February 6, 2016
There are several aspects of the presidential campaign that are puzzling to me. Why do we tolerate having it go on endlessly? Why do we allow moneyed interests to have so much influence? (Citizens United made the problem worse, and harder to solve, but it was already there). How did Hillary Clinton become the inevitable nominee/president (and remain so after losing in 2008)? The one that intrigues me at the moment is why we allow Iowa so much influence.
In that state, people who attend precinct caucuses, variously estimated at 15 to 20% of eligible voters, elect delegates to county conventions, which elect delegates to district and state conventions. The last elects delegates to the national convention. The results for which the nation breathlessly awaits are from the precincts, so they are preliminary. At least on the Republican side, the total number of votes is reported, so there is in effect a poll. The Democrats report only the number of delegates selected at the caucuses, and the significance even of that number is elusive, as the result is reported in terms of "state delegate equivalents." What might those be? "State delegate equivalents are calculated using a ratio of state to county convention delegates. In other words, the ratio determines how many delegates the candidate would receive for the state convention based on the number of county convention delegates a candidate receives." Got that? Clinton received 700.59 of those things, and Sanders 696.82, O’Malley 7.61 and uncommitted .46, results which legitimately could be described as trivial.
If we add the arcane and arbitrary nature of the process, in which only "viable" candidates receive delegates, and coin flips sometimes occur, there is no rational basis for caring about the result. In addition, inefficiency calls the results into question. The Des Moines Register noted many reports of "inconsistent counts, untrained and overwhelmed volunteers, confused voters, cramped precinct locations, a lack of voter registration forms and other problems." Members of the paper’s editorial board, who were observing caucuses, referred to "Monday night’s chaos." As the Register noted, caucuses and primaries were the result of a drive to make candidate selection more democratic. "But the caucuses have become as antiquated and opaque as the smoke-filled rooms of yore." We allow that mess to go some distance in selecting, and even further in eliminating, presidential candidates.
The parties control the process by which their candidates are nominated, and are committed to the caucus/primary system. Iowa goes first and New Hampshire has the first primary simply because they have captured those spots and the parties permit them to perpetuate their positions. Assuming that the parties will not return to selecting candidates at open conventions, the only sensible method would be a national primary.