Thursday, April 30, 2015

Iowa Academics Like Iowa Caucuses

In the biggest news flash since at least the Bernie Sanders announcement this morning, a group of five Iowa-linked professors had a mostly positive opinion of the Iowa caucuses and their first in the nation role.

The UI political science department hosted a forum on the caucuses Thursday evening. The out of town draw was former UI professor David Redlawsk, now head of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.

During his time at Iowa, Redlawsk co-authored Why Iowa? How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process. He also got deeply involved in local politics, chairing the Johnson County Democrats in the last months before the 2004 caucuses and serving as a national convention delegate for John Edwards in 2008.

Redlawsk will be back in the state for the fall semester, continuing and updating his caucus research.

Fellow presenters were political science faculty Caroline Tolbert (a Why Iowa co-author), Tim Hagle and Cary Covington, and Stephen Berry from the journalism department.

In answering his own question, why Iowa, Redlawsk noted the historic accident of Iowa's first place in line. "The sequential primary process is all outside the Constitution," he said.  Iowa landing first was a function of post-Vietnam nomination reforms, requirements for numbers of days of notice, and a meeting hall being booked in June 1972. The combination moved the Iowa caucuses before the mid-March date of the New Hampshire primary.

Redlawsk conducted a 2008 caucus night poll and found that nearly half of Iowa caucus goers had met a candidate, and 20% had been able to personally ask a candidate a question, a level of engagement unimaginable in states other than Iowa and New Hampshire.

In addition to that, Redlawsk said, Iowa caucus attendees have much more chance to influence the party platform than voters in primary states like New Jersey.
Covington focused on campaign finance. From Jimmy Carter's 1976 breakthrough through about 1996, personal time spent by candidates in Iowa played the biggest role in caucus success. In the 2000s decade, candidate spending became a bigger factor,, and beginning in 2012, independent superPAC expenditures, with their ability to raise unlimited and undisclosed money, began to matter more.

Covington said he expects the superPACs to play a more constructive, organizing role in 2016 cycle, rather than the more simple attack ad role of 2012.

Berry said he expects to see an increase in non-profit journalism coverage of the caucuses, citing his work with the Iowa Watch project. He also noted the Texas Tribune as an example of non-profit journalism and said he expects them to cover Rick Perry's campaign closely. (He did not mention Ted Cruz. Oversight, or omission?)

All this made me miss Iowa Independent, and our all star team coverage from 2007-08, all the more. Though Berry did say some nice things about me and this here blog, and also specifically mentioned Craig Robinson and The Iowa Republican.

"Iowa separates the contenders from the pretenders," Hagle said, noting that he gets many media calls from critics of the caucuses who he keeps on a "No buttercow for you!" list. He also noted that New Hampshire last voted for a presidential winner in an open nomination contest in 1988, when George H.W. Bush beat Bob Dole. In contrast, Iowa backed both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Redlawsk chimed in with a two word critique of candidates who choose the Screw Iowa strategy of bypassing the caucuses: "President Huntsman." He also noted that the caucuses, and the expectations of Iowans, pose "a real risk for Hillary Clunton if she does not do a real caucus campaign," including open attendance events with open question and answer time.

Hagle conceded that sometimes caucus goers ask strange questions, but said that's an important part of the test. "A president has to be nimble and be prepared to deal with the unexpected."

As for the current state of the race, Covington and Redlawsk both said that Scott Walker, as a perceived frontrunner, has the most to lose in Iowa right now. Iowa is sort of a no win for Walker, Redlawsk said: if he wins, it's expected because Walker is from a neighboring state; if he loses, he did worse than the all-important expectations.

Redlawsk also said Sanders' entry into the race can help Clinton by making her refresh her campaign skills. Berry agreed and noted that Barack Obama, after an uncontested re-nomination contests in 2012, was rusty in his first general election debate against Mitt Romney.
The evening's REAL highlight was just before the forum. Back at Christmas I held a beret auction to benefit the Johnson County Crisis Center. It ended in a tie, and Dave was one of the two winners. I'd meant to ship it to New Jersey, but an in person delivery was more fun and gave me a chance to make it more official by wearing it to several more events up to and including Rand Paul. Thanks also to co-winner Chris Liebig who still needs to pick his up!

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