The near-daily updated polls and uncommon focus on an agrarian Midwstern state can only mean one thing: the Iowa Caucus is coming. The press and politicians alike have advertised this event as an early predictor of which Democratic and Republican candidates will come out on top, with obsessive updates displaying a dizzying frenzy of ever-changing polls. Despite the media hype and sports-like news coverage, the Iowa Caucus is a troublingly imprecise predictor of who will win their party’s nomination, much less the presidency.
Iowa has had a seemingly impressive record; in 8 out of 10 caucuses held in the past two decades, the winner later secured his party’s nomination. However, on closer inspection, Iowans seem less like heralds leering over crystal balls and more like gamblers on a lucky streak. In 1992, Bill Clinton came in fourth place with three percent of the vote, and George H.W. Bush finished the Iowa Caucus of 1988 in third , though both later secured the nomination and the Presidency. More recently, in 2008, John McCain came in fourth, and in 2012 the winner of the Iowa Caucus was a matter of controversy.
There are a number of explanations for this imperfect record. Though the national press hypes the voting-season kickoffs of the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary, this also makes the elections less able to predict who will win the party nomination. Earlier elections are less predictive than later ones, and even within New Hampshire and Iowa, past voters overwhelmingly describe their decision as being formed within the final week. Furthermore, voters tend to swing much more rapidly in primaries and caucuses than in the general election.
Demographic factors also make Iowa less representative for the rest of the country, as the state is significantly more evangelical – a firmly conservative constituency – and has fewer non-Christians than most of the US. It is no wonder why Mike Huckabee, a vocal evangelical, won in 2008 but withdrew his candidacy just two months later, bringing an end to what some called a “sudden but short-lived sensation.”
The critique that has the most troubling implications, however, is that the Iowa Caucus is closed to all but those who are registered as Democrat or Republican. This year, closed primaries and caucuses – New York State among them – will outnumber all that are open or mixed, excluding the growing number of independents nationally and on college campuses like NYU. The Iowa Caucus has little to offer in the way of political clairvoyance. Rather, it reveals the systems which determine who does and does not have a vote in the race for the highest office in the nation.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, January 25 print edition. Email Abraham Gross at [email protected]