Overblown and overhyped

    All eyes are on Iowa. I wish it were otherwise.Duty requires me to make a big fuss about the Iowa Republican caucuses, which will be staged tomorrow night. The good news is that citizens are finally voting. But the bad news, which rarely gets much mention in the media, is that the Iowa caucuses are overblown, overhyped, and unrepresentative. You might want to keep that in mind, even as you sift the results and marinate in the cable coverage.It pains me to dump on the caucuses, if only because Iowans are some of the nicest and most earnest people I’ve ever met. They take their caucus responsibilities seriously, and sometimes they have been adept at weeding out the most hapless or baggage-laden candidates, just as they now seem poised to do with Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. Still, the broader truths are inescapable:1. The Republican caucuses typically draw a paltry 100,000 participants. That’s less than 20 percent of all registered Iowa Republicans. Heck, that’s less than five percent of all registered voters statewide. (And all registrants are indeed eligible; Democrats and independents can sign up and be Republicans for a night.)2. The Iowa results are often meaningless. Iowa Republicans have picked the eventual Republican nominee in only two of the five contested caucuses. They successfully anointed Bob Dole in 1996, and George W. Bush in 2000 – but three other Iowa winners (the senior George Bush in 1980, Dole in 1988, and Mike Huckabee in 2008) subsequently went nowhere.3. Or look at it this way: John McCain finished a distant fourth in the 2008 caucuses, after barely dipping his tie in the state – yet he won the nomination. And the senior George Bush finished third in 1988, trailing even the right-wing preacher Pat Robertson – yet Bush won the nomination. Ronald Reagan was beaten in the ’80 caucuses, yet he too won the nomination.4. The big “winner” tomorrow night will be lucky to tally 40,000 votes statewide. I am underwhelmed. There are more than twice that many people living in Center City Philadelphia.5. Caucus participants have to show up at 6:30 p.m. and stay for several hours. This eliminates the homebound elderly, Iowans with disabilities who vote in elections by absentee ballot, Iowans serving out of state in the military, and anyone who has to work a night shift. By definition, the people who show up tend to be way more zealous and ideological than the average voter; in Iowa, 60 percent of GOP caucus-goers typically describe themselves as evangelical Christians.6. Even if the caucuses were to suddenly attract 50 percent of all registered Iowa voters (contested New Hampshire primaries draw a 50 percent turnout), the Iowa electorate would still not look like America. Whereas America is 74 percent white, Iowa is 91 percent white. Which is probably why Rick Santorum felt comfortable remarking the other day that Hillary Clinton’s book title, It Takes A Village, is actually (gulp, shudder) “an African proverb.”Given all these quirks and peculiarities, you might be wondering how in heck Iowa managed to position itself at the starting gate of the nomination season. The short answer is that the Iowa caucuses were always staged early, but nobody paid any attention to them until Jimmy Carter came along. As a little-known ex-governor who excelled at retail politicking, Carter went looking for a small state where he could make an early splash. So he set his sights on Iowa in 1976. And he got a big media bounce for coming in second (the winner was “Uncommitted”). Politicians on both sides have flocked to the state ever since, drawing the media in their wake. This has been great news for the hotels, restaurants, and rental car agencies. I myself, in the past, had helped fund all three.   There’s a chance, of course, that the Iowa results could yield some meaningful material. A Mitt Romney victory (in a state that spurned him four years ago) would suggest that conservative Republicans are grudgingly moving his way, focusing on his electability. Romney aside, however, the extrapolations get shaky. A surprise Santorum victory would suggest that he’s the conservative best positioned to challenge Romney, but Santorum has almost no money and no organization beyond Iowa. And while a Ron Paul victory would put the libertarian in the limelight, the truth is that his ultimate nomination prospects are nil; he’s merely the perfect candidate for a caucus process that puts a premium on zealous grassroots participation.Way back in 1987, a newspaper columnist named Donald Kaul tracked the Pat Robertson zealotry on the eve of the ’88 Iowa caucuses, and concluded that they are “a nice little oddball political event with considerable charm and some utility. That they should occupy the major role in our political process that they now do, however, is a kind of joke.”He got that right. And nothing has changed since.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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