Why Iowa Caucuses Are So Un-Iowan

Why Iowa Caucuses Are So Un-Iowan
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I am an Iowan, and proud to be. I was born and raised and married in the Hawkeye State. Most of my family still lives there. Although I’ve lived on the East Coast for most of my adult life, Iowa is still the place I consider home. I return frequently, and it still feels more familiar to me than the city where I raised my own children and have lived for decades.

My parents were civic-minded people. So were most of their friends. They were well-informed about public affairs, keenly interested in local and national politics, and very active citizens. They voted in every election. Yet, until I worked for a Republican candidate for president, John McCain, not a single member of my family had ever participated in the Iowa caucus. I did not personally know anyone who had.

The most well-attended GOP caucus draws fewer than one-fifth of registered Republican voters. Many of the voters who do participate are not, I venture to say, typically Iowan in outlook or even manners. Iowans are famous for our politeness and tolerance, and undemonstrative but genuine friendliness. Arguing about politics with strangers in a school basement on a cold January night is an experience most Iowans do not find appealing.

I’m sure Iowans appreciate the attention paid to their communities by the presidential candidates, not to mention the revenue generated by the campaigns and thousands of reporters’ expense accounts. But however much they value the economic benefits the caucus provides or are entertained by the spectacle of candidates gorging themselves on fried foods at the state fair, the caucus doesn’t cast the Republican Party in a favorable light -- or have much relevance in the nine-month presidential election season that follows.

Iowa general election voters themselves rarely approve the choices made by their caucus-attending Republican neighbors. The Republican nominee has won the state of Iowa only once since Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in 1984 -- more than 30 years ago. That’s one election -- George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election -- out of the last seven.

The caucus doesn’t have a particularly good record at picking the eventual nominee. Of the five contested Republican caucuses from 1988 through 2012 (not counting the three where a Republican incumbent was running unopposed), the nominee was selected in two of them, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. In some of those years, the Republican standard bearer didn’t come in a close second. George H.W. Bush finished third in 1988, behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson. John McCain finished fourth in 2008.

Ronald Reagan lost the Iowa caucus in 1980, and he was practically from there.

New Hampshire has had six competitive Republican primaries between 1988 and 2012. New Hampshire voters picked the eventual nominee in four of them. 

Obviously, when a small minority of voters exercises an outsized influence, as is the case in the Iowa caucus, you run the risk of turning off a majority of voters. As sensible and genial Republican candidates adapt to the sometimes unrealistic positions of one conservative faction or another or appear to approve the rhetorical excesses of the party’s angriest flame throwers, they offend the sensibilities of a majority of Iowans -- most of whom are, as a rule, anything but angry flame throwers -- and give Democrats evidence to point to when they denounce Republicans as haters and dividers.

Take, for instance, the first Iowa Republican event of the new cycle that attracted multiple prospective candidates and a horde of media, the Iowa Freedom Summit held in Des Moines last weekend. Republican prospects from the center right to the far right attended. Their host was Congressman Steve King, a man often denounced as one of the aforementioned haters and dividers, and certainly one of the angrier flame throwers in the party.

True to form, King opened the show with a few choice words about the children of illegal immigrants struggling to get ahead in the only country they know as home as “those people that came from the other planet.” He has in the past called them criminals and, more recently, “deportable.” I met few people if any like King among the many Iowans I knew in the quarter century I lived there. I think to a very large majority of Iowans, King, and not the objects of his abuse, is the alien.

It’s one thing to oppose legalizing the status of people who have entered the country illegally. It’s quite another to harbor a deep-seated, personal antipathy for people who were born into misfortune and are only trying to give their kids a better life. That is as un-Iowan as it gets. Yet paying respectful attention to Steve King types is what most Republican candidates believe is required to win the caucus.

That’s why as party activists and the media debate which candidates “won” the weekend, the real winners were the four candidates who stayed away, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Rand Paul. Though I’m proud and fond of my home state, I’m willing to wager the eventual nominee will be someone who didn’t invest much time and attention there. Even lifelong residents will tell you there are better places to visit in January.

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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