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I was at the Iowa caucuses last night. It's time to end this overblown, bloated horror of a process once and for all

For any journalist with an interest in America and its politics, there are few more more sublime pleasures than covering the Iowa caucuses.

At some point in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter decided this heartland state, with its peculiar, old-fashioned way of voting, would the first to hold its primary.

Since then, candidates and their campaigns have made a pilgrimage to this largely rural, overwhelmingly white part of the country each year to make their case to voters in whatever venues can be found – church halls, community centers, diners and even private homes. 

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And for journalists, what fun it is. You get to drive all over the place, throw your own questions at the candidates, and you often get a proper answer. You also get to speak to a lot of Iowans, who are incredibly friendly.

At the heart of it all is the set-piece caucus itself, a made-for-feature-writers spectacle of fun and and action in which people gather in school halls and vote with their bodies for a candidate. There’s lots of shouting and pulling, as supporters of one candidate try to convince people to ditch their person and join their group to make that candidate “viable”. The results are jotted down on a piece of paper.

There was a time when that worked and made some sort of sense. Defenders of the process are correct in saying those who show up to listen to candidates take the process seriously and put them under valuable scrutiny.

But Iowa’s time has come and gone. What may have once been a workable but quirky marker in the political calendar has now turned into an overblown, bloated horror that plays a vastly over-inflated role on shaping the presidential campaigns. 

And last night, we saw just how what happens when quirky turns to farce. In an attempt to introduce greater transparency into the counting of the votes, the authorities used an untested app that indicated discrepancies with the three sets of data being collated. The result: a delay in the release of results, candidates giving “victory speeches” and getting on their flights to New Hampshire, and a wave of conspiracy theories as to what went wrong.

Yet even before the debacle on Monday night, calls for Iowa to lose its first-in-the-nation status were growing louder. Because of the state's demographics, critics said, the caucuses favoured white candidates such as Pete Buttigieg, who went into Iowa as joint favorite and yet has much less support in the more diverse other early voting states of South Carolina and Nevada. 

Candidates of color struggled to find traction, and the likes of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Julian Castro all ended their campaigns many weeks before Iowa kicked off. 

US Election: What is the Iowa caucus?

“What people are going to be looking for in a candidate in a largely white state is going to be different to a place like South Carolina or Nevada,” Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a group that works to promote the political power of women of color, told The Independent last year. “It’s a structural racism question, because Iowa has an outsized voice in trying to winnow the field.”

At closer scrutiny, the caucus process is not as democratic as people might like. Because there is no private vote, people can feel pressured or bullied into supporting a candidate they did not plant to support. And because it requires people to show up in person for two hours in a winter night, it is impossible for those who are working, who are sick, who are disabled, or who otherwise can’t get to the caucus center to cast their vote and have their voices heard. Last night, turnout was said to be around 15 per cent.

For Iowa, the caucus has been a huge money-spinner. It was reported that Democrats spent $800m in the state this cycle — money spent primarily on consultants, television advertizing, office space, hotel rooms and restaurants.

What was once an operation that lasted a few weeks or months has turned into multi-year, military-style campaigns. When Tom Perez secured the backing of the Iowa state delegation to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, he did so after vowing it would continue to be first to vote.

It has been a privilege and a pleasure for me to have reported on three Iowa caucuses – in 2004, 2016 and 2020. In recent days, driving more than 800 miles zipping from Minneapolis to Des Moines, to Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Waverly, and back to Des Moines, I wondered whether we might all be witnessing the last caucus as it currently operates.

Last night showed it is time for something new, something more reflective of America’s diversity, something that is actually democratic. Thanks for everything, Iowa, but your time is up.