If history repeats itself, the heralded Iowa caucus is not a bellwether of who will be our next president.
In 2008, the Democratic portion of that event selected Barack Obama with 38 percent of the vote, John Edwards with 30 percent and Hillary Clinton with 29 percent. Five days later in the New Hampshire primary, Clinton won with 39 percent compared to Obama’s 36 percent.
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee won Iowa’s caucus with 34 percent. Mitt Romney followed with 25 percent. Ron Paul was fifth with 10 percent of the votes in the six-candidate race. Obama defeated John McCain, who won more primaries than did the apparent stronger Republican candidates in the caucus.
In the 2012 Iowa event, there was only a 20 percent turnout in which 122,255 straw votes were cast, a record. And to get that turnout, about $12 million was spent on TV ads by the candidates and the political action committees, which accounted for almost $8 million of the total.
Apparently, some Iowans feel the cost is worth the recognition the state gets by being first to put on a political show before the primaries. I must say, what a show it was, if you like the leading candidate changing almost daily. The pundits were busy trying to guess what Iowans were thinking, and too often failed in their conclusions.
The caucus is supposed to be an indication of which candidates appeal most to the voters with a chance to win the presidency. What I learned, however, is that it is a flip of the coin process, and for a simple reason.
The candidates try to put the best spin on decisions they made while their opponents try to question their judgment, even if they have to stretch the truth. Much of the 20 percent of the electorate that voted in the caucus admitted they switched their choices several times during the period leading to the straw vote. Some indicated that they came to the caucus undecided.
The results show that indecision.
Mitt Romney, who most commentators gave a wide lead, ended up eight votes ahead of Rick Santorum when the votes were tallied. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator lost badly in 2006, and was barely acknowledged by any of the politically knowledgeable commentators. Yet he ended up almost beating Romney.
Some prognosticators claim the results were skewed by the negative campaigning of some of Romney’s opponents. But that is politics, and nothing new.
In 1800, Vice President Thomas Jefferson ran against President John Adams. Jefferson was too much a gentleman to harshly criticize Adams. So he hired a writer to do so. One of the harshest lines read that Adams was a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”
Adams’ Federalist Party responded by suggesting to the voters if they voted for Jefferson, he would have “your dwelling in flames, female chastity violated, children writhing on the pike.” They asked the voters “to shield our country from destruction.”
John Quincy Adams accused his opponent, Andrew Jackson, of being a dictator and uneducated. His supporters hurled insults at Jackson’s wife, calling her “a convicted adulteress,” known for her “open and notorious lewdness.”
Perhaps in today’s political climate such wording might be modified. But rest assured candidates will seek to cast doubt on their opponents’ capabilities, and the PACs with pockets bulging with cash will twist the facts to promote the candidates they back.
The Iowa caucus is merely the start of an apparent looney political year. By the time you read this, New Hampshire voters faced with 14 Democratic and 30 Republican candidates will have made their choice.
Paul Gordon is a local historian, and was mayor of Frederick city from January 1990 to January 1994. His column appears weekly. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To submit a letter to the editor in response to this column, email email@example.com.