Are the Iowa Caucuses a Sham?

Last night we attended another Iowa caucus, possibly our fifth in our current precinct. Except when our precinct has been combined with others, we’ve had the same caucus chairman for each of the meetings. We learned last night that he’s had 45 years of experience as a caucus chair.

The caucus consists of a non-binding straw poll, election of people to serve at the county convention and on various committees, and approval of planks. A plank is a statement of the values or beliefs or desired actions of the Republican party of Iowa. Each caucus approves planks that are eventually bubbled up (or not) to the state level.

At some caucus events, the discussion, presentation and voting on planks are said to be lively, as zany ideas are squashed and controversial ideas are discussed. Likewise, non-controversial statements are said to sail through.

I write “said to” because that’s not been our experience. Here’s how our caucus works.

  1. The party man nominates himself to serve as chairman. He is approved.
  2. The party man nominates another party man to serve as secretary. He is approved.
  3. One speaker for each candidate is allowed to give a short speech regarding his preferred candidate.
  4. Caucus attenders vote, and votes are collected.
  5. It is announced that planks may be turned in, and all will be submitted to the county level.
  6. It is announced that there are openings to serve at the county convention, and anyone wanting to volunteer should add their name to a list.
  7. The caucus was closed.

No discussion of planks. No opportunity to squash zany ideas or eloquently promote a great idea. Yet, other precincts purportedly do discuss planks, and sometimes put quite a lot of effort into it. What should one conclude?

Here’s my conclusion: it’s a waste of time. The planks discussed at the caucus level have little if any impact on what happens at the county level. Your caucus may have done a great job submitting different planks, but ours submitted everything anyone cared to take the time to write down. Loony, socialist, whatever. It all went through. Your caucus may have done great work; ours wasn’t given the opportunity. Why not? Because our party man knows that it’s a waste of time. Oh, he won’t say that, but his actions show otherwise.

How about elections to committees and the county convention? The county convention is where the real action begins, as the planks that you so carefully labored over and the planks that Crazy Uncle Eddie submitted at our caucus begin to coalesce. So, the committee members and county convention delegates have an important job. You’d think that we’d care who does it. But we don’t. We leave it up to our party man to look at the list of volunteers and fill the positions. “The people are practicing democracy at the most basic level.” Bah. Not at my precinct. We just let the party man do it.

But, wait, we still have the straw poll, right? Sure. We have a non-binding straw poll, the results of which have absolutely no impact on how Iowa’s delegation to the national convention will vote and which candidate will be nominated. It serves a valuable purpose only because the media uses it to gauge the people’s response to the candidates, and the candidates use the results to determine how well (or how poorly) their campaign is doing. It is valuable because it helps shape perception. However, technically it has no effect on the nominee that Iowa will support.

So, what do you think? Are the Iowa caucuses a sham?

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