A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

“wish you were there”: the Iowa caucuses

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 3, 2008

Today is d-day for presidential candidates in Iowa – the caucuses will be held this evening. I wish I were there – but the holidays are over, and I am back at work.

This morning at the gym I watched extensive US news coverage of the Iowa campaigning, thanks to MBC 4. MBC 4’s motto is “Its for [4] you”, and it certainly was for me this morning – I loved seeing the Iowa State Capitol illuminated by night, and the frosty snow that covered Des Moines’ downtown streets.

One of my colleagues – a fellow American – asked me this morning whether I wished Iowa allowed absentee voting for the caucuses. Well, its not that simple – the GOP caucus functions somewhat like an election, but the Democratic caucus is something else. Both rest on a notion of active participation by party members – which would be lost if absentee caucusing were allowed.

In Iowa, the word “caucus” is used as a verb – to caucus. I had always assumed that this was an Iowanism (like the use of “foot-feed” for “accelerator”), but no – it appears in the dictionary as both noun and verb. A caucus, according to Merriam-Webster, is a closed political meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction usually to select candidates or to decide on policy. Word Reference defines caucusing as meeting to select a candidate or promote a policy, and links it to a category tree: act – interact – meet, gather, assemble – caucus.

So its a process as much as an election – and one that a big part of me wishes I were participating in today.

Here’s a slightly different look at the Iowa caucuses from the LA Times. Its clear, cogent, and slightly tongue in cheek 🙂 :

Why Iowa? And what’s a caucus, anyway?
By Mark Z. Barabak
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

January 3, 2008

Tonight about 200,000 Iowans will begin the process of selecting the presidential nominees. That number barely surpasses the population of Glendale, but the results will have an enormous effect.

The Iowa caucuses have been closely watched since 1972, when George S. McGovern’s strong performance helped him shoulder past his better-known rivals and win the Democratic nomination.

For years, politicians in states like California have griped about Iowa’s outsized role. But the state has only gained import, to the point where candidates shattered records in 2007 with their campaign spending and wall-to-wall TV advertising in the state.

Why does Iowa go first?

Because for years no one much cared. Iowa has been holding some form of caucuses since the early 1800s. After McGovern’s surprise showing, another long-shot candidate, Jimmy Carter, used the 1976 Iowa caucuses as a springboard to the White House.

Other candidates began heading to Iowa seeking a similar breakthrough. A tradition was established, and once that happened, few wanted to alienate Iowa voters by challenging the state’s primacy. Eventually, Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, reached an accord that cemented their one-two placement on the nominating calendar, which has been recognized by the national political parties and, more importantly, those seeking the White House.

What is a caucus?

It’s a gathering of voters at the precinct level. There are 1,781 precincts in Iowa’s 99 counties. A caucus can be held in a community center, a fire station, a library conference room or somebody’s living room.

Who gets to participate?

Anyone who will be 18 years old by Nov. 4, the date of the general election. The two major parties are fairly flexible in their rules. Basically, anyone willing to register with the party on caucus night can participate. There is no entry fee.

How does a caucus work?

The two parties conduct their caucuses differently. Republicans operate in a fairly straightforward fashion. Participants vote by writing their candidate’s name on a blank sheet of paper, or sometimes by a show of hands. Shorthand or nicknames — “Huck” for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, or “Rudy” for former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani — will be counted.

Democrats have a much more complicated system. Participants break into groups based on their preferences. If a candidate fails to reach the “viability” threshold — at least 15% of the vote — he or she is eliminated. Supporters of eliminated candidates can fall in with another candidate or go home (though leaving is considered poor caucus form). The voting is done in the open, and debate and persuasion are very much a part of the process.

Sothat’s how Iowa awards its delegates to the presidential nominating conventions?

Actually, no. The caucuses elect delegates to county conventions in March, the first step in a process that will end with the selection of Iowa’s national delegates in June. By then, no one is paying much attention.

Why the fixation on Iowa?

Because it votes first and because the political press corps, the candidates, donors and others who follow politics are desperate after years of campaigning for some measure, however abstract, of popular sentiment.

Given all the attention, an Iowa victory pretty much ensures a candidate will win the nomination, doesn’t it?

Not necessarily. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both finished third in Iowa en route to winning the White House. Republican Bob Dole and Democrat Richard A. Gephardt won their respective caucuses in 1988 and failed to win their parties’ nominations.

On the other hand, in the last two presidential campaigns, Iowa proved decisive for the Democrats, clearing the path for Al Gore and John F. Kerry to win the nomination.

So whoever gets the most votes wins?

Not always. In 1976, Carter actually finished behind “undecided.” But since he came from seemingly nowhere, it was seen as a huge accomplishment. Walter F. Mondale beat Gary Hart 49% to 17% in 1984, but because Hart did better than anticipated he was showered with favorable news coverage that helped propel him to an upset win in New Hampshire. So there is room for interpretation.

“The candidates will be measured against each other as well as the somewhat arbitrary expectations set by the press and pundits,” Democratic strategist Dan Newman said. “As a result, you could see three or four candidates in each party all claiming victory” tonight.

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One Response to ““wish you were there”: the Iowa caucuses”

  1. LetUsTalk said

    It is a flurry of activity in Iowa today! Am looking forward to caucusing tonight with the Democrats, while D/J heads to the Republicans – such a diverse family! And, tomorrow – 2000 rental cars are expected to be returned to the DSM airport – can you imagine?! We’re going to miss the excitement and all the activity – yes, Friday, it will be verrrry sloooow around here!

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