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Parlor Game

TRB From Washington

In recent weeks, some poor soul at NBC News has sat through 90 episodes of “The Editors” trolling for dirt on Howard Dean. I feel his or her pain. “The Editors”—a Montreal-based discussion program featuring Canadian and American journalists and policy wonks—may be the dullest political talk show ever broadcast. I should know: I appeared on it roughly half a dozen times. First, there were its sponsors: It was co-broadcast in the 1990s on the Canadian Broadcast Company and PBS, a virtual dream team of highbrow sobriety. Then there is its premise: that Americans and Canadians can thoughtfully comment on one another’s politics. Needless to say, the thoughtfulness is distinctly one-sided. I remember one episode, in which the Canadian think-tanker across the table ably dissected Al Gore’s chances of winning culturally conservative Rust Belt voters in the 2000 election. Desperate to return the favor, I struggled to formulate a comment about the then-leader of Canada’s Reform Party, Preston Manning. But his first name kept eluding me. I was moments away from denouncing the new embodiment of right-wing Canadian prairie populism, Peyton Manning, when the segment mercifully ended.

I don’t know what it says about Dean that he traveled to Montreal to tape the show an astounding 90 times. (Many more times, thankfully, than the stuffy former ambassador who lectured me off camera about the virtues of America’s low voter turnout. A guy named L. Paul Bremer.) But there’s no question that the comment on “The Editors” that last week landed Dean in hot water—his criticism of the Iowa caucuses—reflects extremely well on him. The caucuses are an awful way to select a presidential nominee. And, with any luck, a candidate will one day run against them—and win.

Appearing on “The Editors” in December 2000, Dean said, “If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by special interests in both parties. The special interests don’t represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes.”

Those comments aren’t just correct; they’re undeniable. Start with voter turnout. Caucuses don’t represent the “centrist tendencies of the American people” because the vast majority of people in a state like Iowa don’t participate in them. Voting in a primary takes a few minutes, and you can do it any time of the day. Taking part in a caucus, by contrast, requires several hours, and you have to show up at exactly 6:30 p.m., which all but eliminates people who work at night. And, in a caucus, unlike a primary, there are no absentee ballots, which facilitate voting by the elderly and infirm.

The results are dramatic: In 2000, roughly 15 percent of registered Republicans and 10 percent of registered Democrats voted in the Iowa caucuses. Compare that with the New Hampshire primaries, where 85 percent of registered Republicans and 74 percent of registered Democrats cast ballots. In other words, the New Hampshire primary offered a reasonable approximation of public opinion in the state. As for Iowa, we simply don’t know: Between 80 and 90 percent of the state’s registered voters (not even adult residents) didn’t participate. And yet, the media treated Iowa and New Hampshire as equally significant tests of the various candidates’ strength.

Dean is also right that this low voter turnout gives special interests a far greater voice in caucuses than in primaries and that this in turn produces more extreme candidates. Since taking part in a caucus is so cumbersome, its participants are more likely to be associated with (or dragged by) an organized interest group. According to the Iowa Federation of Labor, 31 percent of its registered Democratic members attended the 2000 caucuses, compared with only 8 percent of registered Democrats from nonunion households. That helps explain why Dean and Richard Gephardt, the two candidates splitting virtually all the union endorsements, are running first and second in the state. And why Gore, who won the bulk of union endorsements in 2000, beat Bill Bradley by a whopping 29 percent in Iowa but by only 4 percent in New Hampshire. (Union influence may be further magnified by the fact that the caucuses do not involve a secret ballot; you support your candidate by walking to a certain part of the hall. As Iowa State journalism professor Dick Haws noted in a perceptive December 30 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, a caucusgoer might not want to publicly defy her union’s favored candidate, particularly in a room packed with labor activists.)

The GOP’s best-organized grassroots interest group, the Christian Right, also wields disproportionate influence in Iowa. In 1988, fundamentalist loon Pat Robertson came in second in the Hawkeye State, topping Vice President Bush. In 1996, professional xenophobe Pat Buchanan lost to Robert Dole by only three points there. And, in 2000, John McCain—who courageously defied the Christian Right— didn’t even compete in Iowa, despite going on to win New Hampshire by a whopping 18 points.

The McCain example, however, offers hope. For several elections now, renegade presidential candidates have been defying Iowa. In 1988, Gore charged that the caucuses’ prominence “distorts the [nominating] process.” In 2000, McCain skipped them altogether. And, this year, Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark are doing the same. It’s noteworthy that, in each case, the anti-Iowa candidates are also the ones opposed to (or at least distant from) their parties’ entrenched interests and ideological extremes. Gore campaigned in 1988 as a centrist hawk. McCain’s support for campaign finance reform infuriated Christian conservatives and K Street Republicans alike. Lieberman is a pro-war free-trader. And even Clark lacks union endorsements, not to mention longstanding ties to the Democratic base.

In 2000, McCain came closer than any previous anti-Iowa candidate to winning his party’s nomination. But, this year, Clark, who is running second in New Hampshire and in fund-raising, offers another shot. If Clark defeats Dean there, he will also defeat the caucuses, which will never again enjoy as much influence. Ironically, then, it is Dean—the candidate of the nation’s two largest unions and of the party’s antiwar activists—who finds his interests aligned with the caucuses he once rightly condemned. Somewhere in Montreal, a Canadian think-tanker is laughing.

This article appeared in the January 26, 2004 issue of the magazine.