John Fund looks at the problems with the Iowa caucus format and finds a number of very basic problems with them. Designed by state parties not as a democratic process, but as one meant to give disproportionate influence to party insiders and party donors, the caucus format actually works against many basic tenets of small-D democracy. That, in turn, makes many of the polls being trotted out by various organizations even less accurate than normal.
The trouble with the Iowa caucuses isn't that there's anything wrong with Iowans. It's the bizarre rules of the process. Caucuses are touted as authentic neighborhood meetings where voters gather in their precincts and make democracy come alive. In truth, they are anything but.
Caucuses occur only at a fixed time at night, so that many people working odd hours can't participate. They can easily exceed two hours. There are no absentee ballots, which means the process disfranchises the sick, shut-ins and people who are out of town on the day of the caucus. The Democratic caucuses require participants to stand in a corner with other supporters of their candidate. That eliminates the secret ballot.
There are reasons for all this. The caucuses are run by the state parties, and unlike primary or general elections aren't regulated by the government. They were designed as an insiders' game to attract party activists, donors and political junkies and give them a disproportionate influence in the process. In other words, they are designed not to be overly democratic. Primaries aren't perfect. but at least they make it fairly easy for everyone to vote, since polls are open all day and it takes only a few minutes to cast a ballot.
Little wonder that voter turnout for the Iowa caucuses is extremely low–in recent years about 6% of registered voters. Many potential voters will proclaim their civic virtue to pollsters and others and say they will show up at the caucus–and then find something else to do Thursday night.
All of which means that the endless polls on the Iowa caucuses are highly suspect. Iowans have been bombarded by well over a million political phone calls in recent days. They range from "robo calls" from interest groups touting one candidate or another to breathless teenage volunteers inviting the voter to a local coffee with some obscure relative of a candidate.
Smart voters tune all this out and screen their calls, making it difficult for pollsters to reach them. Even when they do answer the phone, many people refuse to participate in surveys. Pollsters can't call people who only have cell phones. So you get implausible results like last Friday's Los Angeles Times survey that found Barack Obama in third place on the Democratic side and Mike Huckabee running away with the GOP contest. The Times's pollsters surveyed just 174 likely Republican voters and 389 Democratic one, with a whopping margin of error of plus or minus seven percentage points among Republicans and five points among Democrats.
The problems are not quite so large in the Republican-run caucuses, which do use a somewhat secret ballot process. But the Democrat's arcane rituals border on the deranged. Standing in a corner, people shouting across the room trying to convince others to come stand with them, all of that and more. Entrance polls will only be used in more urban areas – which tend to lean far to the left. But the media will breathlessly report on those poll results – even though they will likely be badly skewed – or completely wrong once the rural results are in. (Fund also notes that in the 2004 Democratic caucuses, four precincts had a whopping zero turnout. Literally nobody showed up at all.)
All in all, Iowa has some very weird rules in place that tend to make a hash out of conventional wisdom. Most reporters are not going to take the time to actually try to understand just how bizarre the rules are and will report as if the same rules they are used to apply. Obviously, that is not the case. That is probably why Iowa has been surprising candidates and the rest of the country for years.