t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 28 December 2007
The answer is sometime in June. O.K., I see that puzzled look on your face. I will try to explain; and, hopefully, when I'm done you won't be more confused than you are now.
The Iowa caucus is nothing more than political theatre. It's like a pop quiz: a test to see if a candidate can convince enough voters to spend a couple of hours with their neighbors campaigning on their behalf. The political parties and the media will declare a winner; the campaigns will try to turn their result into momentum, but at the end of the night, no candidate will have earned a single delegate.
When most of the country goes to vote over the next couple of months, the votes will be counted and the percentage of votes a candidate receives will be an indication of how many delegates that candidate will get from that state. That will not be the case in Iowa.
I bet you are wondering why everyone is making such a big deal out of the January 3 caucus if we won't know who really won until June.
The best reason given is that in Iowa and New Hampshire candidates participate in "retail politics". They hold town-hall-style meetings, are able to get out and meet with voters, and can reach a large portion of the states' electorate face to face. That is impossible in larger states. In California, for example, campaigns run media campaigns. They have some large rallies; but they are designed to make the six o'clock news. Why go to the local meat-packing plant in Los Angeles, as you are only reaching a tiny segment of the population? I attended a John Kerry event at a local college in Los Angeles four years ago. The audience was a prop, not the target of his message; the television cameras were what John Kerry was speaking to that day. Now, of course, the candidates do make several trips to California during the primary season. The purpose of these trips is to fill their campaign coffers; California is a giant ATM machine for politicians. They make their withdrawal, run back to Iowa and New Hampshire and buy up all the airtime they can.
If political commercials annoy you, I wouldn't recommend moving to Iowa, The only commercials playing there now are campaign commercials.
So how does it work? For the Republicans, it's pretty simple: They meet in precincts and take a secret ballot, then choose their delegates for the county convention based on the results, and go home. But for the Democrats, you need a rulebook.
Let's say 100 people sign in at precinct one at the local elementary school gymnasium. The threshold for qualifying for a delegate is 15 percent. (I may have the threshold wrong, but the formula is more complicated than I want to explain here.) Usually, the room is divided into sections for each candidate and people gather in the section designated for their candidate. There is no secret ballot: Everyone in the room can see whom you are supporting. So much for no campaigning at the polling place: Politicking is encouraged. After a brief introduction of the rules, the first round begins with a count.
Let's say 23 are for John Edwards, 22 are for Hillary Clinton, 21 for Barack Obama, 16 are for Dennis Kucinich, and the other 18 people are for one of the other candidates, but none have reached the 15 percent threshold.
Edwards, Clinton, Obama and Kucinich are viable in this precinct. Now comes round two.
The 18 people supporting candidates who didn't make the threshold now must join one of the groups or form a group that reaches 15 percent. Undecided can be that group. Each round usually includes about 30 minutes of politicking with each candidate's supporters trying to convince supporters of the other candidates to switch their support.
Once every group has at least 15 percent of the room, delegates to the county convention are selected in proportion to each candidate's percentage. The results are phoned in, and everybody goes home. Are you still with me? Now, remember the national media is there covering the event; they will even try to predict how many delegates each candidate will get to the National Convention. They will try to tell you Iowa has decided on a winner. They will be wrong. There are two more steps to this process that only decides 29 of Iowa's 57 delegates to the National Convention; and everyone who was just elected to the county convention can change their vote when they get there.
The County Convention
The shortest way to explain what happens at the county convention is that, with another procedure, a brand new caucus is held on March 15 at conventions in each Iowa County. There are differences; and the procedure is even more complicated, but in the end, delegates are chosen for what are called district-level conventions. These conventions occur on April 26 in each Congressional district. It is at this convention 29 delegates are selected for the National Convention. At any step in the process, a delegate may change their preference. Each step along the way, candidates need to reach a 15 percent threshold to qualify for delegates at the next step, so the results of caucus night can and will be changed in several ways.
So, where do the other 28 delegates get chosen? At the state convention in June. Eighteen of them are not elected, but are what are referred to as super delegates. They will consist of the Congressional delegations, the governor and the members of the Democratic National Committee who are from Iowa. Twelve of them are un-pledged: They get their spot no matter who they support. Six others are allotted based on the vote count at the state convention.
Ten more are chosen as large delegates and are voted on by the delegates to the state convention.
So, when the media tells you on January 3 who won Iowa, don't believe them; unless they can predict the future, they won't know until June. All we will learn on January 3 is what campaigns had a strong showing on caucus night.
The biggest criticism is the process doesn't allow for absentee voting, Nurse Jones cannot leave work to spend a couple of hours at the caucus; Sergeant Smith can't come back from Iraq to participate. Only those who are in the room when they lock the door at 7 PM can take part.
I have never lived in Iowa, and have never followed the process through to the end. But I did live in another caucus state in 1992. I participated all the way to the state convention where I saw the candidate who finished second on caucus day win more delegates than anyone else. On that caucus day (a Sunday afternoon), Jerry Brown got 35 percent of the vote to Bill Clinton's 26 percent. Jerry Brown didn't drop out of the race and was in until the convention; but after a lot of maneuvering, the Clinton camp came out of the state convention with more delegates than Brown.
I really enjoyed watching Iowans caucus four year years ago, and will enjoy it again; but after my experience in Nevada, I know not to trust the results.
I still see that puzzled look on some of your faces. Go to the candidates' web sites and watch the fun videos they have prepared. Maybe they can do a better job of explaining the process; I tried.