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White House hopefuls in frantic sprint to crucial Iowa caucus

First contest to nominate Republican and Democrat candidates in US presidential elections begins on Monday.

world Updated: Feb 01, 2016 01:18 IST
Republican US presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump and rival candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R) cross paths during a debate in North Charleston, South Carolina.
Republican US presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump and rival candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R) cross paths during a debate in North Charleston, South Carolina.(Reuters)

Who will Iowa choose this Monday? Donald Trump or Ted Cruz on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders on the Democratic? Or, some one expected the least?

Four years ago, Rick Santorum, a Republican running for the party’s presidential nomination, left Iowa after finishing second, not bad for someone who had been polling poorly till recently.

He had lost to Mitt Romney, the front-runner, by eight votes. Santorum tanked the next few primary races on the trot. But he was declared the winner over two weeks later. He had beaten Romney by 34 votes, in fact.

How did that happen?

“It depends who you ask,” said Simon Conway, host at WHO, an Iowa radio station considered extremely influential among conservatives — Ronald Reagan worked there once.

“Some people will tell you it was deliberate because Rick Santorum was a conservative and Mitt Romney was very much the establishment, and the party was in the control of the establishment and they wanted the establishment guy to win.” Then there are those who believe, Conway went on, “it was simply a mistake and not deliberate, then it was a human error”. Hopefully, it won’t happen again, he added. Iowa caucuses on Monday, kicking off the 2016 presidential primaries for both Republicans and Democrats, and pundits and experts said the state has a tendency to not do the predictable.

A little-known first-time senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, toppled Hillary, considered the inevitable Democratic candidate, in Iowa and went on to win the White House.

Why is Iowa important?

“I strongly believe that President Obama would not be our President if it wasn’t for the state of Iowa,” said Conway.

Iowa lets lesser known candidates with less money, he added, “to be perfectly honest with you – to get known and to get on the radar of other people”.

It was Iowa again that turned Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer and a first-time obscure governor of Georgia, into a viable candidate, who went on to win the White

House. Longtime Iowa political writer and commentator David Yepsen said Iowa caucuses serve two purposes. One, “they can escalate a candidate from obscurity as they did in 1976 “ with Carter.

Two, the caucuses winnow the field. If a candidate doesn’t figure in the top three, donations tend to dry up and supporters switch to other more viable candidates.

“So you’ll hear the phrase that there are three tickets out in Iowa,” Yepsen said. First, second and third. The rest get the message and fold up right away or soon.

Don’t trust the polls

Romney was way ahead in polls in 2012, but he lost in Iowa, eventually, to Santorum, who was polling third at that stage, and was was in single-digits two weeks before.

“It’s difficult enough for pollsters to poll general elections,” said Yepsen. “It’s more difficult to poll primaries. It’s even more difficult to poll caucuses. So you take these polls with a grain of salt.”

Conway just doesn’t trust polls. Where are the landlines in the United States, the mainstay of polls? “In all honesty, in the United States there aren’t that many landlines left and that’s how they do the majority of the polling.”

How does it work?

Only registered members can participate in these caucuses, in both parties. And they will meet at specified locations in each of Iowa’s 1,681 precincts (police station areas).

Republicans vote on individual ballots, count them at the end and declare the winner.

Democrats follow a more complex process. After the rules have been read, participants are asked to cluster in separate parts of the room depending on who they support. Undecided voters form their own group.

To stay in the fray — remain “viable” — a group must have at least 15% of the total number in attendance. Member of groups found not “viable” get to realign with other groups in subsequent re-clustering. This process continues till all groups are “viable”.