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Colson: Caucus? Primary? What’s it all mean?

I’ve been reading about the Iowa caucus system, which leaps into action today (Feb. 1) at the pace of an arthritic turtle after a heavy meal, primed to be the first state to declare a winner in the race to become president of the U.S. of A. this year.

Due to my early deadline, I have no idea who will come out on top for Democrats, Republicans and any other parties daft enough to be pulling out all the stops for this contest.

But the winner is not my point here. Rather, I’m puzzled and intrigued as to why we put so much emphasis on a vote-counting, nominating system that one online commentator referred to as “absurd,” although he also granted that the idea of gathering with neighbors and fellow politicos to pick a president “has a certain archaic charm.”



I should note here that Colorado also uses the caucus system, instead of a primary election, to choose its preferred presidential winner-to-be, although the Republican Party this year has opted to forego caucusing due to the large and confusing field of candidates.

Anyway, the declaration that the caucus system is “absurd” is in reference to the arcane, plodding way that caucuses go about their business in some 1,700 voter precincts across the sparsely populated state of Iowa.




There are a few more than 3 million people living there, and while there is little reporting about the numbers of people taking part in the caucus system, one estimate in 2004 indicated roughly 124,000 Democrats were involved that year.

By 2008, that number rose to nearly 240,000 for the Democrats, thanks largely to the face-off between then-Sen. Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for a turnout of nearly 40 percent, but most observers have concluded that the turnout for Dems that year was an anomaly.

In general, turnout is roughly 20 percent of the registered voters for each party (as it was in 2008 for the Iowa GOP), and has held at that level for most elections so far in this century, in a state in which there are approximately 600,000 registered voters in each party.

So, if the numbers hold true, that could mean that perhaps 240,000 people per party in Iowa can be expected to be casting ballots in the first actual voting process in the national presidential race for this year.

The fact that those voters are largely white, middle-class, evangelical and very conservative, hardly a representative sample of today’s American voting bloc, is just one of the quirks of our political system.

Remember, too, that caucus votes actually are meant to elect delegates to succeeding conventions at the district, state and national levels, which muddies the waters somewhat in making conclusions about winners and losers.

Thanks to its first-in-line status, the Iowa system has far greater clout than other state nominating contests, and has been studied and parsed over the years by various pundits and statisticians, so there is more to go on in terms of information about how this is all supposed to work, and what it all means.

And the information certainly is interesting, if not outright amusing to behold.

For instance, in Iowa, 17-year-olds can participate if their 18th birthday will come before the actual day of the national presidential election, Nov. 8.

The prevailing wisdom concerning how Iowa got to be the nation’s first-in-line assessment of the presidential race is another somewhat amusing tidbit — it was all basically a mistake that got started in 1972, according to a political science professor from the University of Iowa.

The professor, named Cary Covington, told the New York Daily News that Iowa’s Democratic Party moved its caucus day to a date earlier than the New Hampshire primary that year “because of scheduling issues.” New Hampshire had held the first-in-time honors up until then, and no one was really that upset about the switch at the time.

But after Jimmy Carter won in Iowa four years later, propelling him to national prominence and into the White House, Iowa Republicans moved their caucus date, as well, and the pattern was established for giving candidates a chance at greater national exposure in an electoral system that wasn’t really an election.

Oh, there have been periodic spats among states to reshuffle the order of caucuses and primaries, but it’s still Iowa this week and New Hampshire next, on Feb. 9, followed by the rest of the states in a staggering display of also-ran politics.

According to figures published by the Iowa Caucus Project last year, turnout in the Republican caucuses and primaries of the remaining states hovers a little above 15 percent, leading the project website to conclude that Iowa actually does a little better than the rest of the nation in terms of getting people involved early in the political process.

What does all this mean?

Hell, I don’t know, I just felt like it was a good time for a very selective primer on the topic.

jbcolson51@gmail.com


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