Living in Society

Caucus Politics in Perspective


Conventional wisdom is there are two tickets out of Iowa after the Democratic caucuses scheduled Feb. 1, 2016—the front-runner and one other.

2008 caucus results might be used to argue there could be three, but 2016 is no 2008: two tickets is the number.

If New Hampshire ratifies the Iowa results, we will have our nominee. If the Granite State doesn’t ratify, the nominee will be decided by South Carolina. Given the current political climate, I feel very confident about this.

Democrats have five candidates who expressed interest in running for the nomination as president. Of these only three are viable—Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders.

Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island announced for president, and Jim Webb of Virginia established an exploratory committee, but they fall victims to the honored tradition, “snooze, you lose.” Neither of them capitalized on the pent up demand for Democratic political action to fill the void created by the vast and well publicized Republican field in early 2015.

Hillary leads in the early polling. While she is neither inevitable, nor seeking a crown, she has been a part of the public discussion for so long—arguably since her 1996 book, It Takes a Village—she has name recognition and a presence in American society that creates a substantial obstacle for Democratic presidential challengers to overcome. O’Malley and Sanders are doing “the Iowa work,” garnering substantial attendance at their events. Nonetheless, it seems clear they are vying for the second ticket out of Iowa.

The question is not as much whether Clinton will win the Iowa caucuses. It is whether having three contenders will generate enough interest in partisan politics to build a coalition that can win Iowa—perhaps a swing state in the general election—and win the 2016 general election. That is the uncertainty going into caucus season. I, for one, am trying to be part how that plays out.

Both the administration of elections and the electorate have changed since Bill Clinton’s first election as president in 1992. What matters more than the outcome of the caucuses (Tom Harkin and Uncommitted got the two tickets out of Iowa that year) is the redistricting processes of 2000 and 2010 that created electoral maps which relegated decisions on national elections to a comparatively small number of swing states. There is also a flight from partisan politics, as reflected in the Iowa voter registration numbers, where no preference is a larger group than either political party.

We can support or detract from the Iowa caucuses as much as we want, but campaigns have to be more about the general election than collecting caucus cards from Democratic activists. This is an advantage to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The Iowa Democratic Party has become reliant on national interest in the Iowa Caucuses to generate financial resources which pay for campaign offices and staff to do the party work. Prominent figures in the party have publicly said so. That’s the reason we have an interest in remaining first in the nation, and having a “competitive” caucus.

To put this into perspective, it is important to engage in politics. The most productive work we can do is talk to people we know about issues that matter. We could also debunk the myth that we are polarized, except in the non-functional congress which we have the power to change.

My take away is worry less about the outcome of the Iowa caucuses and turn our attention to winning the general election. They are related, but not the same, and that is an important distinction.