save the Iowa Caucuses

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets supporters after speaking at a campaign field office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, February 2, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
They offer a rare chance to bring personal contact back into politics.

As American as apple pie and weird as Groundhog Day, the Iowa caucuses garner nationwide attention every four years. Now, due to the Democrats’ catastrophic debacle on Caucus Night, it seems the bell is finally tolling for Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status. But ending the Iowa caucuses would be an equally colossal mistake, turning our future nominating contests into mini national elections powered by soulless rallies and million-dollar advertising campaigns. Non-traditional candidates, such as Pete Buttigieg, will stand no chance. Bernie Sanders will be laughed out of the smoke-filled donor rooms. The next Barack Obama will be told to “wait his turn.”

So don’t throw the sweet corn out with the compost — save the Iowa caucuses and in turn save America.

What makes me an expert? Nothing, really. For a few beautiful years I had the pleasure of basking in the reflected glow of the 2016 Iowa Republican caucuses, serving as the spokesman for the Republican Party of Iowa. I was wined and dined by every big-name reporter you can think of, treated like a person of importance, which I truly was not. Even the presidential candidates took a shine — my wife and mother (a Connecticut voter at the time!) both received frequent and hilarious phone calls from Senator Lindsey Graham as he made his ill-fated caucus run. It was Jolly Good Fun.

But more than being fun, it was important. Michael Bloomberg’s B-52 style campaign of carpet-bombed TV ads shows what politics without Iowa could look like: TV ads and national-news hits that bring the sausage-making directly into America’s living rooms, but only through heavy filters. The “authentic” tweets we read are poll-tested; “off-the-cuff” remarks during a CNN town hall are actually written and rewritten by communication staffs; and debates are scripted plays read poorly by amateur actors.

In Iowa (and New Hampshire, I guess) candidates are forced out of their comfort zones into an ersatz statewide House race, where rubber-chicken dinners, zany local traditions, and sharp-eyed citizens await with sharper knives. Can you imagine Joe Biden, former vice president of the United States, inhabitant of the Naval Observatory, traveler of Air Force Two and motorcade, making himself available for every Must Meet Local Activist? Yes, even the current president — occupier of Trump Tower, noted billionaire, and personal-helicopter owner — was flushed out into the open by the Iowa caucus madness.

One particular Only-in-Iowa story I remember was from the 2015 Iowa CyHawk Game, in which the two big state schools — Iowa State (the Cyclones) and the University of Iowa (the Hawkeyes) — play each another in football. The Iowa GOP, in its wisdom, decided to throw a tailgate and invite candidates to speak, which was a fantastic concept. In reality, hundreds of progressively drunker college students proceeded to swamp our booth and scare away candidates. With increasing belligerence they demanded we get then-candidate Trump to visit. We had no power to demand anything, but we did beg his staff. We begged and begged for The Donald to come visit and subject himself to the sweaty throngs of the beer-soaked public. And . . . he did! He came! Proceeded by burly security and trailed by a booze-soaked cloud of students, the future president came by for a very quick round of handshakes and hellos before hightailing it back into the stadium.

The caucuses create many moments like that — some trivial, like the one just told, and some substantive, like when Senator Warren was challenged on her student-loan plan. Or like when Mitt Romney responded to a heckler at the state fair that “corporations are people, my friend!” Until the massive mess-up by the Democrats on Caucus Night, the caucuses had performed as advertised: The highfalutin forced to meet and greet the hoi polloi.

No, Iowans don’t have a monopoly on common good sense. Other states could surely force candidates to eat their humble pie at the local county fundraiser. But which state? Some argue persuasively that the first state should be more diverse. You will certainly find states more diverse than Iowa, but you’ll never find a state that matches America’s demographics. And if you do, it won’t be perfect in four years. Or it won’t perfectly match the Democratic or Republican base at that time.

Even the most ardent defender of the caucuses can’t invent a diverse population in a state that is 90 percent white. But a defender can scream for context. Who was most harmed by the small black population in Iowa this cycle? It wasn’t Cory Booker or Kamala Harris — one of whom was done in by poor campaign management and the other by being a poor candidate. It was Joe Biden, who has polled most strongly with African-American voters so far this cycle and would have loved to have a larger black population in Iowa on Monday night.

Finally, we’re left with the fairness argument: It’s not fair for one state to hand out the coveted three tickets. But it’s not about finishing in the top three in Iowa, it’s about setting and beating expectations. Since it’s been almost 50 years with Iowa going first, there are certain rules of thumb that have been adopted concerning results. Julian Castro was — foolishly, in my opinion — expected to do poorly, since Iowa has a small Latino population.  On the Republican side, it’s always assumed (wrongly, but OK) that evangelical, firebrand types will do well while moderates will struggle. Whether this is wrong or right, it allows candidates to play to or against these expectations. In 2008 it wasn’t a huge deal for Mike Huckabee to win the caucuses, but it was a surprise for a Mormon Massachusetts governor to finish a strong second. In 2016 it was a shocking wake-up call when Bernie Sanders nearly beat heir apparent Hillary Clinton.

If a candidate sets up camp in Iowa for the year before the caucuses and places outside the top three, he or she is cooked. But it’s not Iowa’s fault — it’s theirs. They weren’t good enough candidates, and Iowa had the hard job of telling them so. If they feel they have a better shot waiting for New Hampshire or South Carolina or even later, then they can set up camp in that state, tell every talking head who will listen that Iowa doesn’t matter, and make it work. If you can get your donors (the real First in the Nation caucus) to believe you as well, you’re golden.

If you change the rules now, may the political gods help the candidates of the next cycle. How do you prepare/campaign for a regional super-primary? How do you spin results? More important, how can the press interpret these results? It will lead to an even more confusing, messy situation than the one we just endured in Iowa.

However, it’s clear that some serious reforms need to be made. The Iowa Democratic Party leadership needs to go as soon as this disaster is mercifully put to bed. It was just four years ago that the Republicans ran a perfect caucus, and the Democrats struggled with their own (Chernobyl-level warning bells should have been triggered). That’s enough time to get the process ready for what everyone knew would be the most watched caucus in some time. Instead, they spent $70,000 on an app, a few months before Caucus Night? Baffling and unforgivable behavior.

The Iowa Democratic Party cannot be trusted with the huge responsibility of running the caucus. And while the Iowa GOP is currently led by the best state chairman and executive director in the nation, it won’t be forever. Which is why the state of Iowa needs to step in with funding and resources to make all future presidential caucuses state-supported. Keep the crazy rules, keep the party function aspect, but entrust the vote counting and logistics to the state and its greater resources. It’s an odd setup, but one that Iowa’s all-important status demands. It’s a simple fix to propose, but a difficult one to implement — and one that only the great state of Iowa, filled with some of the hardest-working and smartest people I’ve ever met, can pull off.

So, as a true conservative should, I finish my impassioned plea to keep things they way they have been and not attempt to perfect an inherently imperfect process. Like another strange American tradition — Groundhog Day — the caucuses are best seen in context. No one goes insane when Punxsutawney Phil predicts more winter, because that would be ridiculous. The caucuses should be seen as what they are — an interesting barometer of public opinion and a candidate’s ability to connect with voters one state at one time.  Keep the tradition, keep politics fun, put the results in context, and move along, folks.

Charlie Szold is a former Republican campaign operative who served as the communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa in 2015 and 2016. He now owns a non-political business with two other reformed operatives.


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