Since the Iowa Democratic caucuses are a representative democracy, not a straight one person one vote, not every caucus goer carries equal weight. Presidential candidates are spending a lot of time in small courthouse towns, because the way the results are counted, the small counties weigh in disproportionately.
An analysis of 2004 caucus attendance shows that, on average statewide, it took just under 41 caucus goers to elect a state delegate equivalent. The easiest county to elect a delegate was Fremont County, where 22.3 caucus goers translated into a state delegate.
The hardest places to elect delegates, in contrast, were college counties, with Johnson County far ahead of the rest. In Johnson County, it took 79.2 people to elect a delegate, nearly twice the state average and almost four times the level of Fremont County.
Poweshiek County, home of Grinnell, and Story County, site of Iowa State, ranked second and fourth hardest. Squeezed in at third was Jefferson County, where the meditator community centered around Maharishi International University led Dennis Kucinich to a near-win, his strongest showing in the nation. Luther College's Winneshiek County was also in the top ten.
Those statistics are likely to shift in 2008 with the caucuses occurring over collegiate breaks. But even the calendar shift doesn't change the underlying fact: some counties are full of go-to-meeting activists while others have more rank and file voters.
The caucuses take place in a mythical, projected version of a general election voting population, because caucus apportionment is based on votes for the top of the ticket. In 2004 the counts were based on votes for Al Gore in 2000 and Tom Vilsack in 2002; likewise this year's counts are based on John Kerry and Chet Culver. In all four of those contests, Johnson County had the top Democratic percentages in the state. While those Johnson County voters are the most likely to vote Democratic, they're also the most likely to spend two or three hours at a meeting.
Another factor that skews caucus representation toward rural counties is the state's shifting population. Joining the college counties in the top ten list of hardest counties to elect delegates are high-growth areas in central Iowa -- Dallas, Madison, Polk and Warren counties, four of the six fastest growing counties in the state from July 2000 to July 2003 (the Census estimates closest to caucus dates). Dallas County grew 13.2% in those three years. But a voter who moved to Dallas County three years before the caucuses won't count in the county's presidential vote totals used to calculate delegates, because they voted somewhere else. A voter who moved in after the gubernatorial election wouldn't count at all toward the delegate count.
The other high growth counties hurt in caucus apportionment are Johnson County again, plus Benton County. But Benton's exurban commuters to Cedar Rapids and Waterloo were less likely to caucus, as the county ranked 63rd in attendees per delegate.
In contrast, Fremont County, the easiest place to win a delegate, lost 2.3% of its population over the same period. Yet voters who were no longer in the county still helped its delegate count. Sac County, the fasted shrinking county in 2000-2003 (-5.1%), ranked number 83 on the caucus goers per delegate list.
This helps explain dynamics like three Democrats showing up within 20 hours in Carroll. It also means candidates can't run up the score with big wins in big counties. But paradoxically, it also mutes the impact of the holiday break in college towns -- whether 30 students or 300 show up in Iowa City Precinct 5 (all dorms and frat houses), the same six delegates are at stake. It also helps a candidate with isolated hotspots of support (like Kucinich in 2004) and hurts candidates with low but evenly spread backing.
Ultimately, the apportionment rules mean candidates have to carefully allocate their resources and fight on all fronts at once, and part of that allocation is making the effort where the most bang for the buck is available -- the small towns.
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