Iowa - don't believe the hype

What really is the importance of the Iowa Caucuses? Raffaello Pantucci explains plus

If press coverage is anything to go by, today is Election Day in the United States. With the much anticipated arrival of the infamous Iowa Caucuses, it would seem that it is finally decision time.

But hold on a minute. The reality is the election is not until 4 November, and today’s gatherings are merely the first milestone in what increasingly feels like the world’s longest election campaign.

Before we indulge in some deconstruction as to the why and wherefore of the Iowa Caucuses and its meaning to the American political landscape, it behoves us to first understand the nature of the beast.

Unlike the New Hampshire primaries (the first official public choosing of a candidate by election, to be held on 8 January), the Iowa Caucuses are not an election in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, they are gatherings of party members in Iowa at appointed places in their regional districts (churches, schools and the like) at very specific times, where they stand around and persuade each other about who the party’s nominee should be and why their choice is best for the nation.

It gets, however, more complex than this. On the Republican side, the groups gather and then all vote by a show of hands or ballot papers. For Democrats, on the other hand, the people gather, debate with one another another and then go and stand in the appointed corner for their preferred nominee.

After a half hour, a count is made and it is ascertained which of the candidates have failed to garner the support of 15% of the gathering – they are promptly disqualified and a second count is done with appointed corners for those who superceded the threshold.

Once these dances have been concluded on either side, the respective decisions are sent to the party headquarters in Des Moines (the State capital), from where the rabidly expectant media await to broadcast it to the world.

But how important is this information on either side? Historically this is a somewhat open question. Since 1972 when the Iowa Caucuses started to assume their current level of importance they have chosen the eventual party nominee five times on the Democratic side, and three times on the Republican side (this is not counting years in which an incumbent was standing again, when they essentially pass through the Caucuses unopposed).

Of these, one from each side went on to win the election (George W. Bush in 2000, and Jimmy Carter in 1976 – though Carter’s support actually came second to those who remained uncommitted in the Caucuses), while President’s Reagan, H.W. Bush (that's Bush senior) and Clinton all failed to reign supreme in Iowa (though Bush Snr did actually win in Iowa in 1980 – though he subsequently lost to President Reagan).

So they are not quite the kingmakers that some claim, a fact that irks other Americans and party representatives when they see the current level of media interest.

It also bothers those who would like to see some of the millions in campaign funds being poured into Iowa coming their way.

The immense emphasis that has been ladled on Iowa is not always reflected in local attendance – last year, for example, as few as 6% of registered Democratic voters bothered to show up for their Caucuses. And the nation as a whole is most certainly not reflected in Iowa, which is one of the smaller (population 3 million) and whiter states (94.9% of the population) in the Union.

Other states have tried to pip Iowa and New Hampshire to the post, and earlier in 2007 we were treated to the almost undignified performance of a race to the beginning of the year by party leaders in other states who sought to try to replace Iowa and New Hampshire as the putative kingmakers. The culmination came when New Hampshire, determined to be the first elected primary in the calendar, almost decided to move its nomination back into December of 2007.

This is not to completely discount today’s Caucuses. It is undeniable that a particularly good score in Iowa may propel someone on either side to finally take off ahead of the others and maybe even ride a wave to the nomination and White House. What is more likely though is that we will see some of the smaller and basically non-viable campaigns starting to admit defeat and packing up to join others or melting away to whence they came. The others will either downplay the importance, or play up their real or pyrrhic victories depending on the outcome.

While it would be foolish to speculate about who might win or to attempt to handicap what is an absurdly scattered field on either side – there is one element in the Republican race worth bearing in mind.

This is the Southern Baptist/Mormon contest (sorry that should be Huckabee/Romney contest) - interesting given the immense effort that both candidates have put into Iowa.

A particularly bad performance for either could potentially doom their onward march. Both men have sought to downplay the religious element in their confrontation, but it is hard to miss the fight for the 40% of the Republican Caucuses goers who identify themselves as Christian Conservatives.

Whatever happens today, we are still a considerable time away from an election that will most certainly not be based on the same factors at play in today’s Caucuses decisions (for example, it is hard to gauge the impact of the current harsh Iowa winter on turn-out).

One could be mistaken for thinking otherwise given the shrill electioneering crescendo that we have already hit this early in the race, but don’t be fooled by the hype: we still have another year of President Bush in the White House.

Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State