Iowa Comes Out a Loser After Caucus Count

State was once a model of participatory democracy. Now, it's a media show.

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The outcome was announced more than two weeks after the votes were cast on January 3, and it was one of the most embarrassing finales to a political contest in recent memory. But the Iowa Republican Party finally certified the presidential vote in its caucuses yesterday—and decided that there was no real winner.

Yet there was a loser—and that was the Iowa caucuses themselves as the first contest in the presidential race every four years.

Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn announced yesterday that former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had received 34 more votes than the previously reported winner, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. This was after Strawn had announced that Romney had won an eight-vote victory in the wee hours of caucus night.

There was controversy and incompetence all around. Errors were found in some precinct counts, and the results from eight precincts couldn't be accounted for at all, prompting state officials to speculate that those numbers might have shifted the victory back to Romney. So hey agreed to call it essentially a tie, with Santorum having 29,839 votes and Romney 29,805.

"One of the strengths of the Iowa caucus process is that the state was a level, fair playing field," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and former Des Moines Register political columnist. He told NBC News, "Candidates could come to the state and get an honest airing. There aren't political machines or a history of fraud. The inaccurate counting tarnished that reputation." [Read The Iowa Caucuses Are Un-American.]

Former Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia transformed the caucuses into a pivotal event in 1976 when, needing an early victory to put himself on the presidential map, he campaigned heavily in the state and surprised fellow Democrats by using a superior organization and person to person campaigning. After winning Iowa, Carter went on to capture the Democratic nomination and the presidency.

For years, the caucuses were lauded by good-government advocates because they were held by everyday people in their living rooms, in schools, and firehouses, and they seemed to be an exercise in direct democracy. People showed up, stated their presidential preference over cookies and coffee, and then voted, with a local citizen calling in the results to party headquarters. [Opinion: For Gingrich, the Personal Is Political]

But in recent years, the candidates have made the caucuses into high-powered examples of get-out-the-vote techniques, packing the caucuses with supporters wherever possible.

And the media have contributed to the problem by filling the state with reporters and helping to make candidate events into scrums of shoving, shouting journalists and TV cameras, instead of respectful and serious discussions of issues.

Now the 2012 mess has raised questions about the value of the caucuses as never before.

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