by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

In less than a week, the presidential campaigns have shifted from the direct democracy of the Iowa caucuses to the “campaign as usual” format of today’s New Hampshire primary. Many candidates, especially the losers in Iowa, seem glad to return to the tried-and-true formula: raise more money than your opponents + test your messages with focus groups + run more negative ads than your opponents + wait for the ballots to be counted = win.

Although many people and candidates are not enamored with the Iowa caucus system, anyone who watches the process can recognize a dynamic democratic process at work as neighbors debate the merits of the various candidates and persuade their fellow citizens to vote for one candidate over another. Contrast that caucus process with the primary’s carpet-bombing of the populace with negative advertising before a secret election, and you have to wonder why the parties in all states don’t use a caucus system to choose their candidates.

Of course, this face-to-face style of casting your vote is not for everyone, and certainly the lack of a secret ballot discourages a large number of people from participating. But as the means for a political party to pick its candidate for the general election, a caucus system seems like a more honest and open way to do it.

Probably the biggest advantage of the Iowa caucus system is that face-to-face politics can reduce the advantages that come with money. All the money spent in the Iowa race is not yet accounted for, but here is what it looks like the Democratic candidates spent: Barack Obama, $9.5 million; Hillary Clinton, $8 million; John Edwards, $4 million. On the Republican side, Mitt Romney spent about $7 million to $8 million and Mike Huckabee about $1.4 million.

The fact that money doesn’t matter as much in a caucus system is reflected best by Huckabee’s win. Additionally, when you look at the cost per delegate to the state convention – remember that is what this is all about for the candidates, winning seats at their party’s conventions – you can see that spending the most money doesn’t get you the most delegates. Clinton spent about $10,176 for each of the 737 delegates she secured to the state convention, Obama spent about $10,106 for each of the 940 delegates he secured, and Edwards spent about $5,376 for each of his 744 delegates.

One of the main criticisms of the Iowa caucuses is that caucus-goers don’t reflect the diverse viewpoints of our country’s population, and hence neither do the candidates they pick. This is certainly a valid argument, but it seems like less of a reason for getting rid of the Iowa caucuses and more of a reason for every state political party to use a caucus to pick its nominee.

There will actually be caucuses held here in Missouri as well, but only after Missouri’s presidential primary on Feb. 5. At Missouri’s caucuses, the various political parties choose their delegates to the upcoming conventions (state and national). Candidate delegates are selected in proportion to the percentage of votes received during the February primary. That is, if Clinton wins 40 percent of the vote and Obama wins 60 percent of the Democratic vote, then 40 percent of the delegates from Missouri will be obligated to vote for Hillary at the Democratic National Convention and 60 percent will be pledged to Obama.

Because Missouri’s primary is a binding primary, there is no switching candidates once delegates are chosen. As such, the caucuses and state conventions have become largely symbolic and of interest to party insiders only.

But that was not always the case. There was a time in Missouri when caucuses were held in each ward and precinct and people got together to decide who their political party’s candidate would be.

As we race toward Missouri’s presidential primary, I think we are all starting to wonder whether there is a better way to pick a candidate. It isn’t perfect, but returning to a caucus system in Missouri would be a step in the right direction.

If you are not a registered voter, tomorrow is the deadline to register if you want to vote in the Feb. 5 primary. In Missouri, we don’t register as members of particular political parties.

Rather, as long as you are a registered voter, you can vote in any one of the three primary contests (Republican, Democratic or Libertarian) on Feb. 5.