Editorial: The Iowa caucus debacle shows the need to reform how we pick our presidential nominees

The debacle over the Iowa caucuses spotlights long-running criticisms of the way we select presidential nominees.
(Los Angeles Times)

The debacle of Monday’s Iowa Democratic caucuses spotlights the persistent problems that emerge every four years in that state, where voters are traditionally the first in the country to choose among the presidential candidates.

Yes, this time the incompetence on display was the Democrats’ embarrassment, but Republicans have taken a turn in the cone of shame too. It wasn’t that long ago that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seemed to have won the 2012 caucuses only to learn, 16 days later and after the New Hampshire primary, that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the real winner.

And there are bigger problems at play in Iowa than just delayed vote counts. In this era of foreign meddling and skepticism among American voters about how secure our elections really are, we badly need a process the American people can have faith in, and that is as fair and accessible as is possible. But the caucus system (which Nevada and Wyoming Democrats also use) is fundamentally undemocratic. Caucuses are prolonged party meetings, not traditional primaries. They’re not conducted with secret ballots, thereby freezing out those who don’t want their preference known. And by their very nature they limit participation by people who have trouble getting to or attending a meeting at a set time of day, including the elderly, people with mobility problems, and young families with limited child-care options, among others. Caucus turnout is traditionally very low.

It’s long been recognized that Iowa and New Hampshire, with overwhelmingly white populations, do not reflect the nation’s broader racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. Yet because they are the nation’s first presidential nominating contests, they have played a disproportionate role in the selection of presidential candidates, giving some a boost if they do well and undercutting others. (Since 1988, half of the winners in contested Iowa caucuses have gone on to win their party’s nomination.)

Some critics say Iowa’s nominating process needs to be overhauled. Some have suggested a rotating primary schedule, with the early contests shifting among the states every four years. Others have argued for a regional approach, with multiple states reflecting varying demographics voting at the same time, a series of mini-Super Tuesdays. National Public Radio conducted an analysis four years ago that concluded that Illinois, home to the ethnically diverse Chicago metropolitan area but also a number of small cities and vast rural areas, was the state that most closely matched the national demographic mix. So maybe Illinois should go first.

Iowa’s problems have multiple possible solutions. The major parties should be seeking them.