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The doge of Des Moines

What has me concerned is that on Main Street Iowa people are coming up to me and saying, ‘What do you think about Dr. Paul?’ These are folks who have to be informed. They have to get past the 30- and 60-second ads. If you ask Iowans if they’re for legalizing marijuana or legalizing heroin, they’d say no. But Dr. Paul has said on many occasions that that’s OK. But people don’t all know that.

I’m not sure whether to be delighted or depressed by the reaction of Iowa Republicans like Andy Cable to the suddenly-real possibility that Ron Paul might win—and thereby discredit!—the state’s first-in-the-nation nominating caucuses. The anomalous importance of Iowa within the U.S. election system has traditionally been defended on two major grounds: (a), that the state is pretty representative of the American “middle” in both geographic and demographic senses, and (b), that a small state like Iowa (or New Hampshire) can scrutinize candidates with a salutary close-up intensity, given a long pre-election period in which to do it.

There is no doubt something to these arguments. (Along with obvious rebuttals to both.) But how can a major party have its cake and eat it too? Specifically, how can the concept of Iowa’s special mission as a testing range for candidates be reconciled with Mr. Cable’s panicky Yuletide talk of uninformed goon voters flying off the handle? Cable’s state has benefited significantly from being a political bellwether, both from the quadrennial media activity and attention and from the political pork that follows. (Ethanol accounts for 9% of the state’s GDP.) Yet Cable is not even waiting for Paul to be nominated before undermining the whole basis for taking Iowa seriously.

Maybe it should be taken seriously; it would be hard to argue, at any rate, that Ron Paul is doing well in Iowa just because he’s so friendly to federal ethanol subsidies. Iowans have taken a good look at Paul, with his anti-Drug-War stance and his isolationist foreign policy and his constitutional literalism, and they appear to have tentatively decided that they like what they see. The response from the “elites”–specifically described as such in Jonathan Burns and Alexander Martin’s story for Politico—seems very much like Brecht’s line about dissolving the people and electing a new one.

You say the party’s insanely elaborate nominating procedure is threatening to deliver a frontrunner who doesn’t want to bung dope-smokers into jail or garrison the lunar surface? In that case, the governor of Iowa warns, “People are going to look at who comes in second and who comes in third.” This is not, I hasten to add, how Iowa chooses a governor.

Most people don’t realize just how far removed the “Iowa caucuses” are removed from any actual end-result in the form of a delegate count. It is not especially easy even to find out this information, though you will have a sense of it if you have ever viewed the chaos on C-SPAN. The marquee event is actually a process of selecting delegates from each precinct for county-level Republican conventions; after some free-form canvassing, voters in any individual precinct may be given a preprinted ballot, may be handed a blank scrap of paper, or may simply be asked to participate in a show of hands. There is no requirement that delegates even represent a specific presidential candidate.

Nonetheless, by some shockingly vague and opaque procedure, the state Republican Party manages to immediately generate and publicize a tally of notional “votes” for each nominee. But the precinct delegates to the county conventions don’t actually get together until March, at which time they assemble to select delegates to the congressional district conventions (which happen in April) and the statewide convention (in June). Iowa’s ultimate national delegation consists of three representatives each from the four congressional districts; 13 at-large delegates representing the entire state; and three state party mucky-mucks.

The whole system captures the arbitrariness, the ceremoniousness, and the rampant bargaining of the infamous electoral system of the pre-Napoleonic Venetian Republic. The Venetians used ten unsummarizable, half-daft rounds of lot-drawing and delegation to select their chief magistrate, the doge. For five centuries, nearly everybody in Europe, including the Venetians themselves, found this system incomprehensible. But it had virtues. In particular, it made the identities of the ultimate electors so difficult to predict that it was inefficient to target any person in particular for corruption or for what we now call “lobbying”. At the same time, it promised a clear and objective result if the procedures, which themselves acquired a charming patina of sacredness over time, were followed religiously.

Today’s U.S. party nominating process has the same totemistic quality, but without any of the benefits to democracy. The reported “outcome” of the January precinct caucuses may not reflect the reality of voter will, and it usually takes the form of a subjective “message” anyway. The perceived winner, as the governor says, might be the fellow who finished third—as long as he was expected beforehand to finish sixth. (Who creates these expectations? Don’t ask!) And far from dispersing and concealing the potential targets of “lobbying”, the Iowa caucuses make the whole state a focus of lavish promises by candidates for the national executive. If Ron Paul really does win, and thus turn Iowa into a sideshow, it may actually end up counting as the most consequential accomplishment in a long lifetime of public service.