[Editor's Note: On the eve of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, we reprint below a scathing critique of the state's caucus process written by Gil Cranberg nearly three decades ago. It is no less relevant today than it was when originally published.]
The Iowa Caucuses Have No Clothes
By Gilbert Cranberg
May 31, 1987 (reprinted from The New York Times)
''Get thee to Iowa,'' political soothsayers advised Democratic candidates in the aftermath of the funny thing that happened to Gary Hart on his way to the White House. I have a better suggestion: Stay away.
If enough Presidential candidates boycotted the Feb. 8 precinct caucuses, the event no longer would be invested with significance - significance it does not deserve.
Iowans are sensible, literate people. The system their politicians cooked up to give them a piece of the Presidential-nominating action is unworthy of them. It is dumb - so dumb that most Iowans do not participate.
The 1984 Democratic precinct caucuses attracted eight candidates. The contenders criss-crossed the state for months, wearing out themselves, their workers and, apparently, their audience. The Iowa and national press covered the contest breathlessly. And on caucus night only 75,000 -just 14 percent - of the state's 534,000 registered Democrats went to the precinct meeting places. [Editor's Note: With the exception of an unusually high Democratic turnout for the 2008 Democratic caucuses -- about 39 percent -- estimates show that roughly 1 out of 5 eligible caucus goers turned out for the caucuses in the last two election cycles.] The caucuses disfranchise Iowans who are out of town or who work nights or are handicapped or too frail to brave a nasty winter night.
A caucus is a neighborhood gathering. The 2,500 Democratic caucuses feature an arcane delegate-election procedure that requires wheeling and dealing, sometimes for hours. All in public. If you do not relish political wrangling with neighbors, or you cherish the secret ballot, the caucuses are not for you - as they are not for most Iowa Democrats.
Republican caucuses are more sedate, though no better attended. The big event is a straw vote on the candidates. That tally makes the next day's headlines. The most significant event, though, is the election of delegates to G.O.P. county conventions. Those elections shape Iowa's delegation to the national convention. The press hardly pays attention to caucus selection of these delegates because Republicans have not figured out a way to make it newsworthy by providing hard numbers.
Political activists dominate both party caucuses. The fuss over the caucuses is about the choices by small numbers of elites, charged up over causes ranging from the arms race to abortion to evangelical Christianity, in a state that, in any case, is atypical demographically and economically.
Campaigning for the caucuses is akin to finding needles in a haystack. The candidates who find the most needles - that is, the likely caucus-goers - get anointed as front-runners and top challengers. Obscured by the hoopla is the insignificant fraction of voters who decide the outcomes. Mr. Hart was judged by the press to be Walter F. Mondale's chief rival in 1984 after luring a mere 9,000 or so followers to the caucuses.
So candidates roam rural Iowa looking for straw votes by offering photo opportunities with pigs. A former governor pedals across the state. The search for scarce caucus participants puts the candidates on a merry-go-round of picnics, coffees and living-room tete-a-tetes.
An estimated 2,000 members of the national press corps will report the doings, much to the delight of the state's tourism and economic-development promoters. Toss in expenditures for campaign offices, staff, ads, meals, auto rentals and hotels, and Iowa has a thriving election industry. Given the intrinsic worth of the caucuses, they are a classic case of the proverbial rube taking city slickers to the cleaners.
Yes, Iowa's caucuses give underfinanced unknowns a shot at the Presidency. The relatively low cost of a campaign is more than offset, though, by the toll in stamina and time taken by the ordeal. The Iowa parties may be among the chief victims when their best workers become too pooped to politick in the general election after 18 months of battling each other.
The youngster who blurted the truth, ''Look, ma, the Emperor has no clothes'' brought people to their senses. Politicians who proclaimed the idiocy of the Iowa caucuses, refused to participate and demanded reform of the hodgepodge of offshoots would perform a similar service. The purpose of a nominating process is to demonstrate fitness for office: Opting out of the madness by tossing a towel into the ring instead of a hat would do exactly that.
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