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Five Myths About the Iowa Caucuses

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Message Ryan O'Donnell

Today, a unique American electoral event will shape one of the most contested presidential primaries in a generation. Steeped in political folklore, the Iowa caucuses conjure images of old-fashioned neighborhood meetings in high school gymnasiums. Iowa's reputation is also one of a kingmaker that has absolute authority to make or break candidates for our nation's highest office. But some of this reputation, like the following, ain't necessarily so.

1. "The winner of the nomination must win Iowa"

The candidates who beat expectations here do not necessarily have reason to re-chill the champagne left over from New Year's. History is full of contenders who lost the caucuses but won the nomination. George H.W. Bush ran far behind expectations when finishing third in 1988 behind Bob Dole and Pat Robertson, and Bill Clinton chose to skip the caucuses all together when he faced Iowa's Tom Harkin.

2. "The polls can call it"

In fact, not even the exit polls can call it. For Democrats, the point of the caucuses is delegates, not raw votes. Polls can mislead because any candidate who falls below 15% in a precinct won't win even one delegate, and finishing above this threshold doesn't guarantee more. The process hinges on the complexities of "caucus math," and the savvy of the precinct captains appointed by the campaigns.

An important factor seldom reported in horserace columns is second choices among Democrats. If after a first count, a candidate falls short of the 15% threshold, supporters have the sensible opportunity to reorganize and send their support to their second choices. This could matter for a candidate like John Edwards, who has wound up a close third in many polls, but often first among Iowans' second choices.

3. "To win, build the biggest crowds"

Caucus math matters. Because of the way delegates are spread out geographically, the candidate who wins the broadest support will likely triumph over the candidate who racks up lots of votes in populated areas, but falls short of 15% in others. Excitement and energy drives good caucus organizing, but awe-inspiring rallies alone will not translate into an equally impressive number of delegates statewide.

4. "No maneuvering or deal making here!"

By mastering the art of caucus math, campaigns can harm frontrunners by helping lower-tier candidates. Suppose that after a first count, John Edwards, Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama are the only viable candidates in a precinct, but Bill Richardson has fallen just short of a delegate. The delegate split is 2 for Edwards, 2 for Obama and 3 for Clinton. If Obama and Edwards supporters think strategically and have people to spare, they could move enough excess support to Richardson so he gains a delegate at Clinton's expense.

Outside effects can hold sway, too. The Orange Bowl will be held the same night on January 3, keeping some potential voters home. If a blizzards blows through, which voters will risk wintry driving?

5. "Iowa's schedule was set by God"

Bill Richardson suggested this summer that the first in the nation scheduling of Iowa was an act of God. In reality, it was an act of a somewhat less holy body – the Democratic Party's Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection in 1968, later to be headed by George McGovern. The Republican Party soon followed suit.

This year, with all the potential chaos surrounding the compressed primary schedule, the time for reform has come again. Nearly half the country will vote on "Tsunami Tuesday," (February 5), reflecting a widespread desire among the states to exercise a meaningful vote. Internal strife has erupted inside the parties themselves, as states like Michigan and Florida tangle with sanctions after they broke party rules.

The Rules Committee of the Republican Party is set to vote on January 17 to recommend a reform proposal such as the American Plan, Delaware Plan or rotating regional system. The Democratic Party shows every indication of wanting to take action as well. God (or party task forces) willing, sensible reform will be here by 2012's Orange Bowl.


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Ryan O'Donnell is Communications Director for FairVote - The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan election reform group in Washington DC.
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