Understanding how the Iowa caucuses work — and don't work

by Rob Richie // Published January 3, 2012
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The national media is in a frenzy about the Republican contest in tonight’s Iowa caucuses. Unfortunately, most journalists seem to be getting the story wrong – and a key reason is not understanding or even thinking about the rules and their implications.

First, we shouldn’t obsess over who gets the most votes in the caucuses -- seriously. Several candidates are polling in double digits, but none are getting more than 25%. If that holds up, then the “winner” will have been rejected as a first choice by as many as four out of every five caucus participants.

Depending on the candidate finishing at the top of the heap, that winning total in fact might be closer to a ceiling of support rather than a floor. In other words, that winner might have been landslide loser if facing off against just his or her strongest opponent in a runoff.

Furthermore, Republicans aren’t allocating delegates on a winner-take-all basis. Indeed, they aren’t awarding national convention delegates at all tonight – the final Iowa delegates won’t be chosen for months at the state convention. Tonight is really more of a straw poll.

Given that it’s a straw poll and the media obsession with “winning,” it’s a shame that Iowa isn’t using instant runoff voting rather than plurality voting. Plurality voting simply isn’t designed for elections with more than two choices. In 2008, for example, John McCain’s nomination became inevitable due to low-plurality wins like his 37% in New Hampshire, 33% in South Carolina and 36% in Florida.

Ironically, the GOP field has several candidates who may have benefited from plurality rules. In 2006, for example, Rick Perry’s re-election bid in Texas drew just 39% when opposed by a Democrat and two strong independent candidates. In 2008, Michele Bachmann earned only 46% in her re-election to the U.S. House. 

Given that Iowa Republicans are stuck with plurality voting, though, journalists should calm down about “winning.” It’s the same with most other primaries and caucuses before April 1st due to the fact that most states use variations of proportional representation for allocating delegates Proportional voting means that the statewide winner is only likely to earn more delegates, not all delegates. With only South Carolina and Florida using a statewide winner-take-all rule that shuts out opponents, candidates can come back from defeats.

Just like Tim Pawlenty must be regretting his decision to drop out after finishing “only” third in the August straw poll in Iowa, candidates should consider staying in the race, making their point and giving more of the nation’s Republicans a chance to weigh on in on their nominee.

So, political junkies, sit back, and eat your popcorn as you watch the pundits go crazy tonight. But let’s keep things in perspective –and be open to sensible changes to improve the process.