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Nation Looks at Caucuses with Skepticism

Nicu Buculei
With the razor-thin margin between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, decisions made by coin flips in many Democratic precincts drew ire nationwide.

Every four years, the post-caucuses sigh of relief comes with a pessimistic prognostication: the caucuses are done for. Much like pre-caucus think pieces on why Iowa doesn't deserve its first-in-the nation status, the proclamation comes from political pundits, deflated candidate volunteers, and strung-out news junkies.

With the tightness of this year's Democratic race, all eyes turned toward precincts that awarded candidates by coin flips, and demands for the Iowa Democratic Party to release vote totals, (not to mention Trump’s assertion Cruz won by fraud), there’s perhaps more reason than ever to question the caucuses’ future. Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, says any system in any state would draw this type of scrutiny if it were first in the nation.

“I’m not sure things like the coin toss are necessarily the problem. If you have a situation where the vote in some precinct is in fact tied, you’ve got to make a decision. And the coin toss, some of the defenders have indicated, is often the way to do it. […] Any system like this that gets put under the microscope, you’re going to find some problems.”

Kelly Winfrey, assistant professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, says the unique process of the caucuses, compared to the relative straightforward nature of New Hampshire’s primary, for instance, doesn’t make defending them any easier.

“The democratic caucus process is complicated and it doesn’t fit easily into sound bites, so it’s not easy for the general public to understand how that process works.”

Hagle says many caucus detractors miss the point.

“You always see, every year, people complaining about Iowa or asking ‘Why Iowa?’ and so forth. Neither Iowa nor New Hampshire is necessarily representative of the rest of the nation. It’s not really our job to be. Our job is to be fair, take a critical look at the candidates, and winnow the field. And we’ve got to do that in a process that’s as clear and as fair as possible.”

In this hour of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks with Winfrey and Hagle about the esteem of the Iowa Caucuses after this year’s run. Dan Barrick, director of New Hampshire Public Radio’s State of Democracy, also joins the program to help parse primary results.  

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River