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Opinion: Iowans too often get it wrong

Editor’s Note: Lyz Lenz is a writer living in Iowa. She writes the newsletter “Men Yell at Me.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion at CNN.

There are life-threatening weather conditions in Iowa this week. Blizzards brought nearly a foot of snow this weekend and arctic temperatures are expected to continue through Tuesday morning. The winter storm has made some roads impassable, which led to the cancellation of several campaign events.

Lyz Lenz - Pilsen Photo Co-op
Lyz Lenz - Pilsen Photo Co-op

And yet, rain, shine or snowstorm, the Iowa caucuses — one of America’s storied political traditions — will see friends and neighbors across the state gather Monday night to choose who they want to become the 2024 Republican presidential standard-bearer.

Iowa’s caucuses started back in the 1840s but became the center of the nominating process much more recently — and pretty much by accident. As The New York Times detailed, after Democratic Party reforms in 1972 to make sure more everyday people were involved in determining the party’s presidential nominee, Iowa moved back its nominating process to earlier in the year. This was done to give the state party time to report the results because it faced logistical hurdles in compiling the flood of incoming results, including having only one old mimeograph machine.

The Iowa caucuses might have continued to be a nothingburger if New York Times correspondent RW “Johnny” Apple hadn’t pulled a journalistic PT Barnum act by coming to Iowa in the 1970s and making it a show. When Apple came to Iowa in 1976, he wrote about the opinions of farmers in diners and prompted the Democratic Party to set up a phone tree to report caucus results faster. He took the time to understand the process, and the result was that Apple was the one who first reported that a peanut farmer out of Georgia had the chance to become president.

Today, journalists salivating for a story will comb the fields for anyone with a coiffure and charisma. But the reality is that Iowa isn’t that great at picking presidents. In fact, then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter scrambled to a weak second behind that formidable political foe, “uncommitted.”

This political accident and journalistic showmanship now mean that every four years, the press descends and the political theater of politicians stumping on hay bales, at pie auctions and before deep throating corn dogs begins again. Among current or former candidates, I’ve seen then-South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg covered in snow in Sioux City, cold greasy chicken falling out of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ mouth at the Dallas County fairgrounds and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado sitting alone eating a lunch of a single slice of pizza at an indoor market in Cedar Rapids.

Horse-race journalism feverishly speculates about the meaning of these moments. Whether businessman Vivek Ramaswamy can make good. Whether former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley will outpace DeSantis. But if the Iowa caucuses ever meant anything, they mean less now. The process of caucusing is archaic and flawed.

In 2012, Republicans initially reported that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had won, but a closer look at the votes revealed that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had garnered 34 votes more than him, and some precincts’ votes were missing altogether. In 2016, the Democratic results were marred by glitchy websites and inconsistencies in reporting data, with some caucus sites determining county delegate winners by coin flip. And then there were the famously flubbed caucuses of 2020, in which unnecessarily convoluted caucus math, and party leadership, made for a frantic scramble.

The votes themselves represent only a small portion of the state. In 2016 only 18.5% of registered voters even showed up to caucus, a fraction of the almost 2 million active registered voters at the time. The state as a whole today has only a small population of 3.1 million people (only a little more than one-third of the population of New York City). And Iowa doesn’t come close to representing the racial makeup of the rest of America. While the country as a whole is just around 58% non-Hispanic White, Iowa is nearly 90%.

Whatever is decided at the caucuses only represents the view of a fraction of a fraction of Iowans brave enough to go weather the sub-zero temperatures and sit in a school gymnasium for a couple of hours on a Monday night.

There is no corn-based oracle that can accurately predict the coming political storm. In fact, Iowa consistently gets it wrong in really important ways. After all, Ted Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses in 2016, the year Donald Trump won the election; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won in 2008, when Arizona Sen. John McCain was the eventual nominee; and Buttigieg bested future President Joe Biden on the Democratic side last time round.

No one knows this better than Trump, who maintains a cult-like grip over the state’s Republicans. Trump has been treating the pageantry of the caucuses like the farce they are. He’s refused to participate in the debates, the meet and greets, the BBQs where a congresswoman plays the violin.

He mocked Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who endorsed DeSantis, and has refused the beck and call of the Iowa party leadership, declining invitations to speak at the Family Leadership Summit, hosted by the right-wing evangelical organization run by Bob Vander Plaats.

Trump did show up to the Iowa State Fair, but he pointedly avoided “fair-side” conversations hosted by Iowa’s governor. The week before the caucuses, while other candidates were braving the cold and the snow, Trump was in court. He’s been campaigning in the state, but without the toadying obeisance to the gods of corn, carbon pipelines and pork.

And he’s winning, polling at nearly 30 points ahead of any rival. It’s safe to assume that if some of his Iowa supporters will attend a riot at the US Capitol for him, they’ll be willing to brave sub-zero temperatures.

Trump’s strategy seems to see Iowa as one piece of a national campaign. But DeSantis has put his hopes in Iowa, going to all 99 counties and, more importantly, talking about how he’s been to all 99 counties. Reynolds’ endorsement looks like it’s done nothing for the static numbers of DeSantis’ campaign. In fact, the endorsement might have hurt Reynolds’ own popularity. Haley has made a valiant effort to unseat DeSantis from second place, but it’s all just a scramble for first loser. And the prize is earning a ticket to New Hampshire.

It’s depressing, but what this race is really about is who can be the second choice if Trump is by hook, crook — or an interpretation of the Constitution — not on the ballot.

Whatever else is decided in the cold, blizzard-like conditions of the caucuses, all we will learn is who is second place in a state that increasingly has fallen out of step with the rest of the nation.

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