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You really ought to give Iowa a try

Your Humble Blogger has been getting very cranky about the Iowa caucus stories in Left Blogovia. Of course, our Party (to the extent that the denizens of Left Blogovia have a Party, it’s my Party, too, and we’ll all cry if we want to, which we usually do) will be running the Incumbent unopposed (well, effectively unopposed), so we can all have fun writing about the Other Party and what they are up to. And that isn’t what has been making me cranky—depressed, yes, which is one reason why this Tohu Bohu has been dormant recently—so much as the articles that purport to tell us readers what is Going On. Today, Paul Waldman, who is so often worth reading, writes Mommy, What’s a Caucus?, where he mocks the Iowa caucus for being nonsensical and non-representative. It made me cranky enough that I’m going to write the next bit, which is YHB’s own What’s Going On blog note, which may make y’all cranky, too. Well, there it is.

Here’s what is Going On: Three years (or more, in some cases) ago, various people started running for the nomination of their Party for the office of President of the United States. Most of those people are no longer running for that nomination. Why? We don’t know in every case, but the odds are good that most of them simply were unable to gather the resources to make it plausible that they would get the nomination. Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Tommy Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Thaddeus McCotter, Herman Cain, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Gary Johnson, George Pataki, Rudy Giuliani, Buddy Roemer, Tim Pawlenty and Jeb Bush all did more or less the same thing, gathered more resources or less, and all of those people (and possibly others) were knocked out during the invisible primary. That’s at least sixteen people who have already lost. They did not lose because Iowa is nonsensical or non-representative; had they gathered enough support outside Iowa to compete in Iowa, they would be competing in Iowa.

We are left with seven candidates (there are more still more-or-less running, but I think we can call them minor or fringe candidates in a way that the seven are not) with significant multi-state campaigns. This is still too many candidates for a party to choose between; David Bernstein likens the process to choosing a new refrigerator or dishwasher, it being much easier to choose from two or three than to do all the research on all the all the possible brands and models, and what his brother Jon calls party actors do the job of salespeople (and manufacturers and distributors and so on). At any rate, we now have seven, and it’s too many, so some are going to have to go.

Now, while the Iowa caucus is the beginning of the voters voting, in some sense of voting, it’s not the start of the voters participating in that winnowing process, because the voters are party actors. Not all of them are, of course, as it’s possible even for an Iowan to go to the caucus without doing anything else in the process whatsoever, but mostly the Iowans who will be participating tomorrow have already been party actors over the last few months. Some of them have been volunteering for one or another candidate, calling up friends, wearing a button, talking to their precinct captains, donating some money, or just going to one rally instead of a different rally. Or sitting in a diner when the candidate comes in, and speaking to a reporter about it. There has been a cumulative effect there—Tim Pawlenty could very likely have been more successful had the more individually powerful party actors (big-money donors, endorsers, available staff and consultants and so on) seen that cumulative party action going his way. It’s possible for a candidate to be doing really well in Iowa (or New Hampshire or South Carolina) but have the rest of the national party actors reject him, too. But mostly the job of Iowa and New Hampshire is to cut the field down to something manageable.

The final act in Iowa comes this week, when the party actors act as voters with an opportunity to finally reject a few more candidates. If, for instance, Mitt Romney fails to come in the top three, which is possible, it will tell the rest of the party quite a bit about how people react to him at election time. If Rick Perry fails to come in the top three, which is very possible indeed, it will tell the rest of the party quite a bit about how people react to him at election time—which won’t be a surprise, really, in his case, but will still be more information. And so on and so forth.

So. This is another piece of information, another case of party actors telling each other things about candidates, just like the debates and the straw poll and the appearances before interest groups and the diner stuff were pieces of information. It’s a big piece, but it’s not determinative. Whoever it knocks out will be knocked out because the rest of all that party action put them in position to be knocked out by a poor showing this week. If the rest of the party action puts a candidate in a good position, a poor showing in Iowa will still be bad, but the candidate can recover, like Bill Clinton and Poppy Bush did. And if the rest of the party action is against a candidate, an Iowa win will only grant that candidate another look—and if that look brings more party action against the candidate, then what you have there is a losing candidate.

Which means that all the stuff you have seen (or ignored) about how Iowa and New Hampshire are hijacking the process with non-representative early voting is crap. Taking Iowa Bob, a guy who votes in the caucus but does nothing else—doesn’t watch the debates, doesn’t donate or volunteer, doesn’t go to speeches and rallies, doesn’t answer phone polls—as a dictator of the process is completely misrepresenting the case. Iowa Bob’s fondness for Mitch Daniels or John Thune is just like Nebraska Bob’s fondness for Rick Perry or Jon Huntsman. Or mine for, oh, Tom Harkin. Iowa Bob has a few more choices on Election Day, but those choices are still constrained. True, Iowa Bob has had the opportunity to more of an impact over the last four years, but so has Nebraska Bob.

All of which is to say, the Iowa Caucus is a Big Deal, but even given that, it’s neither so big a deal as to render Iowans capable of hijacking the nomination process nor is it some sort of separate event that is best understood out of the context of all the stuff that has been going on for years and will continue for months.

All of which is really to highlight my real point, which is that elections are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for democracy, and trying to understand a democracy and a democratic society by looking at elections is like trying to understand a car by looking at the steering column. And trying to influence a democratic society by focusing on elections is as fundamental a mistake. Always vote—and then keep working, as Party Actors or outside the Parties, in whatever ways come to hand but most of all in the conversations you have with your friends and neighbors, co-workers and acquaintances, precinct captains and carpool parents. Not just to win the next election, but to make a better more democratic country and a better, more democratic people. Don’t let yourself get distracted or depressed, but keep working and keep working and then keep working.

It ain’t much, but it sure beats the alternative.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.