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We are about to enter that strange, surrealistic political zone known as The Iowa Caucuses. In an ancient rite shrouded in mystery, a relative handful of people from a state that can’t even manage to have real primaries will seal the fates of some of the contenders for the biggest prize on Earth: the Presidency of the United States.

Why? That’s a question people have been asking for a long, long time, or at least since about 1972 when the Iowa “process” became the first electoral event of the national campaign season. This was brought about in part by the George McGovern campaign of that year – McGovern’s state co-chair Norma S. Matthews led the move to move the Iowa Democratic caucuses to January. In 1976 the Republicans moved their caucuses to January as well. And ever since Iowa has been the scene of a political and media frenzy that takes place against a frozen backdrop of mid-western stoicism.

Because even though only about one percent of the delegates to the national nominating conventions are chosen in Iowa, and only about 100,000 people in total will decide which one of the half-dozen GOP candidates will win in Iowa, native Iowans take the process very seriously. The whole deal is serious Business with a capital “B”: the candidates spend Big Money, the media spends Big Money, and those 100,000 Iowans themselves cut some Big Deals as they trade votes.

The reason the candidates and media take this thing so seriously isn’t tough to judge. For the candidates it’s the first 1/100th of a lap out of the starting gate. For the media it’s a huge release of tension after months of polling and speculation. But for those 100,000 Iowans who will do the voting, it’s all about the deals.

Now, Iowans like to promote a very egalitarian, folksy image of their caucus process. The front story is they tromp through snow and ice to some neighbor’s house where they drink coffee, eat cookies, and have deep and stirring discussions about the nation and the candidates. But the back side of the story is they are taking part in an old American tradition of horse-trading. Literally stuff like the following is going on:

“So, Bill, I noticed your driveway is looking pretty sad these days. And since I own a construction company how about if I dump a few truckloads of asphalt in your and all your neighbors’ yards, and you vote for Santorum instead of Romney?”

“You can’t be seriously thinking of voting for Ron Paul, Thelma! And I’m sure if you want to know who it is your husband has been seeing on the side, you’ll give me your vote for Bachmann!”

“I might be convinced to vote for that housing development you want to build when it comes before the planning commission if I can count on your vote for Mitt, Clyde.”

And so on.

When it comes down to it, people aren’t really going to be all that gung-ho to freeze their butts off just to cast a losing vote for Rick Perry in someone else’s living room. But if they might get some landscaping out of it, well that’s something else. It’s not like their butt won’t defrost at some point. And then there are the cookies to be had.

Realize that these 100,000 souls are only about 20% or-so of all the registered Republicans in Iowa’s 99 counties. Maybe a bit more. I recently heard someone compare this to a small city like, say, Napa, California. If Napa, California went all-in for Newt Gingrich, you probably wouldn’t hear much about it on CNN or Fox News. It would be just one town in one county in one state. But when the same number of people pick a candidate in Iowa, that’s front page banner headline stuff that will be bounced all over the world within seconds of the vote tally. Because they’re first. And that’s pretty-much the only reason.

The attention Iowa is basted in certainly isn’t because of their great record of predicting winners. In fact, since 1976 Iowa is shooting about 50% for predicting the party candidates for president, and about 25% for predicting the Presidential winner. Vegas does better than that.

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