Low voter turnouts lead some to question Iowa as caucus choice

Megan Boldt

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa has had first-in-the-nation caucus status since 1972. But with low turnout rates in the 1996 caucus, some argue against Iowa’s importance in the election process.
Based on figures from Drake University and the Iowa Democratic Party, only 7.6 percent of Iowa’s registered voters went to the ballot booths in the 1996 precinct caucuses.
With such paltry participation rates, many question Iowa’s validity as a predictor of how candidates will fare in the future. And those overwhelmed by political commercials question the caucus itself, saying the week-long event does little more than give the candidates a forum for advertising themselves.
Bill Flanigan, political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said the turnout is still probably a little higher than most caucuses because of the attention it garners from candidates and news media. Yet the number of people who vote in Iowa caucuses is lower than in the primaries, he said.
For Iowa’s caucuses today, there are 1,777,628 registered voters in the state. Independents comprise the largest percentage at 35.7 percent, Republicans make up 32.6 percent and Democrats count for 31.6 percent.
Based on recent interviews, few of those registered will show up to fill out a ballot.
“I usually vote during the November elections, not in the caucuses,” said Betty Caley of Council Bluffs. She said she has no interest in participating this year.
Despite low participation rates, Iowa residents are still concerned with many issues plaguing Iowa and the rest of the nation. Agriculture, education and health care are some of the recurring issues for Iowans.
Besides receiving typical coverage of events, Iowans have been deluged with a barrage of advertising from candidates and organizations.
Winterset resident Chris Brittain said the media did a good job of covering caucus events, but he still questions whether there is enough important information available to make the decision of who to vote for in the caucus. He especially does not like the attack ads some candidates were running in Iowa.
“The media coverage is way too excessive,” said Jackie McCauley of Winterset. “There is just way too much information.”
Candidates make many of their appearances during the day when people are working, and few people can attend events. But despite low participation, many Iowa residents still argue for their state’s first-in-the-nation caucus status.
Some say Iowa is appealing because it’s a small state and candidates can get their message out to voters more easily.
Flanigan said there could be an alternative to the current national system: Instead of having Iowa and New Hampshire as the first caucuses and primaries, other states could take their place.
“It would have to be a place that is not too big and not too expensive where candidates can practice and learn,” Flanigan said.
Among its weaknesses, Iowa has a small minority population of less than 3 percent, less than the U.S. average.
“Iowa is a good indicator of what the Midwest is thinking, but it may not be a good indicator of what the country is thinking,” Brittain said.

Megan Boldt welcomes comments at [email protected]