The most raucous caucus in all the land is underway today, and the media is devouring every morsel of detail in an effort to predict which candidate for each party will square off in the general election. All eyes today are on Iowa, and many are left wondering, what’s up with this caucus business, and when did Iowa become so important?
First of all, there are plenty of sources out there today explaining the ins and outs of the Iowa caucus – how it is a shining example of democracy in action, and how small-town America is talking to each other with an eye toward reconciliation that should inspire the whole country. In actuality, the Iowa caucus is a way for Iowa to go first. If they held an actual primary, New Hampshire law would automatically reschedule its primary for an earlier date. This way, Iowa gets more media attention and candidates spend a disproportionate amount on Iowa ad buys, and New Hampshire still gets to have the first primary. Isn’t the democratic process beautiful?
So why is Iowa so important? There is no primary happening today. No candidate is being officially selected. The caucuses are important simply because they are the first actual test of a candidate’s viability with the electorate outside polling numbers. So, with all this attention, you would expect the Iowa caucuses to be a solid indicator of what to expect throughout the primary season. And you would be wrong. The Iowa caucuses have about a 46% prediction rate for Democratic primary winners and about 50% for Republicans. Put another way, the premiere event of the political seasons peaks at the predictive power of a coin flip.
What the Iowa caucuses do well, however, is pick losers. Though the events typically yield no data that helps predict primary winners or presidents, they are great at letting the country know who really has no chance at all. The unique nature of the caucus system weeds out candidates who can’t bring in 15% of the vote, and all those who previously supported unviable candidates will either move their votes to other candidates or abstain entirely.
Whatever the outcome, the Iowa caucuses are a symbol that the election season is about to reach a milestone, that the field is soon to be much smaller, and that very soon this crazy game we’ve been playing for a year now will get more serious. Frontrunners will soon be supported by more than polling data. Marginal candidates will be returning to their day jobs. Preseason scuffles are officially over. The first regular season game starts today.