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Iowa caucus isn't good gauge of voter sentiments

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David Broder
January 3, 2008
— One final reminder: When you’re reading the returns from the Iowa caucuses, remember you are viewing them through a double distortion mirror.

The outcome of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation voting is skewed by two big factors. The turnout is ridiculously small, barely 20 percent of eligible voters. And those who choose to caucus are hardly representative of the population as a whole.


This is not said in disparagement of Iowans, whose overall civic spirit and political acumen are as outstanding as any voters I know. But their traditional way of expressing their early choice for president and the disproportionate influence it exerts in winnowing the field leave a lot to be desired.


The maddening thing about the caucus system, for candidates and outside observers as well, is that large and enthusiastic rally crowds tell you almost nothing about the dynamic of the decision-making. I have been dazzled this year, not only by the thousands who filled arenas in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids to see Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, but by the turnouts of hundreds in high school gyms on freezing Friday nights in small towns such as Oelwein.


Yet getting crowds to a rally or a town meeting is child’s play compared to getting them to caucus. In 2004, 1.5 million people voted in Iowa in the general election for president. Turnout at the Democratic caucuses that year was estimated at 122,000. The biggest number ever for Republicans was 115,000 in 1980.


That system empowers the activists and those with built-in organizational ties who can mobilize people to leave their homes for a couple hours on a weeknight and motivate them to declare a public—not private—preference for a candidate.


On the Republican side, those networks belong principally to conservative Christian groups, anti-abortion organizations, home-school advocates and some economic interests.


On the Democratic side, organized labor and teachers boast the best existing networks, but the main impulse is a broader populist tradition that tugs the Democratic Party of Iowa to the left. That tradition might go back to the days of Henry Wallace, the Iowa-born vice president under FDR. But it has been embodied in recent decades in Tom Harkin, the longtime Democratic senator who ran for president in 1992 and quickly fell behind the more moderate Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas.


Harkin has accustomed Iowa Democrats to a red-meat diet of anti-corporate rhetoric, a tradition he shared with the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. That theme was echoed this year and in 2004 by John Edwards, and was imitated—with varying degrees of conviction—by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the closing stages of the Iowa race.


It has been an Iowa pattern to tilt the Democratic race leftward and the Republican race to the right. And often it has been New Hampshire, where the primary turnout approximates the pattern of the overall electorate, that restores the balance and corrects the distorting effects of the Iowa dynamic.


The key to New Hampshire is usually found among independent voters, who can go into either party primary, depending on the choice each individual makes on primary day.


That fact by itself pulls the candidates away from the ideological edges and back to the center, and it is abetted by two other forces. Organized labor is a much weaker political element inside the New Hampshire Democratic Party than it is in Iowa. And among Republicans, the state is much more secular than Iowa, with a significantly smaller percentage of people who describe themselves as “born-again Christians.”


The Democratic Party of New Hampshire is a balanced blend of college-trained high-tech people and educators, with a leavening of retirees and a significant ethnic, urban contingent in Manchester and Nashua, as well.


The Republican Party here is a small-business and professional class, with some blue-collar elements and a spillover of former Massachusetts residents living along the southern border.


In New Hampshire, nearly half as many people voted in the 2004 primary as in the November general election—a far better cross-section of the state. What was even more remarkable was that the number of votes cast in the Democratic presidential primary—221,309—was two-thirds of the votes John Kerry received when he carried the state in November.


New Hampshire is a more reliable, less distorted lens though which to view the presidential landscape than Iowa.



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