Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year! (and some musings on the Iowa Caucuses)

So... here we are, fresh into 2008 and we just finished our second movie of the night, Stardust Memories, and I thought I'd drop by before bed to record my initial musings on the imminent Caucuses, Thursday 3 January. So all holiday festivities now aside, it's time to get down to doing what we Iowans are (in)famous for: our "arcane" Caucus system.

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.
New York Senator Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards 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.

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.

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.

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 voilĂ ! 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!



FARfetched said...

Caucasing for Dummies! I love it!

I'm with ya on Edwards. So is Mrs. Fetched. I just hope he doesn't fade like he did last time around. An Edwards-Obama ticket would be lovely, wouldn't it?

olivia said...

Wow, IVG. Great post. Although, coming from an outsider's perspective, the whole US political system is a mystery ... :)

Family Man said...

Hi IVG, FAR and Olivia.

IVG you said, What it all boils down to me is that you can select candidates based on 30 second attack ads - OK that's not entirely what you said, but it rings true.

I really do think that most Americans look to commercials more to decide who they'll vote for than anything else. I've believed for a long time that all politicians tell you what you want to hear and once they're elected, well there's the money.

Honestly I'm sick of the caucuses and all the politics. If I had one choice it would be to find one honest man/woman and say, "OK you've got the job, now show us what you can do." Unfortunately I don't believe there's anyone out there like that. Yeah I know, you have who you want for president, but come on, they're politicians. :)

IowaVictoryGardener said...

Hi there folks, and a Happier New Year to us all once again! I worked on work stuff today, hehe. But we took it easy on the libations last night so it wasn't too bad. Besides, it's going below the "goose egg" tonight and was bitterly cold today so it was worth staying in.

As for this post, I'm glad you found some value in it... I've been meaning to write it up for some time but have been so busy ... but I've had it with everyone thinking it's such a confusing process. And I can't wait to hear the whining media reporters complaining about the cold here tonight, hehe. Just 2 more days and the phone will go back to being mostly silent!

I'll have more on the actual Caucus night to report Thursday so if it interests you (sorry, FM if you're tuned out) do come back to see what happened.

My sister dropped by today with our gifts so we now have brand new 1000 thread count cotton sheets (I was going to buy them but my sister snatched them out of my hands to give as a gift!) tonight to start the new year. She even washed them for us, so ready to put on the bed! Can't wait!!

olivia said...

Wow, not that's a gift!!! :D

Hi FM.

olivia said...

oops -- that would be now ... now

maryb said...

That was a great description of a caucus! Missouri had caucuses up through the 1984 election and I caucused that year (I was eligible to caucus in 1980 but I was away at school). Gary Hart was my candidate and we were "viable".

So, here's my "man on the ground" question. The DesMoines Register poll that showed Obama so far ahead apparently is predicated on a huge increase in turnout - something like 60%. These would be people who identify right now as "independent" and some that are registered Republicans. That seems gynormous to me and also incredibly unlikely. But what do I know? I'm not in Iowa. So, do you think there is any possibility of that happening. In your precinct how many people usually show up and have to register their party at the door? Or change from Republican to Democrat?

btw - I'm still undecided but am pulling for your man Edwards to win in Iowa.

Iowa Victory Gardener said...

Hi MaryB, nice to see you stop by!
I'm very skeptical too of that DMR poll, because it's predicating that huge turnout for Obama based on 40% of Imdependents showing, which seems way out of whack for me. In my experience (well only since I've been back here since 94) Independents usually don't show up in that great of numbers, so I just find it hard to believe.

Trust no polls, as Agent Mulder would say ... especially any right now. Thankfully there will be no more to rile me up before tomorrow! hehe

But who know, sometimes weird stuff happens at caucuses and a guy I talked to who works for Edwards' campaign the other day said he expects a wild and woolly night.

I'll have a report probably late Thurs night... taking my cam too!

maryb said...

Thanks for the insight.

I trust no polls. But it's nice to have the opinion of someone who is there.

Have fun tomorrow night - and good luck to you and all the Edwards supporters.

Abbra said...

People should read this.