By Paolo von Schirach
December 29, 2011
WASHINGTON – The Iowa caucus is finally about to take place on January 3, 2012. As it represents the very first real event of the Republican primary season, it deserves some attention. But there is something really wrong in the obsessive coverage of every poll and every minor twist in Iowa Republican politics. There is absolutely no correlation between the size of the state, the number of likely caucus goers, their demographics and the inordinate attention paid to this otherwise small event.
Iowa: small population, tiny number of caucus goers
Let’s step back for one minute. Iowa has a population of only about 3 million. Out of a total US population of more then 310 million, this is a tiny slice of the American electorate. Besides, as American politics expert Michael Barone observed in a WSJ op-ed piece, (As Iowa Goes, So Goes Iowa, December 27, 2011), there are 645,000 registered Republicans in Iowa. Of these it would appear that may be less than 119,000 (this was the 2008 turn out) will participate in this contest. Worse yet, the median age of the 2008 Iowa caucus goers was around 60. If this basic picture does not change in 2012, what we are going to have in Iowa is a small minority of elderly Republicans within a small state expressing its preferences. This sample hardly represents America. So, why should anybody care that much?
National momentum out of Iowa?
Well, all the candidates and the pundits care a lot because everybody is desperately trying to establish trends, even when the numbers of voters involved are ridiculously small. Iowa has the inordinate power an mystique of being the first state to make an official statement about the Republican race. Assuming that one candidate comes out of Iowa as the front runner with a very strong lead, this fact alone would generate an enormous amount of national media coverage that would probably sway some undecided to cast their primary ballots for the one who already has the title of front runner and thus is assumed to be the favorite to win the race. “I vote for the front runner, because…well, because he is the front runner“.
“Iowa with me, you just follow the lead”
And of course the candidate who is in the lead out of Iowa will furiously sell this support nationwide by saying: “Look, this is almost a done deal. Iowa is with me. You should follow this trend”. Of course this would be totally preposterous, given the very small numbers of Iowans expressing their preference. But in a political universe dominated by symbolism, candidates can actually say this without being laughed at.
And this is the really worrisome part. If Iowa had the population of California, (37 million), a good mix of urban and rural and diverse demographics, then it would be very wise to pay a lot of attention. But it is only a small state with mostly elderly GOP caucus goers.
Implicit assumption that there is a herd mentality in America
Sadly, the only plausible reason why we pay so much attention to the very first contest, no matter its puny size, is because we implicitly assume that in America people have the independence of thought of a herd of sheep, and so they are likely to follow the lead determined by others, no matter how insignificant the numbers of those who made the first selection. But if this is indeed so, then this democracy is not working that well.