The caucus system, a staple of the American political process for more than two centuries despite its diminishing role, may have taken a fatal blow Monday with the epic fail in Iowa.
Widespread technical glitches prompted a struggle to reconcile conflicting numbers from across nearly 1,700 precincts statewide. Results were delayed until Tuesday amid howls of protest.
“The Iowa fiasco will certainly invite extra scrutiny about the caucus process,” said Nathan Gonzalez, editor and publisher of Inside Elections. “The system was already in danger, and this certainly doesn’t help its longevity.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign cited “considerable flaws” in Iowa’s efforts and demanded answers from the state Democratic Party. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign reiterated its call for a review of the caucus system, calling the process “a broken way” to select candidates.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, expressed similar sentiments on Twitter.
“It’s a mess in more ways than one,” Sabato tweeted. “If this were a primary, we’d have a larger turnout AND the damn results would be known by now.”
Democratic Party officials, backed by the state’s Republican senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, urged patience as leaders rallied around Iowa’s process – and its first-in-the-nation status. Ernst and Grassley issued a statement saying the state’s “unique role encourages a grassroots nominating process that empowers everyday Americans, not Washington insiders or powerful billionaires.”
Jacob Neiheisel, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo who specializes in election administration, isn’t convinced that Iowa’s woes will mean the end of the caucus system in American politics.
“Once in place, institutions have a way of sticking around well past the point that most everybody agrees that something else might provide a better alternative,” he said. “I would be shocked if we saw the death of such a system any time soon.”
The caucus system, however, was already on life support. State Democratic parties held caucuses in 13 states in 2016. Iowa will be joined only by Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming in 2020. Republicans, which held caucuses in 12 states four years ago, will only have Iowa this year.
Iowa was feeling pressure to drop the caucus system even before Monday night’s chaos, said Chris Larimer, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.
“The criticism was already heightened in this election cycle,” he said. “What happened last night is only going to heighten that more.”
Caucuses actually date to 1796, when party congressional delegations met informally to nominate their presidential and vice presidential candidates. The general public had no direct input in the process.
Modern caucuses are run by state parties and differ by state. They involve party meetings by precinct, district or county, where people gather to discuss the candidates and select delegates. Caucuses usually require voters to arrive by a set time and prepared to wade through hours of political back-and forth.
Caucuses generally demand a heavier commitment than primaries that allow voters to drop in for few minutes any time of day. Thus caucuses generally mean less participation and more power for party officials.
“Because they ask more of voters, caucuses are going to disproportionately attract participation from those with the resources to do so,” Neiheisel said. Thus, he said, participants “may not necessarily reflect the overall composition of the rank-and-file of the party.”
But they also can give candidates with less financial backing a fighting chance. Bernie Sanders dominated Hillary Clinton in 2016 caucuses by tapping into his smaller but more fervent supporters. President Barack Obama, an upstart in 2008, saw similar caucus success.
“To do well in a caucus, you have to be good at retail politics on a small group basis,” Larimer said. “People expect to see their candidates early and often.”
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