Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen
Opinion Writer

Iowa GOP caucusers are the real elite

Until the Reform Act of 1832, more than 100 members of the British Parliament were elected from districts that had very few people. These were called rotten boroughs and, while they no longer exist in England, at least one of them does in the United States. It is called Iowa.

Every four years the Rotten Borough of Iowa holds its presidential caucuses. Next year, the only real contest will be in the Republican Party. Last time, 119,000 Iowans participated in the GOP caucus. This amounted, according to Curtis Gans, director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate, to 0.05 percent of the national electorate — or, to put it another way, 1 / 20th of 1 percent. If the next president is a Republican, there’s a pretty good chance several dozen people in Iowa will have been instrumental in choosing him or her.

Richard Cohen

Cohen writes about politics in a weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog.

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The Republican primary has a new look.

The Republican primary has a new look.

Iowa Republicans are a pretty conservative lot. In general, they abhor abortion, gay marriage, Obamacare, the Departments of Education, Energy and Commerce, NPR, support for the arts, the East Coast, the West Coast, strictly secular education, illegal immigrants and their children, the mainstream media and — after reading this — me. But because conservatives dominate the Iowa GOP and because the caucus is the first contest of the election year, they enjoy disproportionate influence over the national party. It is possible to skip Iowa and win the nomination (John McCain), and even possible to win Iowa and lose the nomination (Mike Huckabee), but it’s easiest to win the nomination by winning Iowa — an impossible task for a moderate.

The caucus-primary system is perverse in the extreme. It starts in January in Iowa and New Hampshire when common sense says it ought to begin in Florida and Arizona. The average January low in Des Moines is about 10 degrees; the average Miami low is about 60. This helps explain why many more people go to Miami than Des Moines for the winter. It does not explain why the election season has to start there.

The other perverse effect of the Iowa caucus is that it stands on its head the notion of elite. It you asked the average Iowa Republican who is in the American elite, he or she would say something about bankers or journalists or all those New York-Washington types who supposedly run the country but recently have forgotten how.

Nonsense. The true elite are the scattering of determined folks who will turn out in the dense cold to choose a presidential candidate. Their vote counts for so much more than yours. In fact, if you want to join the true American elite, move to Iowa and register to vote. This is something the Occupy Wall Street crowd does not understand. If they want real influence, they should Occupy Iowa.

The Iowa and New Hampshire contests are greatly romanticized. Big-city journalists embrace the Norman Rockwell qualities of both states and cherish the nostalgic appeal of retail campaigning. But this year, much of the campaigning has been done wholesale — nationally televised debates, TV ads — and, as Politico’s Maggie Haberman has pointed out, “the candidates atop the GOP polls have spent the least amount of time meeting with voters.” Herman Cain, for one, has shown that he is indeed a management specialist by managing to shoehorn a presidential campaign into his book tour.

The primary and caucus system is the product of a reform movement, an effort to curtail the power of political bosses by having party members, not the machine, choose the nominee. But disproportionate power has now shifted to the early primary and caucus voters. The narrowness of the Iowa GOP base helps explain why the 2012 field is in virtual agreement about almost everything — hands raised in unison — and taking positions that dismay many Americans. All but one of the candidates — the odd man out is Jon Huntsman — seem to agree that life begins at conception, making all abortions tantamount to murder. Whoever wins Iowa is going to have to start moderating his or her positions for the general election.

The GOP race this year is a sad affair. Iowa has helped narrow the gate to the nomination so that one-half of the U.S. political system is represented by people who either question evolution or do not have the courage to say otherwise, who pander to ugly anti-immigration sentiment and who feel that it would have been just swell to have let The U.S. financial system fall on its face. Opposing views are missing. This happens with rotten boroughs. There’s no one to debate.

cohenr@washpost.com

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