Maybe it’s the fact that it’s in Iowa that the first presidential caucuses are charming. Iowa doesn’t feel like a place where big money and fancy suits win electoral contests (and it’s not; one of the most endearing characteristics about former Republican Rep. Jim Leach was that he wore sweaters under his suitcoats). But without the down-home nature of Midwestern Iowa setting the mood, the caucuses by very definition feel disturbingly un-American.
Caucuses aren’t really free elections. They’re meetings at which group dynamics and peer (or nonpeer) pressure is present and can have an impact on who wins the day. There is no privacy, no secret vote. Friends or married couples who might have deceived each other about whom they were voting for won’t be able to keep the lie alive in a caucus. That might be laudable on some Dr. Phil meter of honesty, but it’s not good for the electoral system. Free and fair elections demand secret ballots.
Watching a caucus can be fascinating to the outsider, and can provide insights to observers and campaign workers alike about who has what constituency group. At the Nevada caucuses in 2008--one of them held, appropriate, at a casino hotel ballroom in Las Vegas--the division was stark. The housekeepers, many of them Latina, huddled on one side of the room, cheering for Hillary Clinton. The showgirls and other younger casino workers gathered in smaller clusters for Barack Obama. It provided an interesting visual, and one that backed the polls: Clinton had a loyal following among Hispanics, and had earned support from those female wage-earners, despite official support for Obama from the casino workers’ union. But there was something very creepy about the public display of individual support, especially since it wasn’t voluntary. There is no opportunity, in a presidential caucus, to give a private endorsement of any candidate.
Iowans have been doing this a long time, and are no doubt used to giving up the opportunity to cast a secret ballot. Will it make some voters feel pressured to support one candidate or another? Will some feel isolated, casting a ballot for a Jon Huntsman or even a falling Michele Bachmann, fearful of looking silly for backing a candidate now seen as having little chance of winning the GOP nomination? Public protest and free speech are honorable, and are American rights. But so is choosing to be quiet about one’s political views.