By Herb Strentz
If Iowa is to keep the first-in-the-nation
caucuses, the state GOP is going to have to
do a better job than the caucus-reform recommendations
now on the table. There is little to convince
the national GOP that Iowa has its act together.
What happened in the caucuses this year was
clumsy and scary. News coverage of the events
made the press look deservedly ridiculous, too.
Iowa efforts to straighten things out may be
well-intended but are likely to just provoke
Last week the Iowa GOP caucuses emerged from
the Hawkeye equivalent of Dr. Frankenstein’s
lab with a bolt tightened here and there but
with loose screws still unattended to.
After the fiasco of the 2012 caucuses, the Iowa
Republican party created a committee to see
what should be done to redeem the caucuses in
the eyes of its national party and the press
in an effort to salvage the caucus come January
The repairs were required because the Iowa folks
reported Jan. 4 that Mitt Romney won the Republican
caucus by eight votes over Rick Santorum and
then two weeks later reported that Santorum
was the winner by 34 votes.
(Some five months later, at the state Republican
convention on June 16, the delegates selected
for the party’s national convention were stacked
in favor of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul — a result of
political maneuvering and not another caucus
Ignored in the reform recommendations were the
two really loose screws in the whole shebang.
1. The Ames Straw Poll.
2. The closed nature of the GOP caucus, thanks
to how the religious right dominates the Iowa
The Ames Straw Poll kicks off the caucus press
coverage in the August preceding the caucuses.
Candidates for the party’s presidential nomination
pay about $35 a vote and other fees in the thousands
of dollars with the money going to the Iowa
GOP. The national press gets all excited about
this — the vote totals, not the money — and
turns the sow’s ear into a silk purse. The winner
of the 2011 Ames Straw Poll was U.S. Rep. Michelle
Bachmann who celebrated her victory by being
the biggest loser in the caucuses and then briefly
opting for dual citizenship in Switzerland,
perhaps figuring she’d be more appreciated there.
But the Straw Poll nonsense was not on the agenda
of the Iowa GOP when it came to reforming the
Neither was the restrictive, evangelical nature
of the GOP caucuses, which tells moderate candidates
they need not apply.
The reform committee could have advanced a recommendation
along these lines: “Given Iowa’s role as a bellwether
for the selection of our party’s candidate,
it is important that the Iowa caucus be open
to the widest spectrum of candidates to encourage
turnout at the caucuses and to foster debate
over the widest range of Republican concerns.”
Instead, the committee advanced eight recommendations
that tinker with how caucus volunteers are trained
and how results are reported. For example, there
would be a 72-hour delay in certifying a winner
in a close race, such as that between Romney
and Santorum. (The closest previous race was
when George Bush beat Ronald Reagan by 2 percent
in the 1980 caucuses.)
The recommendations will not be acted upon for
months, or maybe for a few years, because the
2016 caucuses are still 40 some months away.
Small wonder Iowans fret, as Des Moines Register
columnist Kathie Obradovich wrote “If Iowa forfeits
its first-in-the-nation status because the nation
has lost confidence in the process, it won’t
matter how fast the votes are counted.”
Given the nature of the Ames Straw Poll and
the domination of the religious right in Iowa,
it is a wonder there was any confidence in the
Perhaps it could be worse: Suppose the national
GOP decides everything is just fine in Iowa
and the evangelical right is the hope of the
future for the Republican Party. There’s selective
evidence for that outcome. And some folks in
Iowa would be delighted that we were first-in-the-nation
with that message, too. CV
Herb Strentz is a retired administrator
and professor in the Drake School of Journalism
and Mass Communication and writes occasional
columns for Cityview.