Thursday, December 20, 2007

Iowa’s Undemocratic Caucuses

By Gilbert Cranberg, Herb Strenz and Glenn Roberts
New York Times
18 December 2007

Des Moines - THIS year, a dozen polling organizations have conducted about 70 separate polls about the candidate preferences of Iowa caucus-goers.

The polls essentially are counts of votes by likely caucus attendees. If a poll is done properly, its measure of opinion about the candidates should be similar to the tabulation of votes on caucus night. But if a poll does manage to precisely forecast the results of the Jan. 3 caucuses, that is probably more coincidence than polling accuracy.

That’s because Iowa Democrats shun public disclosure of voter preferences at their caucuses — something not generally reported by the press or understood by the public.

An early order of business in each Democratic precinct caucus in Iowa is a count of the candidate preferences of the attendees. For all practical purposes, this is just what the polls try to measure. But Iowa Democrats keep the data hidden. The one-person, one-vote results from each caucus are snail-mailed to party headquarters and placed in a database, never disclosed to the press or made available for inspection.

Instead, the Democratic Party releases the percentage of “delegate equivalents” won by each candidate. The percentage broadcast on the networks and reported in the newspapers is the candidate’s share of the 2,500 delegates the party apportions across Iowa’s 99 counties, based on Democratic voter turnout in each of the 1,784 precincts in the two most recent general elections. So, the turnout for a candidate in a precinct caucus could be huge, yet the candidate’s share of the delegate pie could be quite small — if that precinct had low voter turnout in 2004 and 2006.

Under the formulas used to apportion delegates, it is possible that the candidate with the highest percentage of delegate equivalents — that is, the headline “winner” — did not really lead in the “popular vote” at the caucuses. Further, it is possible that a second or third-tier candidate could garner a surprising 10 percent or 12 percent of the popular vote statewide and get zero delegates. (That’s because to be in the running for a delegate a candidate must have support from at least 15 percent of the people at a precinct caucus.) He or she may have done two or three times as well as expected among Iowa’s Democratic voters and get no recognition for it.


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