The 2012 Iowa caucuses have exceeded all expectations. The results, as we all now know were, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney virtually tied at 24 percent and Ron Paul in a close third with 21 percent. I don’t think the caucuses in either party have ever produced such a tight result. The GOP is divided and there are three Iowa homeboys who managed to captivate a remarkable trifecta. Iowa meets the test of “three tickets out of Iowa” again.
Mitt Romney is the big winner because he has a national campaign, money, and is the “electable” republican. Santorum is too religious and too socially conservative and Ron Paul is too quirky. Paul would make a great third party candidate.
At the bottom of the contest Newt Gingrich rose and fell when a massive media and negative ad campaign exposed his many weaknesses, garnering 13 percent. Michelle Bachmann rose to the top but fizzled out at five percent. Rick Perry reminded people of W. Bush, which was not an asset (10 percent). Herman Cain evaporated for obvious reasons. John Huntsman (0.6 percent) was never in the, pardon the pun, “hunt.”
Here is how Iowa met its obligations in 2011-12.
First, numerous candidates who did not have the stomach to campaign retail, face-to-face and decided they wouldn’t even try. If you “can’t make it there you probably can’t make it anywhere” is the general principle. Think it’s going to be easier running a campaign in 11 Super Tuesday states?We winnowed the field.
Second, Iowa product tested the candidates who did jump into the water. We tested their organizational and strategic planning skills - witness Tim Pawlenty, who spent too much money to quickly. The candidates who were too error-prone also had points taken away. You can’t run against the billion-dollar Obama machine if you have lots of “oops” moments. We tested their integrity early on and you know who failed that one. Iowa also pushed back on the arrogance of celebrities (Donald Trump) who are way too risky to lead the wealthiest and most powerful nation.
Third, Iowa encouraged real pluralism – real diversity – in the GOP field. As I’ve written elsewhere Iowa GOP voters have supported a wide range of candidates with distinct personalities, leadership experience, and policy positions. You may not like any of them but to still have seven candidates alive and competing is a tribute to Iowa’s picky citizens. Wouldn’t it be awful if on caucus night there were either a “crowned” front-runner or only two candidates left standing?
Fourth, we have more than fulfilled our historic mission of “educating” the US and International news media on how grass roots democracy really works. Oh sure, a national primary would be less messy but let me be very clear; democracy is and should be messy! Otherwise its autocracy which we do not want. In forty years of analyzing the caucuses I have never seen such a wonderful (yes, you heard that here) media scrum. I saw print media reporters, bloggers, Tweeters, TV celebrities, digging, shooting video, scrutinizing, and trying to trip up a bunch of people with huge egos who think they really can be the leader of the, “free world” (do we still use that wonderful phrase?)
Fifth, Iowa has never “elected” the President of the United States (POTUS). The caucuses since the 1970’s have given ambitious people an opportunity to sell themselves to the nation. Jimmy Carter went from “Jimmy Who?!” to POTUS. George W. Bush got his “MOJO” in Iowa. Iowa’s “mostly white” voters legitimized Barack Obama. Iowa republicans did not think John McCain could get elected in 2008 - they were right! They thought John Kerry was the right guy in 2004 – to quote Rick Perry “oops.” Iowa democrats said no to Michael Dukakis in 1988 and they were right. Iowa has gotten it “wrong” many times and that’s ok.
Sixth, Iowa is really democratic. We have same day registration. You can go to a caucus early, register to vote (show an ID), and participate. It’s not an “open caucus” (like an open primary) but it’s very permissive to folks who want to get into the game. For example 17 year olds can register and participate so long as they turn 18 by 2012 Election Day. How great is that!
In the end, starting the selection of the President in Iowa is not a bad way to open the novel “it was a dark and stormy night.” A national primary would be a brutal and completely money-intensive way to do this.
The caucuses are the closest we come to the Greek ideal of direct democracy, which, of course, is not practical in a huge country such as ours. It would be a shame to change or scrap this valuable and interesting process for huge and impersonal primaries.
A version of this article first appeared in the Des Moines Register