When senior Emma Colman arrived at a 2012 Republican caucus in her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, she had no way of knowing she would soon be forcibly expelled.
As the constituents surrounding Colman and her companions promoted their favored candidates, it soon became evident that no one would advocate for Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and presidential hopeful infamous for his numerous extramarital affairs.
Then Colman’s friend approached the platform and said in a mocking tone, “Newt Gingrich has been married three times, but that does not mean he is not a supporter of strong family values.” The pronouncement quickly led to both her and her friend’s removal from the event.
February 1 marks one of the most well-publicized and significant political events of the year: the Iowa caucus. But most students at Knox do not share Colman’s vivid experience of the process. Even students who hail from caucus states like Iowa and Colorado have a hard time not only describing these meetings, but also divining their purpose.
“[It’s] a bunch of people yelling at each other about politics until they decide who to vote for,” sophomore and Coloradan Brendan Reeves said.
The caucus system consists of a sequence of meetings in which delegates are chosen to advance through precinct, county, district and state conventions. The chosen delegates conclude by representing their state’s interests at the National Party Conventions in July. The Party will then officially ratify their presidential nominee.
Caucuses differ from primaries in that state parties run caucuses, while state governments hold primaries. Caucuses often involve public promotion of candidates and require a greater time commitment than primaries, wherein a voter simply marks a ballot. Caucuses also traditionally command less voter turnout than primaries.
Reeves was skeptical about their efficacy. “I feel like any political discourse you’re supposed to get out of the caucus … should be happening anyways in your everyday life. You should be thinking about it, you should be listening about it, you should be talking to people about it,” he said.
Associate Professor of Political Science Duane Oldfield claims caucuses tend to benefit candidates with strong organization and intense followings. Sufficient evidence of this thesis was provided by Oldfield’s study of televangelist Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign.
“I was at a Robertson event a few days before the convention, and they actually had a mock prayer for snow, because this would get rid of the fair-weather [constituents]. Their people would show up regardless,” Oldfield said.
Early caucuses and primaries often disproportionately influence party nominations. A strong performance at the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary, in particular, often increases the perceived feasibility of a candidate’s campaign.
Colman was critical of this system of nomination. “I think too much weight can be put on premeditation. People will predetermine the president, and then lose faith if a candidate doesn’t do well in a state.”
Several Knox students are either incapable or uninterested in participating in their state caucuses. Caucuses do not allow absentee voting, so many out-of-state students have been effectively disenfranchised by insurmountable distance. Others consider caucuses to be ultimately insignificant in the political process.
Junior Sean Treacy, who hails from Boulder, Colo., said, “The desire to vote incorporates various factors, one of them being the cost of voting. I don’t think my personal reward for doing my civic duty would overcome the cost.”
As Colman and her friend were ushered out of the Republican caucus for false proselytizing, her friend repeatedly shouted, “I will be heard!” But for many Knox students of caucus states, that remains to be seen.