Romney's Right to Skip Iowa Caucuses: Why They Shouldn't Matter in 2012 Elections

No secret ballots, tiny turnouts—you call this democracy? Peter Beinart says enough with phony primaries.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

I’m warming to Mitt Romney. First, he refused to join the Muslim-bashing at the recent Republican debate, forthrightly declaring that he would have no religious litmus test for appointments to his Cabinet. Second, he’s skipping the Iowa straw poll this August, an absurd affair in which candidates bus their supporters to the event, pay their entrance fee, stuff them full of food, and then claim (if they do well) that this wanton bribery says something about the public will. To really win my heart, he need do only one more thing: Skip the Iowa caucuses altogether.

The Iowa caucuses bear only a faint resemblance to democracy . In primary elections, citizens have all day to vote (and outside the U.S., Election Day is often a holiday, which boosts turnout even further). But in Iowa, you must arrive at your precinct caucus site at exactly 6:30 p.m. and stay for several hours, which virtually bars people who work at night. There are no absentee ballots, and voting is not secret—people often raise their hands to show whom they support. As a result, while the percentage of registered voters who participate in the New Hampshire primary generally hovers around 50 percent (except when the incumbent president is running unopposed), the corresponding figure for Iowa is often closer to 10 or 20 percent.

That 10 or 20 percent does not exactly look like America. In the Democratic Party, caucus-goers skew left. In the GOP, they skew right, way right. In 1988, Pat Robertson beat George H.W. Bush in Iowa. In 1996, Pat Buchanan almost won. In 2008, Mike Huckabee did. Especially in the GOP, Iowa often devolves into a contest between a Christian-right type who says evolution is un-American and an establishment candidate who simply tries to buy the process. Either way, it’s a depressing spectacle. As Howard Dean remarked, “If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by the special interests in both parties. The special interests don't represent the centrist tendencies of the American people. They represent the extremes.”

In the Democratic Party, unfortunately, Barack Obama has breathed life into the caucuses, because it was his win there that propelled him to victory over Hillary Clinton. (One of the less-remarked-upon—and less-admirable--features of the early Obama campaign was its heavy emphasis on caucuses, where Obama could rack up lots of delegates without winning that many actual votes). In the GOP, however, there is some prospect that Iowa may finally be wearing out its welcome. In 2008, John McCain basically skipped the caucuses, and went on to win the nomination nonetheless. If Mitt Romney did the same, it might send the Iowa system into the death spiral it so richly deserves.

If Romney competes, the GOP contest in Iowa will likely tread the familiar grooves: An establishment candidate (Romney) will try to buy victory while a right-wing militant (Michele Bachmann) peddles ideological purity. But Romney has seen this movie before: He rained greenbacks on the state in 2008, only to see caucus-goers choose love over money and go with Mike Huckabee. Romney could do better this time: He has a preexisting organization in the state and has had four years to act like a real conservative. In this month’s Des Moines Register poll, however, he outpaced the upstart Bachmann by only one point. Between his Mormonism, abortion flip-flops and Obama-style health-care plan, it’s quite possible that Romney will find—once again—that right-wing Iowans just aren’t that into him.

If he spends lavishly and comes in second, it will be the equivalent of a defeat. And he will face a torrent of “what’s wrong with the Romney campaign” stories going into the New Hampshire primary, which he must win. If, on the other hand, he abandons Iowa, the most likely winner will be Bachmann, a candidate too loony to seriously challenge him for the nomination. The biggest danger in such a strategy would be that a more mainstream candidate like Tim Pawlenty wins Iowa, thus giving him momentum going into New Hampshire and South Carolina. But in the Des Moines Register poll, Pawlenty trails not only Bachmann, but also pizza magnate-turned-anti-Muslim bigot Herman Cain. In today’s Iowa Republican Party, it appears, unless you’ve peddled conspiracy theories about the president’s place of birth or promised a religious litmus test for your Cabinet, you just can’t fire up the troops.

Romney should keep his distance. If he does, and goes on to win the nomination, he will have seriously damaged the caucuses’ reputation. And enhanced his own.