January 4, 2012
The Iowa Demographics: An interactive graph

The National Journal has a nice interactive graph of who voted for whom in the Iowa caucus last night. The Tea Party liked Santorum. The young and independents like Paul. Who would have thought it? Just hit the title to link to the report…

h/t: AM

January 4, 2012
Choosing a Nominee: A Protest

It is now time for my quadrennial rant against the process by which the Republican and Democratic parties choose their nominee for President of the United States.

I’m bothered by lots of things: the money, the time, the insipidness, the substitution of image for policy and the replacing of debate with shared (at best) press conferences. But none of this—NONE OF IT—bothers me anywhere near as much as the core absurdity of choosing nominees in a process of staggered primaries, with various states controlling when their citizens have a chance to vote among a given party’s candidates.

In part—but only in part—my complaint rests on the media’s confused notion that Iowa and New Hampshire “choose” nominees. For various and ridiculous reasons, Iowa and New Hampshire always go first, and so they get the bulk of the candidates’ attention: candidates have years to introduce themselves to audiences in Iowa and New Hampshire, and only months—at most—to introduce themselves to the rest of the country. (And no, America is not yet paying attention to this election.) As a consequence, two small, wildly unrepresentative states (they’re very white, very conservative and significantly more rural than the rest of the nation, especially Iowa) get pandered to in ways that they never would if they weren’t first. (Which is, of course, why they go first.) It’s inherently stupid.

But that is actually the lesser of my complaints … or really concerns. My real concern—and this is a concern that I think gets to the heart of the democratic notion that we have the right to vote for the people who rule us—is that the system we’ve built leads to a situation in which those who do badly in Iowa and New Hampshire are unlikely to have the money and support to move forward in the process. So they quit. But it turns out that in many cases candidates quit just as the calendar turns to favor them. That is, candidates who might not click in Iowa and New Hampshire leave the race even though the next few states on the calendar might, in fact, be very supportive of the candidate. But come election time, the voters of the later states never get a real chance to register their support for a favored candidate because that candidate was chased out of the election after Iowa and New Hampshire.

In other words, most of us may never have a chance to vote for candidates we like, because Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t like them. Presidential nominations are the only system of elections we have that work like this, and it seems inherently anti-democratic. At least if you don’t live in either Iowa or New Hampshire.

The problem with Iowa and New Hampshire, then, isn’t that they “choose” presidents (or nominees). It’s that their prominence in the process often means the rest of us don’t get a chance to. Which is just, well, wrong.

January 2, 2012

As the Iowa caucus nears, a couple of useful graphs.

This matters because of the way the Iowa caucuses work. If you have never watched or participated in the Iowa caucuses, you need to know that they are quite quirky: you make your way to some location—a school, a church, a community center—and listen to people talk about their preferred candidate, etc. Then the group divides into different parts of the room—Romney supporters in one corner; Paul supporters in another, etc. Vote monitors then count how many people are in each group, relative to the number who are present overall, and establish whether or not the candidate has met the “viability threshold” of 15% of votes cast. In other words, if the person you support has 15% of the votes cast in the meeting, they’re viable. If they don’t, they’re not.

Of course in Iowa, it’s technically not over yet. Those persons who voted for a non-viable candidate now get to reshuffle themselves among the viable candidates. In other words, they get to vote for their second choice. At which point there is a recount to see who wins or loses in a particular caucus. And even then it’s not really over: you’re supposed to stay to elect delegates to the county convention, where delegates to the state and national conventions will actually be chosen.

Given Santorum’s recent surge (in the polls, people, in the polls!), it is interesting to think about the likely second place preferences of supporters for candidates not likely to make the 15% threshold—e.g., Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and perhaps Newt Gingrich. Will they move to Santorum in round two? Or, will they think of long-term electability, and head to Romney? 

Notably, the media will report the initial sort — the initial “choose a corner” breakout session — as who wins and loses in Iowa. Which it isn’t. But why let facts get in the way?

Oh, and one other thing: unless Mitt Romney wins Iowa, the winner of the Iowa caucus will neither be the Republican presidential nominee nor the next President of the United States. All Iowa will do is get some people to drop out. It won’t choose the nominee. No matter how hyped it will be for the next week.

Finally, some actual voting!

h/t: Nate Silver, fivethirtyeight.com.

August 13, 2011
On the Iowa Straw Poll

Since it’s going on today, a moment to reflect: does the Iowa straw poll matter? Does the winner “win” for real?

Spoiler alert: the answer is no.

YEAR            Straw poll winner             Caucus winner                Republican nominee
1979             George HW Bush                 Ronald Reagan                  Ronald Reagan
1987             Pat Robertson                     George H.W. Bush             George H.W. Bush
1995     (tie)  Bob Dole, Phil Gramm         Bob Dole                           Bob Dole
1999             George W. Bush                  George W. Bush                 George W. Bush*
2007             Mike Huckabee                   Mike Huckabee                  John McCain

So, only twice since 1979 has the straw poll winner actually won either the Iowa caucus or the Republican nomination, and only once has the straw poll winner gone on to win the Presidency … and that (*) in the closest, oddest and most contested presidential election anyone currently alive has ever even imagined.

Arguably, losing the straw poll induces people to drop out, which shapes the election to some extent. But if a candidate is so weak that not winning the straw poll pushes him or het to drop out, that candidate was likely so weak they weren’t going to have much influence on the campaign in the first place.

So why doesn’t winning the straw poll matter? It’s not that hard to explain: think about who is likely to give up a Saturday to go pay to attend an event to register early support for one candidate or another? (Yes, you have to pay to vote in the straw poll.) Two types of people: 1) Intense partisans, who tend to be excited by ideologically extreme candidates (Robertson and Huckabee); and 2), people who are paid by the campaigns themselves, often bused in from out of state (which is what Bush did in 1999). It’s not even a vague indicator of anything except whether a campaign has money to throw around, or appeals to intense ideologues. Those things may matter, but they’re not definitive in a presidential election.

So why does the Iowa Republican Party run this? That’s easy: it’s a fund-raiser. And a pretty successful one, too.

So why does the media pay attention if this is an essentially meaningless event? Hey: it’s made-for-TV friendly, with faces and partisans and simple story lines with visuals of flag-draped railings. It’s hard to ignore … which, of course, is part of what’s wrong with the American political media today.

So you won’t see a lot—make that any—analysis of the Iowa straw poll results from me in the days going forward. And you shouldn’t read much from others unless you have a lot of time to kill and don’t care that it almost certainly won’t matter in the least come the actual Iowa caucuses next year.