Defending the Iowa Caucuses: An Interview with Iowa Prof. Cary Covington

Politics Features
Defending the Iowa Caucuses: An Interview with Iowa Prof. Cary Covington

(Note: This is Part 4 of the Iowa Caucus dispatches, which will run Monday and Tuesday.)

Part One: What the HELL are the Iowa Caucuses, and How Do They Work? An Angry Q&A

Part Two: Fear, Apathy, Passion, Hope, Hate: The American Spirits Rise in Iowa

Part Three: Discussing the Caucus with Professor Tim Hagle

Earlier this morning, I pointed out the historical and practical absurdities of the Iowa caucuses in an angry Q&A (the first link above). But as with everything, there are shades of gray at work. This afternoon, I sat down with Prof. Cary Covington at the University of Iowa—a political science professor and part-time TV analyst—and he gave a compelling defense of the system, arguing that it benefits underdog candidates and is superior to the alternatives. Below is the portion of our talk dealing with that topic, along with Covington’s background.

Tell me about your experience with Iowa politics.

I’ve been here since the 1980s so I’ve been around the caucuses, and my coursework tends to work on the presidency and the congress, so the presidency and elections are in my wheelhouse. I don’t do my own research on elections, but I’ve been called in to comment so often that I’ve made myself knowledgeable over the last four or five election cycles. So it’s more a matter of being an informed observer as opposed to being a researcher I think, since I’ve been at it this long.

What are the media requests like for you at this point?

(Counts on his computer) Seven requests since 10 a.m. this morning. And today is unusual, but it really ramps up. I’d say on average, I probably answer one to one and a half per day. And that includes the student newspaper. And what’s really interesting is I get a lot of requests from overseas. So one of these guys is from Russia, one’s from France, one’s from Japan, and you know, they understand that what’s going to happen is important, but they don’t really have much of a grasp of how it’s going to happen. And why is Donald Trump doing so well? (laughs) You know England’s trying to decide whether to let him in the country or not. So they have more interest than usual this time. But I get links to stories in Japanese and Russian. It’s fun.

Where are you from originally?

California. I left in ‘73. (He points to his Dodgers memorabilia.) I was eight years old when they won their first L.A. World Series in ‘59.

Let me ask this question first. The idea that Iowa, 30th in population, has this much influence—and adding the fact of low turnout—that they have so much impact, is there something absurd or unfair there?

Well, it’s one thing to try to talk about it in absolutes, but it’s another thing to talk about it comparatively. Compared to what? What I would say is, Iowa alone, and even Iowa and New Hampshire alone, are demographically not representative. We’re more rural, we’re more white. That’s why the parties added South Carolina and Nevada. So by the time you’re through the first month, you’ve had a shot at talking to a diverse group of people and you want to try to do well somewhere. Iowa is first because of an accident, it’s not a conscious choice. (Read those details here.)

The dynamics of the old system, which ended in 1968, was that a state should be at the end of the process for the greatest leverage. So by then, candidates would be close to going over 50 percent and you can be the state to put them over the top. So you want leverage, and California and New Jersey were at the end, in part, because of that. And candidates thought of it like a race, and if I go out early will I get worn out and worn down, and run out of steam before I get to the end? Should I wait and conserve my energy and make a mad dash at the end?

In ‘76, Jerry Brown, who was governor of California back then too, and Frank Church, who was a Senator from Idaho, intentionally sat out the first month and a half to wait for western primaries where they would show well. And what we learned was, showing well wasn’t what matters, winning delegates is what it matters. Conventions are not deliberative events, they are calculating machines. And whoever comes in with the majority wins. Even in 1980, Gerald Ford sat out, thinking he could be the savior at the ‘80 convention to rescue the party from Reagan. And even as recently as Rudy Giuliani in ‘08, and he stayed out of Iowa, he stayed out of New Hampshire, and by the time they got to Florida, nobody cared.

So there was an evolution in strategies, and we began to see which strategies fit the environment, and it was to run early. And so then Iowa becomes very important, because it becomes the signal to the rest of the states. So what Iowa does is signal to the rest of the states who the losers are. The favorite word we use is ‘winnow.’ They winnow out the losers. We don’t make the claim that we pick the winner, but we do say—you’ve heard the phrase “three tickets out of Iowa.” And the only exception to that was John McCain in ‘08, and his was exceptional because he’s anti-ethanol, and he didn’t run in Iowa in 2000 or 2008.

Apart from that, you had to finish in the top three to be the nominee. And the other dynamic to it is that Iowa and New Hampshire become like a sibling rivalry, and New Hampshire doesn’t want to be seen as following Iowa. So we never pick the same guy. We’re a negative signal to New Hampshire. Obama lost New Hampshire as much because he won here as because Hillary Clinton was an attractive candidate.

You can see that we’re in no sense determinative—other states are going to get three or four candidates to choose from, at least early on in March. By the time you get to May, you’re left with whatever’s left. But in March, they’ll have three or four choices (maybe two on the Democratic side this year).

So why Iowa? Why not Iowa, in a sense. It happened by historical happenstance, and the question is, is our work useful to the process or not? And that’s really where the criticism will come, especially from the Republicans right now, do the social conservatives have too much weight? But what I would say is that it does happen that they’ll have a lot of weight. So you get that, and the criticism from the Democrats is that they fall in love with very liberal guys, like you see with Sanders this year.

And part of it is that we have no military component to the state, and we are not wedded to military policies. We tend to be more of a peace state. Domestic matters more than defense. But you know, Paul will do well here because of the Libertarian thing. There are a lot of people who want small government, but to want small government with a restrained form of national security policy doesn’t sit well with Republicans. But it sits well with Libertarians, and they tend to show a little better here than they will in the south, for instance.

Just imagine the can of worms you’d open if you said it’s not Iowa anymore. Who gets to go first? If you don’t pick a small state, you’re immediately making it harder on candidates who don’t have name recognition or deep pockets. So if you want a populist candidate, if you want someone who is going to go to the grassroots and build, they can’t go to California or Texas or New York, or they won’t get heard. So it’s got to be a small state, and any state that’s small tends to be distorted in some way demographically. You don’t find small states that are well-representative of anything.

Moreover, while everybody thinks Iowa shouldn’t go first, nobody’s in agreement about who’s the better choice. You’d have 20 states lining to say it should be us. And if you go away from the one, two, three, four, zoo model, then again you only get name recognition, deep-pocketed candidates running. So the rotating regional primary falls unless you keep the four states in front. The national primary is disaster for anybody who’s not named Clinton or Trump. There’s a model out there that’s called the Delaware Plan, where you start with the ten smallest, and the ten next-smallest, and so on over five months. But even if you break it that way, those ten states are small but they’re probably not all next to each other, so it’s going to be hard to be present and campaign in all of them. And if you have the candidates hive off, you’re not doing any winnowing.

So my answer to you is, what’s the better solution? It wasn’t intentional, and nobody can take credit, and there are certainly flaws with it. But it’s like whoever that Greek guy was who said democracy is a bad form of government, it’s just better than all the rest. And so I would just say, well, the only way for me to defend Iowa is to know your alternative. And then when you tell me your alternative, I can tell you why Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina is a better way.

And if somebody wants to say, let’s let Nevada go first, and Iowa will go last…there’s a point to that. But then you lose the history of taking them seriously that you have in Iowa. And I have no doubt that other states could learn over two or three election cycles to take the role as seriously as Iowans do, but it would be a generational process, and if you really said there’s ten states out there, and each of them is going to get a turn, well that means you get a turn once every 40 years. What if your year is a year where there’s an incumbent? That’s a raw deal. And how do you know how to take it seriously. There’s a process to vetting candidates and looking them in the eye and spending evenings with them, which Iowans do. So sure, Iowa gets a lot of reward, but it also provides a lot of service to the other state, there’s a lot of externalities to the other states that they don’t think about.

You know, if Iowa picks Trump and Sanders, the rest of the country may go nuts, and then you may have a strong move to change the system. But I think it will be results driven, not process driven. It’s like 2000. I told my class back in the ‘90s, wow, boy if we ever get an election like 1888 again, the country will go nuts. That’s when Cleveland won the popular vote but Harrison won the electoral vote. And then it happened in 2000, and there was barely a burp. There were some complaints and people had the 49 percent signs, but 9/11 happened and nobody thought it about anymore. So my thought is, if that happened every three or four cycles, we’d change the electoral college. But if it happens once every 100 years, we can live with it. If Iowa kicks out a clunker of a candidate, we didn’t pick him. We just told you who not to pick. You can still pick somebody else.

It’s like proposals to amend the constitution to get rid of the electoral college. And you’re never going to get enough states to go with any reform, I think.

It’s interesting that it does make a candidate like Sanders or McCain possible.

Jimmy Carter wouldn’t have been president. Dukakis. Who would the Democrats have picked in ‘88? There was nobody to choose. And 2012 on the Republican side was an example of that. Iowa doesn’t get credit for vetting Michelle Bachmann, and saying no, we don’t want you. And vetting Herman Cain, and saying no, we don’t want you. And the same for Newt Gingrich. And by then they were down to Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, or Santorum. That’s it.

Follow-up question, which you may answer in a similar way. They’ve showed studies that caucuses dampen turnout, especially on the Democratic side where you have to vote publicly…

I know where your question is going. That really is a matter of get-along, go-along politics. New Hampshire and Iowa have to find a way to get along. New Hampshire is vested in its image as first in the nation. And when Iowa came along, they were willing to say “first primary in the nation.” So if Iowa creates a primary, New Hampshire will jump us. It’s as simple as that. And Iowa doesn’t want to be jumped, so they stay a caucus. And the way that plays out is very interesting, because the Republicans are putting their toe over the line of what a primary is. All they do is add up the votes.

That’s what made me curious? Why call it a caucus, because they have two-minute speeches?

They call it a caucus to keep New Hampshire from getting angry. But the Democrats—and we had a conference here on the Iowa caucuses, and there was a guy named Richard Bender who everybody says was the midwife of the modern caucus system. And his point was, just what I told you, that Iowa wanted to give everyone a chance, and so we ended up in February and that’ show it happened. But, he said, we knew that New Hampshire would come hunting us if we had a primary. So we kept our caucus format, and the way the Democrats do that is this very convoluted process of not reporting votes, but reporting what we call delegate equivalents.

Which makes it so that you can actually win the caucus, but lose the popular vote.

That’s right, because each precinct is awarded a number of delegates based on its historical voting patterns. So in 2008, when students blow the roof of the precincts in the university area, they still only got the number of delegates reported that they got on the basis of their performance in the three or four before where they weren’t turning out for beans because they didn’t care. And so the student vote was dramatically under-represented in ‘08 because of that. Sanders faces the same concern this time.

But is helped slightly by ‘08?

It’s helped, because it’s weighted. But still Sanders will worry, and you may have heard that his people were encouraging students to go home. We’ve got plenty of votes here, go home.

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