I'm constantly annoyed by media types and bloggers who repeatedly characterize our Caucus system as "bizarre," "complex" and overly complicated in its rules and execution. For the average Caucus goer, they might seem odd at first, but as to the actual degree of familiarity one must possess to caucus, it's really anything but complicated. Even a publication I respect (and read) as much as The Nation came out with this painful groaner tonight.
and former North Carolina are both within striking distance of Obama as Thursday's caucuses approach. And Clinton and Edwards retain what could yet be decisive strengths among the most likely caucus goers. This was clearly disappointing to me, a longtime Caucus goer (when I've actually lived in Iowa) who finds the whole process quite exhilarating, even (gasp) very democratic and anything but arcane. Those 78 pp. 'Instruction manuals' you've read about in the media --with the intimations that everyone must know them chapter and verse-- well, no average Caucus goer actually reads them! Those are for the party officials who conduct the actual Caucuses, because they contain the "real arcana" such as how to call a quorum, establish the 15% viability thresholds and the nuts and bolts on how to conduct the actual counts. One thing The Nation did get right (and it's no brilliant insight) is that they are notoriously unreliable to poll, due to the existence of the --recently deemed significant by the MSM-- "all important second choices" on Caucus night. Given the existence of a certain amount of 'horse trading' that can go on at a Caucus, the second choice is indeed a powerful feature of the Caucus. And one I consider an ultimately very democratic function of the Caucus, so bear with me.
What this means is that there is no clear leader, as the complex caucus process -- in which votes shift at the last minute as supporters of candidates realign on caucus night -- is virtually impossible to poll with the sort of accuracy that Americans have come to expect of surveys released shortly before actual elections.
Here's how it goes on Caucus night, so read along and see if you think you'd be capable of spending a couple of hours out on a cold January night making your best attempt to craft who will be the ultimate Presidential nominee of your party. It's serious business. And many dismiss the relatively low turnout as mere partisan manipulation on the part of the few, but that's a notion I reject out of hand. Yes, it's generally the party faithful who show up, but it's so much more ... citizens gathering in their neighborhood precincts come together and hear last minute arguments for candidates before they express their preferences in "The Count." But I'm getting ahead of myself and I suspect you might appreciate more the 'blow by blow' account, so here goes.
1) You show up where your precinct meets, (mine is in an elementary school cafeteria) at 6:30 p.m. on Caucus Night. You go in, you register with your name and address and are then considered part of the active pool of Caucus goers.
2) After that, you scope out the room for the tables occupied by supporters of your candidate and head on over, bearing any campaign regalia (t-shirts, signs, etc.) you may have in tow. (I'm going to take my camera this year so I can post some shots here.) You mingle with those you know, meet new people in your neighborhood, and generally enthuse in group praise of your candidate. Then you wait until the Caucus is called to order.
3) At 7:00 p.m. the doors are closed and the registration of new entrants stops. The officials in charge do a head count of those in attendance, perform some mathematical calculations to determine the 15% viability threshold (based on the number of people attending), the number of delegates available to the county and state conventions (those who are up for grabs by the candidates) and then call the Caucus to order. They explain what the basic rules are: there will be a minimum of 2 counts before the final results are tallied, and during the interim between the first and second count, any participants Caucusing for candidates who don't meet the 15% threshold are given a chance to regroup with other candidates or declare themselves 'Undecided.'
4) Some speechifying on behalf of each Candidate then takes place before the first count. Once that is completed, officials proceed to the first count. It's basically a procedure to the effect of All those who support Candidate X, now please make your preference known, and the people grouped for each candidate raise their hands. What do YOU have to actually do? Stand up and raise your hand at the appropriate time when the count is being conducted. It's that simple. If you ever raised your hand in a show of hands vote in grade school, you can participate in the Iowa Caucuses! The officials make a count of the people in each group and then declare that candidate either 'viable' or 'non-viable.' This proceeds around the room until all candidates have been declared either 'viable' or 'non-viable.'
5) There's then an open period --I don't recall how long, but it's about 20-30 minutes maximum-- during which you can lobby (ack, how I hate that word, but it's what actually happens!) participants supporting non-viable candidates to join your group, using whatever skills you might have ... political savvy, gift of gab, or even a little friendly neighborhood pressure to convince people to come over to your side. There is an area for 'Undecided' participants who are ripe for the plucking (so to speak) which is a heavily lobbied table (I nearly got into a fight with a Kerry rep from MA at this table last time, lol). I truly pity these folks, because (besides being 'undecided' at this point? Come on!) everyone wants a piece of them. Bodies count. Every person you can woo to your side could mean the difference between losing or gaining a delegate, so these folks are valuable real estate, so to speak!
6) Then the Caucus is called back to order for the second count. At this point, everyone has regrouped according to their preferences and the same procedure is followed to determine the results of the second count. Everyone stands and raises their hands again and the (usually) final count is determined. I know that theoretically more counts could occur if the momentum shifts radically from candidate to candidate, but I've never seen this happen.
7) The officials perform some more mathematical calculations and determine the number of delegates to the county and state conventions who will be awarded to each candidate and announce the results. Some cheer, others are less cheerful. And voilà! If you're only there to express your presidential preference, you can pack up and go home at this point to watch the returns come in!
8) The rest of the evening is spent selecting candidate delegates from each group to the county and state Democratic conventions, and various resolutions that will be presented at the convention. This is where every one with a cause will present resolutions geared toward party platform planks regarding everything from women's choice issues, to labor issues to humane mouse killing. Honestly, it's usually pretty stultifying stuff, and only the diehard local politicos stick around this long. This time around I think I'll skip this part and go home, especially if I convince Fernymoss to actually attend this time, because I know his eyes would be glazing over at this point.
When people finally peter out on the resolutions and such, the Caucus is declared closed and they take off, either for home or for the after Caucus parties (or wakes, as it may be ... Howard Dean's was infamous in 2004) thrown by the candidates. As much as I'd like to do that again this time (I had a great time at the Kucinich party last time), I've got a very busy week at work, so we'll probably just head home to check out the TV (mis)coverage.
What you see reported as results are really the aggregate numbers of delegates won by each candidate in the Caucuses statewide. This is where the rural vote can really become important, because as they are generally much smaller gatherings than those in more urban areas, a smaller number of people can actually really count for much more. When all the delegates are pooled you get what is nominally declared 'the winner.' That's why candidates who are successful in more rural areas can make their big difference ... it was a big factor for John Edwards in 2004, and could be so again this time around. That's why you've seen Obama and Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation making frequent visits to the more far-flung burghs of the state.
Yes, it's one big crap shoot that can depend on so many factors --weather notwithstanding!-- and why the Iowa Caucuses are near impossible to call in advance ... unlike people who, in a primary, only have to enter a voting booth and mark a ballot, it takes a real commitment to get out on a January night (especially early this year!) and make your position known in a very public way. To me, this is a much more democratic way of selecting candidates because it requires knowledge of them, commitment to them and a willingness to stand up and literally be COUNTED. Is this system inferior to a "National Primary?" I leave it to you to argue the point, but as far as I'm concerned, all the ridicule and general maligning that goes on relating to the Caucuses is unwarranted. Yeah, we uneducated bumpkins out here in the cornfields demand a lot of retail politics, but to me, that's proof we need to make such a weighty decision.
What it all boils down to me is that you can select candidates based on 30 second attack ads and a split second decision in the voting booth, or you can really educate yourself on each candidate ... make them prove their mettle and then make your decision. Would you rather select your candidate by drive through menu or have a serious sit-down meal before you make up your mind? Only you alone can answer that question.
I'm proud to be an Iowan, and yes, we do love the attention and hate the annoyance of not being able to answer the phone for the final few months, but when it's all said and done Thursday night, I think we'll all breathe a huge sigh of relief that the politicians, the media goons and everyone else will let us go back to our 'bumpkinhood' without the glare of the national spotlight on us. We'll pass the torch on, and hope for the best!
Disclosure: I've never been, and never will go, to a Rethuglican Caucus so I'm not sure what rules they operate by in their Caucuses. I suspect they're a bit dodgier and probably this year nastier, but I'll leave it to the knuckle draggers to anoint their theocratic choice. I just keep remembering that great quote from Ross Perot in 92 when he talked about a 'giant sucking sound' ... with luck, that will be the sound of the Reskunklicans going down the big electoral toilet!
Further disclosure: If you didn't know already, I'm PROUDLY Caucusing for John Edwards this time around and if you haven't given him a serious look before now, please do so now. He can beat HRC at her own game given a chance, and honestly, do we need more political dynasty building? America can rise again from the ruins of this Bu$h disaster if we act soon enough!
Plus, wouldn't Elizabeth Edwards make the coolest and smartest First Lady ever? Smart, tough, and I bet she'd be really fun to make cookies with talking politics!