The attention devoted to the Iowa caucus has been inversely proportional to its importance in the presidential nominating process. This is partly a function of the media’s obsession with the horse-race aspect of American politics, which favours that day’s latest poll numbers and micro-developments over analysis of substantive issues and the broader campaign narrative. But the caucus has a mediocre record in actually selecting candidates. Recall that in 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (remember him?) won the contest and in 1988 televangelist Pat Robertson defeated then-Vice President (and future president) George HW Bush. The caucus system itself is something of a scandal; it is not a secret ballot but rather a uniquely Midwestern shaming ritual in which citizens must spend hours on end “caucusing” among themselves until, via a process of elimination, they have decided upon a candidate.
It is for this reason that Texas Congressman Ron Paul has emerged as a potential winner of the caucus. No one with any political sense thinks that the arch-libertarian—a man who supports the legalisation of hard drugs and prostitution, opposes the 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed racial discrimination in private business, and whose idea of foreign policy is not to have one—will win the nomination. His supporters, however, are rabid, almost cult-like, in their devotion to the man, a consequence, as I’ve argued elsewhere, of the American libertarian creed, obsessed as it is with intellectual “consistency” rather than the dirty business of political compromise. The rehearsal of bigoted and conspiratorial content contained in the newsletters he published for two decades (which I found, and reported on, four years ago) has not made a dent in his support, which should tell you everything you need to know about Iowa’s Republican primary voters.