The 2016 Iowa Caucuses on tonight are even more important than usual. As Ted Cruz admitted on January 25, if Donald Trump wins the Iowa Caucuses and wins New Hampshire (where he holds a formidable lead) one week later, then “there is a very good chance he could be unstoppable.”
Unfortunately for Cruz, despite being dominated by evangelical Christians, Iowa may be receptive to a celebrity candidate with flexible religious convictions and a talent for exploiting racial and religious prejudices. That’s because politics in the Hawkeye State more closely resembles a cross between a banana republic and a white bread theocracy than a Norman Rockwell moment. That state of affairs is bad for democracy, but it’s particularly bad for the Republican Party. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Iowa Caucus Voters are Demographically Unrepresentative
Overwhelmingly white Iowa has long been criticized as a poor choice for an early voting state because it is demographically unrepresentative of the country. The state has roughly one-third as many black and Hispanic voters as the average minority percentage nationwide. This demographic mismatch is concerning for the Republican Party because it incentivizes the party to stick to its traditional politics when diversification is needed.
Iowa isn’t very representative of the Republican Party either– it’s a blue state that has voted for Democratic Presidential candidates in every election since 1988 except 2004. In addition, more than half of Republican Iowa caucus voters identify as born again or evangelical, compared with one-third of Republicans nationwide who self-identify as being religious conservatives.
Republicans should stress test their candidates for the general election in the early going by operating in an environment closer to real world America. Placing a state with so many evangelicals and whites first in the candidate selection lineup pushes the Republican field to market to a narrow subset of voters and encourages candidates to play divisive identity politics instead of being a training ground for candidates who can appeal to all Americans. Knocking out a candidate early who would be a strong contender in the general election is not a recipe for electoral success.
2. The Iowa Caucus System is Chaotic and Expensive
Iowa served up three caucus winners in 2012. The morning after the caucuses, Iowa declared that Mitt Romney had won by eight votes. Two weeks later, the Iowa Republican Party said that actually Rick Santorum won the caucuses, prompting GOP strategist Rich Galen to tweet: “Four years on, will international observers be called in to help run the Iowa caucuses?” The punchline came in June: Ron Paul, who placed third on election night, received the lion’s share of delegates at the Iowa Republican convention. Should we bestow the power of momentum-making upon a state that can’t figure out who the real winner of the caucuses is on election night?
Many political observers rationalize Iowa’s early calendar date by arguing that the state’s relatively small size makes the process more inclusive by permitting a dark horse candidate willing to reside in Iowa for a year to catch a break. However, victory in Iowa requires more than meeting a lot of voters. Voter turnout is more difficult to generate for a caucus than a primary. Many voters do not have time to attend a caucus for two hours.
In the “Year of the Political Outsider,” Iowa is an insider’s game. It’s likely that the successful caucuses winner either has invested the resources necessary to build a ground game from scratch or has secured the backing of establishment politicians and interest groups with local political knowledge and resources. Iowa favors a candidate with money and political connections over the proverbial Mr. Smith.
3. Iowa is Corrupt
Iowan corruption ranges from the legal rent-seeking variety (crony capitalist politicians punish candidates who dare question the wisdom of ethanol subsidies) to the criminal sort. In 2011, Presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann was outraged when a state senator she thought she had bought off switched his endorsement from her to Ron Paul. The senator switched his allegiance because the Paul campaign had outbid Bachmann by $66,000 (the senator later pled guilty to campaign finance and obstruction of justice charges).
Yes, other states may have worse corruption issues, but the torchbearer of democracy should be carefully vetted. Free market, secular Republicans should be especially concerned that their issues are ignored in a state that encourages political graft and pandering to parochial economic interests and religious conservatives. And let’s not forget how the state distorts national politics in favor of wasteful and environmentally bad ethanol mandates due to the large number of corn farmers in the state who directly profit from them.
4. Iowa is Boring
Presidential candidates spend every fourth year living in the same state with the same local issues, bad pizza joints, and ad-exhausted citizenry. America’s political system showers the same state with the economic stimulus generated by the spectacle and empowers the same local politicians and interest groups every four years. The status quo is boring and inequitable.
When searching for Midwestern alternatives to Iowa, consider the following. Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota should likely be ruled out because their heavily Republican populations will result in an insular campaign. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan lean Democratic and experience harsh winters.
However, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio are similar in size to Iowa (Indiana and Ohio are smaller), but with populations that are more diverse. In addition, spending months in one of these states will focus attention on a battleground state that could decide the election. Missouri has a legendary reputation of voting for the winning presidential candidate. Every winning Presidential candidate since 1960 has won Ohio. A regular rotation among these four states would be a much better option than Iowa every four years. Even a randomly chosen state among all 50 states would be a better solution than the GOP continually allowing the same corrupt, unrepresentative state such undue influence.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Kris Hammond is a civil rights attorney, communications professional, and political strategist. For ten years, he served as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Twice a candidate for public office, he is member of the D.C. Republican Committee.