Paul Simon: You May Already Have Won!
The Fraud of Iowa, Chapter One
Posted Wednesday, August 11, 1999
Sunday's Washington Post contains an early example of what should be many attacks on the pivotal, world-historic GOP straw poll to be held in Ames, Iowa on Saturday. The piece, by James Flansburg, a veteran Iowa reporter, depicts the poll as a meaningless stunt staged by the party to raise money.
He's right, no doubt. But at least this Saturday the Republicans can be expected to accurately count the votes of everyone who pays $25 and shows an Iowa driver's license. That is more than can always be said for the fabled first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses themselves, currently scheduled for next February.
I helped cover the caucuses for Newsweek in 1988, when they were also treated as a very big deal. Reporters camped out in Des Moines months in advance. Time ran a cover story on Iowa ("The Folks With First Say") a few weeks before the great event. All the anchors were there, and half the nation's satellite uplink trucks.
But here is the central fact to remember about those caucuses: despite the huge press presence, to this day, nobody knows who won. At least on the Democratic side. True, the TV networks announced that Rep. Richard Gephardt had edged out Illinois Senator Paul Simon by 3 percentage points, and this news sent the Simon campaign into a nosedive, effectively ending his presidential quest. But Simon may actually have been the winner. We don't know.
Why? The full case was laid out in a terrific, underpublicized article by William Saletan (who now writes for Slate) in the June 1988 issue of American Politics. The article doesn't seem to be on the web (even LEXIS-NEXIS) so I'll summarize Saletan's points.
First, the networks counted the wrong vote. Seven Democrats were running in Iowa. When the state's caucusgoers gathered in their 2,500 precinct meetings, they formed themselves into groups supporting the various candidates. (Let's call this the first, preliminary vote.) But if a candidate's group was too small (less than 15 percent of the total) the group was declared not "viable," and those in it were told to redistribute themselves to their second choices among the "viable" candidates. This second vote (let's call it the second vote) was what was officially counted by the party -- and these official results were then "weighted" and fiddled with by a complicated official formula to produce an official Democratic distribution of delegates.
The TV networks could have used this final official count, or even the result of the "second vote" before it was fiddled with. But no! The networks, and their joint vote-counting organization, the News Election Service (N.E.S.), wanted a simpler count, one that didn't eliminate the votes for "non-viable" candidates, and above all one they could report before their viewers went to sleep for the night. So they decided on their own to count the unofficial first vote, to declare it the Iowa vote that mattered, and to report this vote breathlessly to the waiting world.
What was wrong with that? Nothing, except that the first vote had no official meaning, and (more important) was very difficult to count. The preliminary "non-viable" candidate groupings sometimes coalesced for only a moment before they were disbanded and redistributed to other candidates. Party officials refused to cooperate in publicizing this unofficial, momentary vote -- the count, or rather estimate, of the size of the groups had to be made by the "reporters" in each precinct who worked for the N.E.S..
But these N.E.S. reporters were skilled, well-trained professionals, you say? Wrong again! Saletan reports that "[m]any of the people hired as reporters were minors recruited by high school government teachers and youth group directors. Most of the kids were told they could get the first, preliminary vote from the caucus registry," which they weren't in fact permitted to do. "Some kids tried to read the registries upside down. Some freaked out and left."
Other N.E.S. reporters never made it to their caucuses because they tried to cover two precincts at once, betting foolishly that the votes wouldn't occur simultaneously. Others didn't bother to phone in results. Still others found they simply couldn't count the "non-viable" groupings before they dispersed -- something Saletan's interviews indicated happened in "one of every three caucuses." In an estimated fourth of the precincts, reporters didn't count the larger "viable" groups until the second round of voting, inflating their totals. The NES ignored all these problems, confidently reporting results that at least one Democratic county chair suspected were "totally fictitious."
Oh, yes -- did I mention that the N.E.S. stopped even this Potemkin count with only 70 percent of the precincts reporting?
None of this prevented the television networks from congratulating Gephardt and broadcasting his victory to the nation. Nor did it stop the network executives, perhaps oblivious to what had really gone on, from defending the N.E.S. results to Saletan.
Over the next few days, many in the press will succumb to the seemingly sensible view that straw polls like the Ames event are phony, while the Iowa caucuses next year are "real." The truth may be more the other way around. In the lonely months after Ames, when you see your favorite televised political analyst go on about the importance to Bradley (or Gore, or Bauer) of a good showing in those crucial caucuses, think of poor Paul Simon. And change the channel.
Copyright 1999 Mickey Kaus.