Who won and lost in Iowa?

We don’t really know who won in Iowa (the media treating Romney’s 8 vote margin over Santorum as a ‘win’ shows only that our media have no knowledge of what constitutes a margin of error.  If there were a recount — as there certainly would be if this was a true election — there is a better than even chance the results would be reversed).

We do know who lost — Bachman for sure.  Gingrich?  Too early to tell.  Paul — perhaps, because now more attention will be paid to some of his positions, which can only hurt him.  Perry — down, but not yet out; if he does well in South Carolina he could regain momentum as the anti-Romney.

For me, what we really lost in Iowa was the sanity of our nomination process.  The Republican field is the weak, confused, divided mess that it is precisely because the gauntlet of the nominating process only allows the extreme, the unknown, and the hyperflexible many-faced politician to succeed.  The early caucuses draw disproportionately on the extremes of the extreme to participate.  Look at the three candidates who did best:  one is a social ultra-conservative (Santorum) whose positions on marriage and family are completely out of touch with the majority of Americans but appeals deeply to evangelical conservatives (about 10-15% of the broader electorate).  Another is a true libertarian (Paul) who would destroy a century of U.S. foreign policy and eighty years of federal safety nets for the elderly, the unemployed, and the poor.  A third (Romney) is a hyperflexible politician who is running hard away from the very acts that made him a successful governor in his only governing experience, in Massachusetts.

Looking back, the nominating process post-Nixon gave us an unknown from Georgia who produced what many see as a failed presidency (Carter); a hyperflexible Ronald Reagan (the anti-government hawk who raised taxes 11 times and offered Gorbachev a plan for nuclear disarmament); an experienced candidate in George Bush senior but with the risky Dan Quayle a heartbeat from the presidency; another near-unknown  from the south whose presidency nearly ended in impeachment and dragged America through years of scandal only obscured by the fortune of a vigorous economic boom driven by the dot-com bubble (Clinton); an inexperienced but name-recognized governor who dragged American into two costly wars and rigged the tax system to bankrupt the government (W); and an inexperienced Senator (Obama) whose manipulation of the caucus system gave him the nomination over the more experienced Hilary Clinton despite the latter winning primaries in every major state (California, Pennsylvania, Illnois, Ohio, New York).

America, the world’s most powerful nation, now has a tax system that no rational person or government would ever adopt if offered today; and a system for choosing its most important leader that is a 19th century anachronism manipulated by media advertising and caucus extremism.

There is a simple cure for the latter — get rid of caucuses entirely, and have the nominee chosen by primaries, with minimal thresholds for votes cast as a percentage of eligible voters (say at least one-third) in order to count.   That would force candidates to seek the votes of statewide majorities of eligible voters, rather than allow tiny numbers of voters (130,000 in Iowa, out of a state population of 3 million) to force events.

Which is more un-American — to require substantial numbers of popular voters to choose candidates, or to allow tiny minorities of the most-motivated to determine the candidates?

Abolish caucuses; the American people will recover their voice and I expect the results will be better.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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5 Responses to Who won and lost in Iowa?

  1. Alex Klotz says:

    For the historians among us and I did not live this period myself so my analysis may be incorrect but take a look at 30 year US government bonds between 1981-1983. Extraordinary rates attached of 10-16% and an environment of declining interest over 30 years. Its not difficult to imagine a lot of bond dividend went into investing in market ventures to supply labor during the past 30 years (a concentrated population cohort). Or difficult to imagine that some groups of Americans will be disproportionately disadvantaged during the next period. Why? Allocation of capital returns to the hands of the market. The market institution trickle down? The present year being 2012 we have reached the end of very high yielding bond dividends reaching the hands of bond holders and that US guarantee entering the economy, global economy and market. For the treasury– a possible sigh of relief given the popularity of taxation over the same stretch! For capitalism– a new weight to shoulder and as it would appear, the wheels having been blown off the car in 2007, its been sitting on blocks, being repaired ever since.

    As to the current discussion. I cant help but imagine the ‘radicalism’ being some part and parcel of the democratic circus, to which new voice and new idea, a piece of pie is divided. Democratic to the core and a country that rewards innovation. But I’ve been reminded that voice is not necessarily part of the production of a square meal, and is a luxury of both affluence and support.

    • I did live during that period, and I financed a mortgage at 12.5%! (As opposed to the 3.25% I enjoy now).
      1981-83 was the famous “Volker interest” deliberately induced to quench the inflation that followed OPECs quadrupling of oil prices in the late 1970s. The rise in energy prices led to a spiral of wage demands and merchandise mark-ups that threatened to spiral out of control or at least create a Brazil-type permanent double-digit inflation. Volker ended that; but it was more painful than beneficial. The REAL upside was for equity holders, who now assured that the Fed would fight inflation with a broadsword, enjoyed an equities boom that returned 20% per annum from 1980 to 2000.

      But we are in a very different world, one of aging and stagnant populations in rich countries, stronger emerging markets, and great anxiety about bank and sovereign solvency. Low interest rates seem inevitable for some time yet.

  2. Professor Goldstone,
    Thank you for your thoughtful commentaries. However, I think that you are a bit naive to believe that ending the Iowa caucuses would improve our system. (Full disclosure: I’m an Iowan & caucus participant.) Your litany of presidents and their shortcomings certainly raises questions, but then when we go back to the likes of Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Truman: can we say that each of them was nominated as “the best man”? Or that none of them failed significantly once in office? As one looks back over the course of American history, I don’t find that the smoke-filled rooms and occasional primaries proved especially adept at picking the truly capable. (What about Lincoln, the one term congressman and failed senatorial candidate–bad or good selection via hindsight or foresight?)

    As to caucus radicalism, it’s true that the Republican Party has turned sharply to the right so that even Richard Nixon running today would seem way too much a lefty. (That Keynesian!) The Democrats, on the other hand, nominated the very centrist Obama over the centrist Clinton (and the other centrist candidates). That Iowans went with the new and exciting Obama brand over the Clinton (and Edwards–we didn’t know then) brands may seem brash, but in terms of policy, do we really think that a HIllary Clinton administration would have followed a very different course than the Obama administration? I don’t think so. Iowans in many of those years picked candidates that the American electorate as a whole thought the best pick.

    Democracy is awfully messy and often quite irrational, but I don’t think that abolishing the caucuses and Californiaizing our nominating process would improve-the process.

    • Democracy is messy, but I believe the more voters the better; I would be happy to see Iowa lead the way, even to have caucuses. Many states combine caucuses with primaries. But the primaries should be more important in choosing the candidates.
      Your points are well-taken; though; let others express their opinion too.

  3. And the primaries should either be proportional representation rather than winner take all, or approval voting, or instant runoff, or a combination of the first two.

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