Critics mistaken to dismiss Iowa as ‘too white’

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Another Iowa caucus season, another long line of critics ready to diminish the state’s first-in-the-nation status based on resident demographics. Fortunately such tired narratives have once again fallen to performance.

Network television analyst Jeff Greenfield, writing for Politico, labeled the caucuses “a blight on American politics.” He quoted Democratic operative Joe Trippi to make his point: “After Iowa and New Hampshire, the Democratic primary race the rest of the way is an electorate that is 54 percent white and 46 percent minority.”

It’s no secret that Iowa residents are predominantly white — more than 87 percent so, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — or that the state’s overall percentage of minority populations rest below the national average. Few fail to note, however, the significant gains by minority groups in Iowa or how those shifts have influenced and shaped the campaign and caucus process.

At the core of Iowa’s party-based caucus system is a robust network of constituency caucuses.

That is, the Iowa electorate divides itself much further than simple Rs and Ds. At the party level, voters square off by gender, profession and, yes, race.

University of Iowa students line up for a Democratic Party caucus outside MacBride Hall on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.
University of Iowa students line up for a Democratic Party caucus outside MacBride Hall on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

When the presidential candidates roll into town, these sub-caucus groups have opportunities to vet candidates based on specific areas of concern, and then tend to divide again as they launch specific “women for ” or “farmers for ” or “whomever for whomever” groups to provide candidate outreach and information.

During the 2016 caucus cycle, this was most apparent with Latinos, who launched their own advocacy group to organize beside and outside of the political campaigns.

They sought not only to increase participation within their own ranks, but also to bring awareness to group-centric concerns.

But even if these sub-caucuses didn’t exist, if Iowans held merely another ballot-based primary, state residents should at least be judged as equally for performance as demographics. Eight years ago, when “too white” Iowa elevated a black man from Chicago who later won the general election, critics should have paused. And this year’s results should bury the faulty narrative.

When asked to vet a bumper crop of presidential hopefuls, Iowa did its job. Those receiving the biggest boost from the Hawkeye State include a Democratic woman and a Jewish man as well as two Republican men with Cuban heritage.

There are many arguments to be made for why Iowa and New Hampshire should lead the nominating calendar. Our size and media markets, for instance, provide an inexpensive playing field that allows a more diverse pool of candidates to compete. We are the gatekeepers that keep presidential politics from becoming a battle of television advertising. We ensure candidates do the hard work of standing before a room of voters and stating their case.

The caucuses don’t just happen. Every four years, thousands of volunteers step forward, giving untold hours of their personal time.

The state’s political parties set their differences aside to organize nearly 1,700 precincts throughout the state and report those results. With such a strong focus on grass-roots organizing, Iowans developed the voter file systems used by the national parties. And it was Iowa’s well-oiled caucus machine that was sent to Nevada to help lay the foundation for its early contest.

Can the caucus system be improved? Absolutely, and Iowans are constantly making adjustments. Constructive criticism is not only warranted, but welcomed.

But held within the “too white” jeers is an unfair and ugly assumption that Iowa voters can’t or won’t adequately vet diverse candidate pools.

Performance proves otherwise.

This column by Lynda Waddington orginally published in The Gazette on February 7, 2016. Photo credit: Adam Wesley/The Gazette