Here’s a quick morning-after-Iowa quiz: Who won the Iowa Democratic caucuses in 1988 and what is he doing now?
Here’s a clue: he never won the Democratic presidential nomination.
The answer: It's former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who is now a lobbyist and consultant for the Washington, D.C. firm DLA Piper.
Gephardt won Iowa in 1988, but in later primaries, he ultimately ran out of money and split the centrist Democratic vote with a young Tennessee senator named Al Gore. Massachusetts Gov. Mike Dukakis would go on to win the nomination.
Another question: who were the winners, both Republican and Democratic, in the Iowa caucuses in 2000?
Familiar names: Gore and George W. Bush.
The lesson: the Iowa outcome doesn’t predict the ultimate winner of the parties’ presidential nominations — except when it does.
And there’s no way of knowing now, the morning after the caucuses, whether last night’s Iowa outcome will or won’t be a harbinger of who’ll get each party’s nomination.
The Iowa grim reaper
The contest in Iowa often weeds out the weak and underfunded. Gephardt, ran again in 2004 here in Iowa, placed fourth and had to quit the race.
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut both invested much time and money in this state, but failed to win broad support and were forced to give up after their sad showings here.
That fact that so few voters in one state can have the power to kill off a candidacy of a senator who has served for 30 years is rather freakish and fickle.
But Iowans defend their caucus process as a high-minded exercise of democracy by ordinary citizens.
And if you went to one of the precinct caucuses last night in Iowa, you might agree with that.
“This is real democracy. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Philippe Remarque, an admiring correspondent from the Netherlands newspaper De Volkskrant, as he observed Democrats in West Des Moines precinct 115 last night.
A heated debate over Iraq
Remarque and I watched a heated debate between Barack Obama supporter Robert Parks and Nick Manna, a foot soldier for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, as each tried to win over some Biden supporters.
The Biden-ites were up for grabs because Biden had not attained the party-mandated 15 percent "threshold" in that precinct.
“There are only two candidates who can end the war, Biden and Richardson,” Manna told the Biden supporters, hoping to pull them over to Richardson.
“No, no, no, no! All of them can end the war, it’s just a matter of when and how they do it and how well they do,” insisted Parks.
Back and forth it went as 20 Biden backers listened, knowing they were in a position to help get Richardson a delegate from this precinct if they shifted to him (in the end, they scattered, some going to Obama, some to Hillary Clinton, and others to John Edwards).
Manna was about 40 years younger than Parks, who is a polished political pro and an elected city council member in West Des Moines. But Manna didn’t back down an inch.
The Manna-Parks impromptu debate was far more genuine and more participatory than sitting in one’s living room, watching a series of political ads on television.
It was a flesh-and-blood example of political brawling, as bracing and healthy as a Vermont town hall meeting called over the school bond issue.
'Just pay attention'
“I think is a very good process because it gives the opportunity for everyone to participate and it’s easily understood if people just pay attention,” said Parks as voters filed out of the auditorium at the Indian Hills Junior High School at the end of the caucus.
“It’s not what I would call sound-bite material. It requires some thinking, it requires some attention, and people here in Iowa give it the attention that it needs and deserves.”
The caucuses serve as a real focus group, allowing observers to hear complaints from Democratic voters about presidential contenders they don't like.
Edwards backer James Flanagan told the Biden-ites, “Hillary is owned by the defense contractors; she’s a hawk.”
It’s not just right-wing columnists and pundits who have a deep animosity toward Clinton; it is a significant percentage of Democratic primary voters, too. What does that portend if she does end up winning the nomination?
(The Republican caucus process is different since it is simple straightforward straw vote measuring support for each candidate,)
While the caucus itself is healthy democracy, the losing candidates grouse about the process, and with good reason, especially on the Democratic side where party rules impose a 15 percent threshold in each precinct.
If 300 people showed up in a precinct and 40 of them were supporters of Richardson, you’d say Richardson had 13 percent support in that precinct, right? Wrong. Richardson would not have met the 15 threshold and would come away with nothing at all.
Multiply the outcome in that precinct by several hundred other precincts and you get a suppression of support for second-tier candidates, and an inflation of support for the front-runners, who can oftern appear stronger than they are.
If Iowa were a straight primary, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd would have shown better numbers.
Speaking to Fox News Friday morning from New Hampshire, which holds its primary Tuesday, Richardson said, “Right now New Hampshire is going to be the key because we don’t have the complicated caucus rules” in the Granite State.
“You know, actually I got close to 10 percent of the vote; (but only) two percent of the delegates,” Richardson said, pointing to the quirkiness of Iowa’s process.
But Richardson’s complaint will be to no avail. No matter how odd the process, Obama won and that is the headline, not “Quirky process gives Obama the win.”
What Richardson is up against is that because Iowa is the first contest after so many months of polling, with all of polling’s uncertainties- pundits tend to binge on over-interpreting the results.
They give a couple of hundred thousand people here a significance that may seem absurd in comparison to the national electorate of 122 million.
Thus USA Today in its Friday edition called Obama’s 37.6 percent of the vote a “stunning victory” over Clinton.
'Stunning' or to be expected?
“Stunning”? Only if you were asleep for the past few months and didn’t see:
- The intense commitment of the Obama fans in Iowa
- How skilled his organizers were: for instance, tracking down out-of-state Iowans who come back to vote in the caucuses, calling them on their cell phones to recruit their support
- The polling data here that indicated last week that Obama was ahead
Also keep in mind that Obama's 37.6 percent is an estimate.
Here’s the official Iowa Democratic Party explanation: “These are the State Convention Delegates a presidential candidate can expect to have at the 2008 State Convention based on the number of County Convention Delegates he or she earned in each county.”
Obama will get an estimated 38 percent of the delegates to the party’s state convention.
The Democratic caucus process is arcane and that’s why rational people might want to wait until there are a few real broad-based primaries.
Obama had proven months ago that he was competitive with Clinton – by raising $80 million, just $10 million less than she’d raised.
Iowa simply performed the function of validating with real voters that he had support.