Stuff Still Happens, week 4: The Iowa caucuses explained … sort of

After 15,723 polls, 787,252 hours of TV time, and 254 billion words written (all numbers estimates), the election process to choose the next President of the United States begins in earnest on Monday.

If you’ve only been paying fleeting attention, you may well be saying, “What, Donald Trump isn’t president yet?” Well, no, he’s not, and I still say he will never be president, (a few months ago I would have put never it italics; now, I’m not so sure). On Monday, with an arcane process called a caucus, the voters will finally have their say in the Republican and Democratic races. The first event is in Iowa, home to about 3.1 million people, a state so obscure that it makes news only every four years when it holds the first caucus of the presidential election. By way of explanation, as best I can, a caucus is not a primary. A caucus requires voters to gather at a specific place — 1,681 of them to be exact — at 7 p.m. Iowa time. For the Republicans, it’s a straightforward secret ballot. The Democrats, however, have a system so complex, I can only refer you to this article from How Stuff Works to explain it. It’s so freaking weird, I don’t know why nobody has changed it yet. Eventually, winners are chosen and delegates apportioned to the candidates for the conventions in the summer. How much of an indicator of future success is the Iowa caucus? For the Democrats, it’s pretty good. Barack Obama, John Kerry and Al Gore all won Iowa, and went on to be the nominees. For the Republicans, it’s mixed: the last two caucuses were won by far right freak candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee (in 2008, the eventual nominee, John McCain, finished a distant third). Iowa, however, is important for momentum if nothing else (and it is nothing else), because it hardly represents the general American population. Iowa is a whopping 92% white (national average is 77%), and only 4.5% of its population is foreign born. Iowa is a lot closer to what the USA used to look like 50 years ago, rather than how it looks now. Anyway, by Tuesday, Iowa will be in the rear-view mirror, as attention will turn to the New Hampshire primary the next Tuesday, another state with an outsized reputation.

Still with Iowa, the candidates have spent staggering amounts of money on TV ads. Hillary Clinton, who was expecting a coronation, was forced by aging socialist Bernie Sanders to spend $16 million on TV ads in Iowa. Sanders, who is Mr. Frugal, managed to spend about $8 million. On the Republican side, Marco Rubio, probably in third place, dumped almost $10 million in TV ads. But the biggest waste of money was spent by the hopeless, hapless, almost tragic Jeb Bush, another presumptive front runner. The Bush campaign and the SuperPAC supporting him have spent $9 million in Iowa, and he is polling at about 3% support. A better use of that money would have been to burn it for fuel.

While the process of electing a president may seem endless and byzantine, it looks positively streamlined compared to getting a length of pipeline laid in this country. Getting pipelines approved, much less built, has proven to be the thorniest issue facing the new Trudeau government. Last week’s pronouncement by the King of the Sovereign State of Montreal, Prince Denis Codere, that he opposes the Energy East pipeline resulted in a nationwide shitstorm. Trudeau has tried to calm the waters by paying Prince Codere a visit. The result was nothing but soothing rhetoric and the traditional two-handed handshake (one hand doing the traditional shake, the other hand grasping the other guy’s elbow or shoulder). The Trudeau government has since announced that pipelines will have to undergo several additional steps in the regulatory review, in the hopes, I suppose, that even more regulation will appease the anti-pipeline crowd. This will add months, and probably millions of dollars, to the process. And let’s be honest — no amount of government tinkering with the regulatory process will make pipeline opponents happy. In case you’re wondering, these pipelines are not the first Canada has ever built. We have 73,000 km of existing oil pipeline in Canada, and they seem to work pretty well. According to government figures, 99.999 per cent of their contents arrive safely at their destination. But to Codere, the .001 per cent chance of a complete, catastrophic failure is too much of a gamble. If we all had Codere’s view, nobody would fly in an airplane, drive a car, or walk across the street.

Have you heard of the Ziki virus? If you haven’t, you will. The media is in full-on panic mode.

The Ziki virus is a mosquito-born illness found in increasingly large numbers in South America, mostly Brazil. In almost all cases, it causes mild, flu-like symptoms — many people will never even know they have the virus — and it is non-contagious. But it has been linked (not conclusively) to severe birth defects in children born to mothers who had the virus. The World Health Organization, whose primary purpose seems to be spread panic around the world, said the virus has gone from “mild threat to one of alarming proportions”. Three Canadians have the virus, all of whom contracted it elsewhere. The mosquito which carries the virus, by the way, isn’t found in Canada. But that’s more than enough info for the Canadian media to go into full-on apocalypse mode. Should you be worried about the Ziki virus? If you’re pregnant and planning a trip to Brazil in the immediate future, yes. If you don’t fall into that infinitely small demographic, then no.

Speaking of panic, the Alberta oil industry, once robust and muscular but now as delicate as a newborn, nervously awaited the results of the NDP government’s royalty review. After much consternation, the government announced that, basically, everything is just fine and we’ll leave things as they are. Really, there was no other choice; you can’t raise the royalty rates on an industry that is in crisis mode. The royalty review was one of those poorly thought out campaign promises made by the NDP when they believed they had no chance of winning that they had to make good on. It will not find its place in the legislature library, never to be heard from again.

RIP: This time, for real: Abe Vigoda, 94, the morose, sad-eyed character actor best known as Det. Fish in the classic 1970s-80s sitcom Barney Miller, and doomed Mafioso Sal Tessio in The Godfather. Vigoda enjoyed a second life, so to speak, when it was wrongly reported — twice! — that he was dead. Vigoda played along, resulting in a long running gag on late night TV shows like David Letterman and Conan O’Brien … Paul Kantner, 74, guitarist and songwriter for Jefferson Airplane/Starship … The Guelph Mercury, 149, the only daily newspaper in Guelph, Ont. … The Nanaimo Daily News, 141, daily paper for Nanaimo, B.C.


By Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas is a lifelong Albertan, award-winning writer and reporter, and a former MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.

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