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The Elbert Files: Final caucus thoughts


Decades ago when I was a political reporter, I thought there was no way Iowa’s Democratic presidential caucuses could get more arcane or convoluted.

Boy, was I wrong.

I never thought the Iowa caucuses were a good way to select a president. 

One objection was the layer of confusion Democrats added in the 1970s when they invented “delegate equivalents” as an alternative to vote counting. Iowa did that because New Hampshire refused to allow any presidential preference votes before its first-in-the-nation primary.

Caucuses were allowed as long as vote totals were not reported. Never mind that “delegate equivalents” made Iowa’s caucuses opaque and violated one-person, one-vote principles.

Over time it dawned on me that Iowa’s formula for allocating delegate equivalents gave an edge to small caucuses in rural areas.  

Most Democratic candidates never caught on to that differential. Those who did lacked the resources to exploit it. 

Barack Obama was the exception. His advisers put together strong organizations in key rural areas and won a surprise victory over Hillary Clinton in 2008.

For many years, I argued that Democrats should release raw vote totals, along with “delegate equivalent” numbers, to make the caucuses more transparent and allow outsiders to really see how things worked.  

Party officials said that would be too confusing. It would also be more difficult to accurately capture and release all those numbers. 

Boy, were they ever right.  

Republicans were quick to defend the Iowa caucuses last week in the wake of the Democrats’ fiasco. 

The day after the caucuses, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst issued a joint statement that said in part:

“The face-to-face retail politics nature of Iowa’s caucus system encourages dialogue between candidates and voters that makes our presidential candidates accountable for positions they take and records they hold.”

That feel-good statement about accountability is a curious argument to make during the final days of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on charges of attempting to undermine the 2020 election by secretly asking a foreign government to dig up dirt on a rival. 

Trump, of course, was acquitted. But the fact remains: A majority of Americans believe the president did what he was accused of, even if Republicans in the U.S. Senate voted to acquit him. 

We’ll find out in November what kind of job independent-minded Iowans believe Republican officeholders did holding Trump accountable on key issues involving renewable fuel standards, trade negotiations, immigration reform and foreign policy. 

The statement from Iowa’s top Republicans went on to say: 

“Iowans and all Americans should know we have complete confidence that every last vote will be counted and every last voice will be heard.”

That’s interesting because I have zero confidence that every vote will be counted and reported as long as political parties, instead of nonpartisan governmental agencies, do the counting. 

Finally, the joint statement from Reynolds, Grassley and Ernst said the “first in the nation status” of Iowa’s caucuses “has the full backing of President Trump.”

I find that hard to believe, given Trump’s action four years ago when he accused Ted Cruz of stealing the 2016 Republican caucuses.

Trump came in second behind Cruz in 2016, prompting him to tweet: “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa he stole it.” 

“Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified,” the tweet said.  

Also, if you remember, right before the 2016 general election, Trump cast a shadow over that vote, saying he doubted he would be able to accept the results unless he won.

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