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National Columnists

View: Iowa is the last bastion of political caucuses

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Is the spectacle being conducted here – with dozens of candidate visits each month, with political forums in village libraries, with house parties in rural crossroads and with meet-and-greet events in union halls – an endangered species?

For nearly a half-century, Iowa’s precinct caucuses, the first political test of modern presidential-election seasons, have been both a showy spectacle and an intimate encounter.

Here voters meet candidates in living rooms, question them in the tap rooms of fraternal organizations, challenge them in diners and express their concerns in coffee shops. Here decisions that are reported across the globe occur at 7 p.m. on a cold February night in church basements, middle-school auditoriums and fire stations. As recently as the Richard Nixon years, presidential caucuses were the forums of choice for state parties deciding how to distribute their national convention delegates; in 1968, when Nixon won his second presidential nomination, only 16 states employed primaries to select GOP convention delegates, with the remaining 34 states using some combination of caucuses and state conventions.

This political cycle, only eight states will be using caucuses – and some of those may abandon the practice before the actual election year even begins. Washington state recently moved from caucuses to a primary, for example, and Maine may do so as well.

Caucuses here reach back before Iowa statehood in 1846; in fact, Iowa has employed them in every election cycle except for 1916, the year New Hampshire initiated its own primary that now is a fixture, after Iowa, at the head of the political season. But it was only after Jimmy Carter came in second (to “uncommitted”) in 1976 that the Iowa caucuses acquired the prominence they now possess. The winner in the 1972 contest, before Carter’s breakthrough, was Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota. He campaigned in Iowa for about 1½ days.

Now the Iowa caucuses are big business, with millions of dollars of advertising pouring into the state and with comprehensive news coverage. The result is that Iowa is, as Art Cullen, the Pulitzer prize-winning Storm Lake Times editor, put it, “among the most important patches of political turf in the country.” Even its skeptics hail its importance and, inevitably, its intimacy.

“There’s a lot of talk about reforming the caucuses, and states don’t have to run caucuses the way they do now,” said Caroline Tolbert, a University of Iowa political scientist. “But you need some way to vet the candidates and reduce the pool, producing a smaller number of viable candidates. And you need some forum where face-to-face participation is at the center of things. Our caucuses are small party business meetings, much different from a primary.”

Indeed, caucuses began as business meetings, primarily to build party unity and party loyalty. But by grafting the presidential-nominating process onto these sessions, the goal of party building has been eclipsed, maybe even eroded. In Iowa, David Redlawsk, a University of Delaware political scientist who was chairman of a caucus here in 2008, said that the focus is on “giving people from the grassroots input into party decision-making,” the most important of which is selecting a presidential nominee.

Elsewhere, political caucuses are far less intense, far less interesting, and far less important. Even in Maine, a state with an especially yeasty political culture, hardly anyone attends, and the event can easily be dominated by a candidate who invests a small amount of time while rivals stay away.

Hardly anyone but Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown of California paid the 1992 Maine caucuses any mind, and he won a contest that involved only 5% of the state’s Democrats. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas repeated the trick in the GOP contest in 2008; two of Paul’s three best performances came in the caucuses in Maine and North Dakota.

But the lack of public participation – a feature at odds with the times, which prize mass participation – is what is endangering caucuses nationwide, prompting the three largest caucus states (Minnesota and Colorado in addition to Washington) to abandon them along with Utah, Idaho and Nebraska. The result: Less than 5% of the 2020 Democratic convention delegates will be selected in the process that is so revered here.

Iowa’s caucuses obviously have their own character, in large measure because of their prominence at the head of the political parade. They combine the intimacy of traditional caucuses with the mass participation of primaries, and being at the front of the process assures enormous attention from candidates and from the press.

Three barely known presidential candidates – entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California and former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland – alone have conducted more than 250 political events here already and have spent a cumulative 100 days here. The caucuses are more than 270 days away.

“I’m always impressed with how incredibly well-informed voters are here,” Delaney said in an interview. “If the rest of the country could see the diligence Iowans put into this, they would see it actually makes sense to have the political kickoff here.”

Sentiments like that – and political professionals’ worries that they will be punished if they question the virtue of holding an important political test in a rural state where the black population is about 3.3 percent – mean that Iowa’s caucuses may be the lone survivors in the movement toward primaries.

“They’re truly valuable early in the process,” said Tom Vilsack, who was governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007 and who served as secretary of agriculture for the entirety of the presidency of Barack Obama (whose political breakthrough came here in 2008). “You have to do retail politics, or else the 20-second commercial will rule politics and candidates won’t have any interaction with real people. There’s a role for caucuses, but not late in the process. After the first wave of smaller states, it’s just a mad dash for media attention and dollars.”

So Iowa’s place and its caucuses are secure. But the survival of the remainder of the caucuses remains in question. They are at odds with the political zeitgeist and with a culture where social media promotes the idea that everyone can participate in every aspect of every civic function. Consider the caucuses yet another victim of the disruption that is the only constant of the contemporary age.

• David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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