In this calm before the storm, as we gird ourselves for the first measurements of actual citizen sentiment in the '08 campaign, let us pause briefly to contemplate the state that remains secure in its status as first in pork, first in corn, and first in the presidential sweepstakes.
There are basically two ways to assess the role of Iowa. One can point out that the caucus-goers take their responsibilities of winnowing the candidates very seriously, that they are earnest and well-informed, that their caucuses are democracy with a small d, and that therefore they have earned the right to be America's gatekeepers. But one can also point out that the caucus-goers, being overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural, are profoundly unrepresentative of the American electorate; that the caucus-goers, comprising only a fraction of the Iowa electorate, are unrepresentative of even their own state; that the Democratic caucus rules in particular are profoundly undemocratic - and therefore it's absurd that Iowa has come to wield so much clout.
I subscribe to both schools of thought. I laud and admire the Iowans (who are, among other things, some of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet); nevertheless, their presence at the front of the line (a tradition that really began when Jimmy Carter put the caucuses on the map in 1976) is symptomatic of a nomination process that could've been designed by Rube Goldberg on acid.
And it's worth noting that, incumbents aside, exactly one victorious Iowa candidate - George W. Bush in 2000 - has ever gone on to win the presidency in the same year. Even though Carter got an historic boost in Iowa, on the way to his November election, he actually finished second in Iowa - behind "Uncommitted."
There is media talk of a "record turnout" in the caucuses tonight, which means that perhaps as many as 250,000 people could participate. What often goes unmentioned is the fact that 250,000 people translates into merely 12 percent of Iowa's registered voters. Some folks who would dearly love to participate can't do so, because the caucuses start promptly at 7 p.m., and they can't get off work, or they can't get sitters for the kids, or they're serving far away in the military. As for the local folks who are on the fence...well, let's just say it's hardly inspiring to think that the choice of the next leader of the world's most powerful nation could hinge on whether some soybean farmers decide that the televised Orange Bowl tilt between the Hokies and the Jayhawks is a more palatable option.
Then there are the caucus rules. The Republicans are actually paragons of small-d democracy; their participants choose among the candidates by secret ballot (writing the names on slips of paper), and the state GOP releases the figures, so that we spectators can see the popular vote statewide.
Not so the Democrats. Their rules are a Byzantine labyrinth that appears to have been concocted by Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, and Joseph Heller. And Democrats don't even release the popular vote of their participants. The final percentages that you will see on TV are something else entirely, although I wonder whether the TV anchors will point this out. The Democratic caucuses are all about choosing delegates to the March 15 county conventions - and the weighted delegate strength of the candidates will not mirror the popular vote. Which is not released to the public anyway. So the final Democratic tallies actually measure the allocation of "delegate equivalents."
Still with me? Here's roughly how the Democratic caucuses work: Participants have to physically stand with those who support the same candidate. But if that candidate draws less than 15 percent of the people in attendance, the group is dissolved, and those people have to make a second choice, and then go stand with that candidate's group. (A woman from Webster City, Janet Adams, told me not long ago that it's actually quite exciting: "The whole process is all about neighbors, you know. People say things like, 'why don't you come over to our side?'")
All of which means that the official Democratic winner tonight may well attain that status because he or she has second-choice strength...which is a far cry from the one-man-one-vote ethos of the secret ballot, as practiced by the Iowa GOP. And I won't even begin to explain how the Democrats tilt their delegate allocation so that rural enclaves are over-represented in the final tallies.
In other words, with respect to those Democratic results, I say caveat emptor. Not that it matters, however, because these nuances will be largely ignored tomorrow morning. Whoever "wins" on the Democratic side will reap the inevitable publicity bonanza, and whoever "loses" will have to deal with the downbeat consequences as the race moves to New Hampshire. As JFK used to say, "life is unfair," and that's doubly true in the political realm, where perception is reality.
On the other hand, if Barack Obama wins decisively tonight on the Democratic side (by a margin that obliterates the aforementioned nuances), it can't be dismissed as just a flaky Iowa outcome. It would mean that large numbers of white people were willing to stand in front of their white neighbors and declare themselves for an African-American candidate. That would be significant in itself, and all the caveats about the Iowa process would be forgotten.