Iowa - don't believe the hype

What really is the importance of the Iowa Caucuses? Raffaello Pantucci explains plus <a href="http:/

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15% of the gathering – they are promptly disqualified and a second count is done with appointed corners for those who superceded the threshold.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.