OK, Iowans, let’s go. To your caucuses tonight, that is.
The rallies, coffees, handshakes, speeches, phone calls and debates are over. Tomorrow, the herd of candidates, aides and reporters will have headed off to New Hampshire, not to return for four years.
But the impact of tonight’s decisions will be long-lasting.
As it has since the 1970s, Iowa holds a particularly important place in this process, coming at the head of the presidential nominating line. The caucuses may not have a great track record of predicting the ultimate nominees, but these contests do start seriously narrowing the field.
Yet numbers compiled by the Iowa Caucus Project at Drake University in Des Moines show that voter participation has been, well, a bit underwhelming given the state’s importance.
In 2004, President George W. Bush was seeking re-election so the GOP side was quiet. In the other party, only 23.3 percent of registered Democrats — fewer than one in four — participated in the caucuses. That was just 124,331 out of 533,107 eligible Democratic voters.
In 2008, with no incumbents in either party, Republican turnout was 20.7 percent, 119,200 from a GOP registration total of 576,231. Democrats saw participation rise to 39.5 percent, but that was still just under four in 10. In 2012, only 19.76 percent of registered Republican voters showed up to start picking a challenger to incumbent President Barack Obama.
Critics can argue that such smallish turnouts are another reason to disqualify Iowa from going first, but primary turnout isn’t all that swell in other states, either.
The Washington Times, citing data from the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, reported that in 2012, “Turnout in ... presidential and Senate primaries was the lowest on record, at 15.9 percent of eligible citizens.”
Regardless of Iowa’s peculiarities — small population, rural, lack of diversity, a time-consuming caucus process — the Hawkeye State goes first, and that gives the contests serious weight.
Iowans and all who care about the nation’s future should hope that voters reverse the turnout recent trend and flock to these gatherings tonight.
As in any election, the larger the turnout, the greater likelihood that the outcome will accurately reflect the public’s preferences.