Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Caucus Night

Happy New Year. If I was a mean-spirited, partisan old guy, this would be the ideal spot for a "10 Worst Blah, Blah of the Bush Administration" or something along that line. Maybe I should save that for 1/09, but there's something looming out there which screams for attention. It's the Iowa Caucus. Unlike the great majority of pundit wannabes out there, I have actually attended the caucus more than once, and can describe how it works.
You may have already determined that way too few people there get way too much attention for way too little. I wouldn't quibble that it's not a great number of people. Iowa is just short of 3 million people, and each major party will draw 100,000 plus to these caucuses, held all over the state in churches, schools, bars and even private homes in the country. We're talking about a quarter million people total, a ridiculously small number to start the election cycle, but there it is.
Some things you would never think of have an effect on caucus attendence. First, there's the weather. No question it'll be cold in early January, but HOW cold? Below zero starts to hurt attendence. Ditto if there's a statewide basketball broadcast that night. This year's complicating factor is that the date of the caucus (1/3) is so early that many college students won't be back from their holiday vacations, and so many a plea for young voters will have been simply wasted, because this is one thing you have to show up for - no write ins, on-line signups or rain checks. Ya gotta be there in person.
The caucus starts by electing a chairman and counting attendence, which is important, as you will see. There may be a chance for short speeches on behalf of candidates. A local candidate, usually seeking a spot in the state legislature, may stop by, and there may be a plea for funds. There is time alloted for platform proposals, but that comes AFTER the choice of county delegates who represent the candidates themselves. The crowd splits into candidate preference groups. You must have 15% to be considered "viable". I was once part of a group of 50 or so John Glenn fans on a night we needed about 80 to be viable. When that happens, you can take offers from other groups, combine with another group (including "undecided"), or simply dissolve and go your separate ways to groups representing your your 2nd choice. Most of the Glenn group ended that night (in '84) with Walter Mondale, the eventual nominee.
Odd things can happen when you're trying to pump up your numbers. Four years ago I found myself working on behalf of Kerry (they had asked, and were well-organized), and when we broke into groups I noted that we could get half of our precinct's delegates (a great result that night) by adding just a few more people. I went in search of non-viable stragglers and finally happened upon what should have been a good-sized group, the Dick Gephardt bunch. I'm not sure just what had gone wrong, but the loads of guys in those funny satin labor union jackets just weren't there. I scooped up a handful of them like last night's trash and succeeded in my goal of half the delegates from our 100-person caucus. I didn't know it at the time, but the same thing had happened all over the state, and Gephardt, the guy who had almost been Speaker of the House, was gone from the race the next morning. I guarantee you have not heard his name since then.
Don't confuse Caucus Night with seeing the Grand Canyon or the Playoffs in Yankee Stadium. It isn't scenic or really dramatic, but no question it is fun. Would it be worth moving back to Iowa? Maybe not, but I'm glad to have been a part of it in the 30 odd years we lived in the Hawkeye State.



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