Disrespecting the Caucuses

Remember that bizarre scene in Season 3 of The Sopranos, where a psychopathic hood who murdered his pregnant girlfriend in the parking lot of Tony’s gangster retreat the “Bada Bing!” strip joint, comes hat in hand to Tony to apologize? He apologizes not for the murder, but for “disrespecting the Bing.”

That’s what Iowa commentary on Sam Clovis’ high-profile defection from the Perry to the Trump campaign last week reminded me of.

In the Iowa Daily Democrat, veteran political reporter Mike Glover made it clear in the lede that what concerned him about Clovis’ action is that it might make outsiders doubt the pristine integrity of the Iowa Caucuses. He even uses the word “pristine:”

There’s yet another episode which could dent the pristine nature of Iowa’s precinct caucuses and could be used by critics to launch a new assault on Iowa’s treasured leadoff status in the presidential primary season.

“States around the country do not like the position of Iowa and they give a lot of reasons,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford. “This would be just one more issue.”

The latest episode came when a leader of Rick Perry’s campaign quit after Perry halted staff payments, and then quickly went to work for Donald Trump. Sam Clovis had been Perry’s state chairman, and raised eyebrows when he switched to Trump, a candidate he had once said lacked a “moral center.”

“It looks bad for the candidates,” said former House Speaker Christopher Rants. “You don’t want to have a few bad examples sort of tarnish the image of the caucuses.”

There’s a lot of discussion about the issue in Republican circles, in part because one of the key selling points for keeping the caucuses in their leadoff spot is backers argue they are an open process with no hint of scandal. There have been episodes recently that allow critics to question that status. The decision by Clovis to switch to a candidate he had harshly criticized is only the most recent.

Glover goes on to compare the Clovis incident to the 2012 defection of state senator Kent Sorenson from Michele Bachmann’s campaign to Ron Paul’s. But it seems the basis of the comparison isn’t an accusation that Clovis, like Sorensen, took a bribe to switch candidates–an offense that could yet land Sorenson and several Paul aides in the hoosegow–but again, just the terrible specter of Iowa’s enemies having a weapon of innuendo to use against the privileged position of the Caucuses. In other words, Clovis, like Sorensen, disrespected the Bing–er, I mean, the Caucuses–by not thinking first of their Iowa obligations.

Lest you think this is a partisan take by Glover, it was echoed by a more recent post in The Iowa Republican by that website’s founder and editor, Craig Robertson.

Now you might expect Robinson to score Clovis for abandoning his conservative principles in signing onto the Trump bandwagon (or as rumor has it about salaries in Trumpland, gravy train). But instead, he bases his criticism on disloyalty, which he illustrates with personal stories about counseling–you guessed it!–Kent Sorenson. And in both cases, it’s all about the impression outsiders will have about the Caucuses!

What I hate about all of this is how it negatively reflects upon the caucuses themselves. The first line in [New York Times reporter] Trip Gabriel’s latest article about the caucuses reads, “Is Iowa for sale?” How awful is that?

That’s Iowa presidential politics in a nutshell, folks: an awful lot of it is about how the state’s contest appears in the eyes of people like Trip Gabriel, and in turn on the national movers-and-shakers who read the Times. Hilariously, Gabriel himself talks about it:

Last week, the Sorenson case was being tied to Mr. Clovis’s in political circles, though Iowans were quick to say there was no appearance of illegality in what Mr. Clovis had done.

Instead, it was a matter of seeing the state’s image tarnished. “This perception that support is for sale, to see such a blatant display of that, it’s exactly the kind of thing that’s harmful to the Iowa caucuses,” said a leading Republican official who is not affiliated with a campaign.

So while opinions may differ on the words and deeds of presidential candidates and their operatives in Iowa, there’s agreement on one thing across every partisan and ideological barrier: Don’t disrespect the Caucuses! It’s the best lesson yet on the peculiar thinking of early-state activists.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.