Forget Iowa

Hillary Clinton's ahead. No, it's Barack Obama. Mitt Romney's up. No, it's Mike Huckabee.

Media attention to the less-than-critical Iowa caucuses reminds me of the pithy saw: "The more that's said and done, the less that's said than done."

The Iowa caucuses are first. But they're not important. No offense meant to the Iowans who participate. They are solid citizens doing their political duty. The problem is they do not represent U.S. voters as a whole and so are hardly prescient when it comes to divining who will ultimately win each party's nomination.

As David Redlawsk, political science professor at the University of Iowa and director of the Hawkeye Poll, said on public radio last night, caucusgoers as a whole tend to be older, whiter, more male, and more Republican than the nation and even than Iowa itself. A mere 6 to 7 percent of Iowans tend to participate in the caucuses, because the process takes much longer and is much more public compared with the brevity and privacy of entering an enclosed polling station and pushing some buttons.

Americans are well known for blaming their decision not to vote on a lack of time. While lines at some polling places can be hours long, if a voter times his or her stop correctly, getting in and out of a polling place can be much quicker. And there's always absentee balloting.

Iowa caucuses demand hours and hours of participation by caucusgoers. Here's how it works, as a Des Moines Register columnist explains:

"At a caucus, party activists go to a meeting where they start the process of nominating presidential candidates by expressing an initial preference for a candidate. Any registered Democrat or Republican can be a party activist and attend a caucus. In Iowa, caucus-goers elect delegates to county conventions, who, in turn, elect delegates to district and state conventions where national convention delegates are selected. That makes these meetings of local party leaders and activists an important first step in picking presidents."

With 22 states holding primaries on February 5 (including delegate-rich New York, California, and Illinois), the presidential nominees won't be decided until at least that date. Florida's primary this year was moved up to January 29, but Ohio and Texas primary voters don't go to the polls until early March. And with polls zigzagging the way they have been these past few weeks, it could easily be March before the nominations are wrapped up.

By Bonnie Erbe