Controversies surround Iowa Caucus

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders makes a campaign appearance at a venue on the Iowa State Fair grounds three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses. 1/9/2016 Photo by John Pemble

The Iowa Caucus is an event which effectively decides which presidential candidates take the state of Iowa, it is the first event held in the process of presidential candidate selection and therefore has a snowball influence on the rest of the state elections. Historically, the Iowa caucus has had a 50% success rate of predicting the Republican nominee, and a 43% success rate of predicting the Democratic nominee. On the Republican side Donald Trump was beaten by Texas Senator Ted Cruz. The establishment favourite and Roman Catholic candidate Marco Rubio came in third place, though not far behind Trump. The percentages of the delegates won by the 3 candidates were 27.6%, 24.3%, and 23.1% respectively. On the Democratic side there was a virtual tie between Hillary Clinton and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. Although Hillary Clinton has been declared victor by the Democratic Party and by CNN (CNN made the claim before the DP interestingly), news outlets without a notable pro-Clinton stance reported the result as a tie. Hillary won 49.9% of the delegates, Sanders won 49.6%.

A caucus is not a standard election, and the 2016 Iowa Caucus was no standard caucus. In a caucus, gatherings are held across the state of Iowa in “precincts”, these gatherings often take place in public buildings such as sports halls and high schools, but they can also take place on private property in cafes and even living rooms. There are 1681 precincts in the state of Iowa. At these gatherings delegates of the candidates debate and argue the case for their candidate, a vote takes place and the chosen delegate goes on to vote for their candidate at the county convention.

The Democratic process of delegate selection is less conventional than the Republican process. At a Democratic caucus voters are split into groups representing their chosen delegate, 30 minutes of argument and debate takes place and if a delegate attains less than 15% of the caucus goers, the group is disbanded. Following this a literal head count takes place. According to anecdotal accounts, the head counts can take hours.

Iowa has held the first presidential nominee election event since 1972. In 1968 there was a huge wave of resentment with the way Democratic caucuses were held. The Democratic Party could announce a caucus without giving any notice, thus providing establishment favourites a considerable advantage over other candidates. Following threats of large protests the party announce that they would hence-forth be providing 30 days’ notice before a caucus. Because Iowa’s caucus is a very lengthy 4 stage process (caucus, county convention, congressional district convention, state convention) Iowa had to push its caucus back all the way back to the end of January. Being first obviously resulted in a massive amount of press attention.

Jimmy Carter took advantage of this in 1976 when the largely unknown Georgia Governor (name recognition of only 2% hitherto) won the event. Although the Caucus has accurately predicted the outcome of the last 7 Democratic candidates it failed to do so in the last two Republican elections, Rick Santorum won Iowa in 2012, Mike Huckabee in 2008.

Immediately following the caucus result, Trump congratulated Cruz for his victory and said that he loved Iowa so much he “might come here and buy a farm.” Many were surprised with how well he took the loss, but they were grounded when he announced on Twitter that Cruz had “stole” the election and demanded that another take place. His disquiet revolved around the allegation that Cruz had told caucus goers immediately prior to the vote that Ben Carson was dropping out of the race in an attempt to steal his supporters. Ben Carson, like Cruz, is extremely vocal about his evangelical Christian beliefs, a major selling point in Iowa which is largely evangelical. Though one might be tempted to think that Trump’s allegation was a total fabrication, Cruz actually apologised to the Carson campaign saying it was a “mistake”.

The Democratic caucus was not without its own controversies. Iowa Democratic caucus rules dictate that a tie between two delegates is to be decided by a coin toss. Following the proclamation of Clinton’s victory (first by CNN, then by the Democratic Party), it was widely reported that the 0.3% difference between Sanders and Clinton was decided by 6 coin tosses, all of which Clinton won. CNN was quick to point out that Sanders had won delegates by coin toss against Martin O’Malley, but also claimed that Sanders won 5 of 6 tosses against Hillary. Most news outlets other than CNN (which is owned by Times Warner, a major Clinton campaign donor) reported the result as a tie, and many have commented that since Sanders’ popularity in Iowa has increased whilst Clinton’s has declined, he should have been named the chosen candidate.

The exact role coin tossing played in this caucus is still unclear, but Times Warner’s ownership of CNN should be taken into account when trying to explain contradictory accounts.

The fact that the Iowa Caucus is the first election event to be held has far reaching consequences not only for the state of Iowa but for the US on a national scale. The most important point of consideration is Iowa’s totally unrepresentative demographics. Iowa‘s population is around 85% white, and has higher rates of Christian affiliation than the US population at large. Over 25% of these Christians can be described as evangelical, and so called “value voters”, who prioritise issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and the apparent religiosity of a candidate over other issues, make up a large proportion of the Republican caucus goers.

Over 50% of Republican caucus goers were evangelical Christian. Ted Cruz has succeeded in representing himself as the evangelical candidate of choice, and it would be hard to argue that this wasn’t a contributory factor in his victory. The Cruz campaign has persisted in releasing campaign ads that highlight his religious convictions, many have commented that he leads his rallies as if they were sermons, and there has been controversy surrounding his comment that he’s “Christian first, American second.” Despite his endorsement by evangelical political icon Sarah Palin, Trump has had less success impressing evangelical voters. When asked about his favourite Bible verse he failed to produce one, and at a speech at the evangelical “Liberty University” he mispronounced “Second Corinthians” as “Two Corinthians”, revealing even more blatantly than Cruz, his abuse of evangelical rhetoric as a means of populism. The necessity of Republican candidates to inject evangelical rhetoric and policy into their Iowa campaigns further solidifies this kind of religious populism at a national level.

Another notable consequence of the Iowa caucus has to do with the US government’s relationship with corn. Iowa’s agriculture centres around corn production and this leads to candidates having very “pro-corn” policies which end up being implemented at a federal level. The billions of dollars worth of subsidies provided to the corn industry by the US government results in a massive surplus of corn, which is why America uses corn to produce ethanol, and often uses corn syrup in place of sugar. Although it may sound like a trivial observation, it exemplifies the influence and importance of the Iowa Caucus.

Whether or not the first caucus should be held in Iowa is a topic of intense debate. Whilst Iowa’s unrepresentative population undoubtedly has a considerable effect on the outcome of the caucus and therefore the nation at large, apologists quite rightly point out that Iowa’s small population and low population density allows “underdog” candidates, such as Bernie Sanders, a chance to compete.

Those who are pleased about Trump’s loss should perhaps withhold judgement until they have properly assessed Cruz’s policy suggestions. Having called for the disbandment of state departments such as the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, having said that he thinks an abortion should only be allowed if a women’s life is at risk, having declared that he will “carpet bomb” ISIS to “see if sand can glow in the dark”, having proposed a flat-tax, Cruz is just as scary as Trump. Cruz is not less extreme than Trump, he is merely less flamboyant.

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