Perhaps the biggest surprise for most viewers of the Iowa caucuses last night is what they really finally settled: nothing. Believe it or not, Iowa’s actual National Republican Convention delegates are not chosen until two more conventions down the line, the last of which does not take place until June.
According to several sources, the caucuses held last night with great pomp and hype across the nation actually amount to little more than a premature opinion poll. ABC News reports,
Despite Iowa’s sizable hype, no national delegates will be directly at stake Jan. 3. In presidential voting, the Iowa GOP caucuses are essentially a statewide straw poll. . . .
The Iowa caucuses will award no delegates to any candidate, and they follow a complicated delegate-selection process. But the Iowa caucuses are significant for two reasons: timing and tradition.
Vote tallies reported all night on the news are just the “straw poll” part:
The presidential vote comes first. Candidates or their representatives – sometimes well-known figures from out of state, sometimes local supporters – will be given about two minutes each to deliver speeches. After that, caucuses will hand out “ballots,” most often blank slips of paper on which voters write a candidate’s name.
Voters will drop their ballots in boxes, or just hand them in; different precincts use different rules, affording different degrees of secrecy. Votes will be tallied, and the caucus chair will announce the winner at that precinct.
But the multi-month-long delegate selection process only begins after this popular poll and is separate from it.
Next, the delegate selection process begins, and here’s where Iowa’s system gets complicated. Precinct caucuses will elect delegates to March 10 county conventions, which in turn will elect (from their pools of delegate-attendees) delegates to congressional-district conventions and the June 16 state GOP convention, which will in turn elect Iowa’s delegates to the Republican National Convention.
Most importantly, perhaps, “Votes for county-convention delegates aren’t too competitive on caucus night, and more attention is paid to national-delegate selection at the later convention votes” (my emphasis).
NBC adds that “most people don’t even participate”—only about 17 percent of registered voters in 2008, and that was a year when both parties hold conventions.
This is why what was hyped last night as it is every four years is not quite so important, as Mike Huckabee found out in 2008. Indeed, the vaunted importance of Iowa as the path to the White House does not have deep historical foundations:
The caucus has a mixed history when it comes to choosing the eventual nominee of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Five Democratic winners – Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama – along with three Republican winners – Gerald Ford, Bob Dole and George W. Bush – have parlayed their Iowa victories into Democratic and Republican presidential nominations since 1972.
Iowa will eventually elect delegates to the Republican Convention, but only a tiny percentage of the total—28 out of 2,286, which is 1.2%. And even these are “unbound” delegates, which means they can change their allegiance when they get Tampa in August.
So why does Iowa fight to maintain its caucuses as “first in the nation” when it determines nothing? In politics, always follow the money:
It’s estimated that in 2008 more than $51 million was spent in the state on ads, headquarter rentals, hotels, food, transportation, etc. The candidates have spent more than $2.4 million and counting on ads alone in this election cycle.
In conclusion, Iowans would like to thank you for staying up all night.