The Iowa Caucus mob

November 4th, 2015

There is a phrase in Latin, mobile vulgus, which means "the fickle crowd". Mobile vulgus is where we get the English word "mob". In ancient Rome, the mob became a dangerous political force which Emperors learned to pacify with free food and circuses.

Every four years in my home state of Iowa, the circus comes to us as we gear up for the Presidential caucus season. It's a little taste of power and limelight in an otherwise ignored state as would-be Emperors (well, technically would-be Presidents) test their skills at playing to the fickle crowd. 

Donald Trump proved himself to be rather good at it for a while. The brash, irreverent, attention addict knew how to make a big splash among Iowa's most impulsive crowd of voters. But it couldn't last. When you start out that loud, people turn their heads at first but eventually have to tune you out.

Ben Carson's soft-spoken faith is a little easier on the ears. Now that the starting horns have blared and the chariot-race has begun, Iowa voters are beginning to remember that this election is a marathon. We've still got three months of this circus left just to get to the first caucus. We might appreciate some time away from the lions and gladiators. It's sort of like when we leave the carnival rides of the midway during the Iowa State Fair and amble through the Ag Building to check out the Butter Cow and some prize-winning produce. It's nice to feel a little homey and nostalgic for a while. 

We see the same thing happening in the Democratic race. Lightning rod Bernie Sanders has energized the left with his fiery rhetoric and given Hillary a run for her money in the early race. But already it's becoming harder for him to hold the public's attention.

It must be maddening as a Presidential candidate to try to judge what the Iowa Circus Mob will decide to think next. Iowans employ a frustrating level of whimsy when choosing who they might caucus for. Sure, you've got your die-hard fans like in any sport--the people who get really upset when their team doesn't win--but most of us in Iowa have grown a little too used to the hype to give the process much weight. We like the attention we get when the candidates and the cameras pause for long enough to focus on us, but most of us know it's not real. We're just as cynical and weary of it all as the rest of the country; maybe more so.

We can't take the process too seriously just yet. Like most of the country, even with all the hoopla here, we won't really tune in until next year, most of us well after caucus-time. We'll let some of these hot-burning meteors flame out and then see which candidates have enough staying power to garner our serious consideration.

But in the meantime, it's an entertaining show and good for our economy, especially those in the media business. For example, here in Cedar Rapids where I live, our local TV station was purchased this year for $100 million, a crazy amount of money for a local station. Why? Because the buyers wanted to own a top-ranked television station during a presidential election cycle. They want to sell ads. 

Since I live here and have written for Ministry Matters before, they asked me to offer some reflections on the Iowa Caucuses over the next few months. Future articles might focus on how different candidates talk about faith, or how their policies have been influenced by their religious beliefs. For now, however, I have to say that like many Iowans, I just don't believe it's all that fruitful to analyze the circus or the mob it attracts just yet.

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