Sunday, January 19, 2020

In 2016, Rural Counties Had Less Caucus Goers Per Delegate

Since I'm not really writing anymore - I am way too busy DOING right now trying to get our caucuses off the ground -  I resemble a classic rock dinosaur band that trots out on the circuit during state fair seasons and plays the greatest hits. This is a rewrite of a post I write every cycle, in 2007 (covering 2004) and again in 2016 (looking at 2008).


Since the Iowa Democratic caucuses are a representative democracy, not a straight one person one vote, not every caucus goer carries equal weight.  Several of the candidates have spent a lot of time in small courthouse towns. Amy Klobuchar and the hapless John Delaney have completed the "Full Grassley" 99 county tour. That's because the way the results are counted, the small counties weigh in disproportionately.

The delegate allocation formula is based on past general election voting for the top of the ticket. The caucuses take place in a mythical, projected version of a general election voting population. This cycle, it's based on votes for Hillary Clinton and Fred Hubbell; four years ago it was based on Jack Hatch and on Barack Obama's 2012 total.

This means candidates can't run up the score with big wins in big counties, and it mutes the impact of isolated turnout waves.  No matter how many people show up, the same number of delegates are at stake.  

The problem is, some counties are full of go-to-meeting activists who are more likely to attend a caucus. Others have more people who may vote, sometimes even for Democrats, but are otherwise less active.

You may not call that a problem - indeed, some caucus old timers will tell you that the formula, which is locked into the Iowa Democratic Party's constitution, was specifically designed to under-count the student vote in Iowa City, Ames, and other college towns.

Obviously, from my perspective, that's a problem. In fact, the obscure allocation formula likely skewed the national interpretation of the outcome of 2016.

Hillary Clinton won a razor-close margin of the state delegate equivalents (SDEs), the only total that the Iowa Democratic Party has historically released. However, Bernie Sanders won big margins in the college towns - which, as you'll see, had a higher share of the turnout than they did of the delegates. In fact, I'll go so far as to say Sanders probably had more bodies in the room than Clinton, and you know I'm not saying that out of any love for Bernie Sanders.

The impact of this under-allocation of delegates to high turnout areas is mitigated somewhat by new DNC rules this year that will require, in a first for Iowa Democrats, the reporting of a one person one vote raw vote count. But the delegate count still matters toward the nomination and to perceptions. The Associated Press announced this week, wrongly in my opinion, that they will "declare the winner of the Iowa caucuses based on the number of state delegate equivalents each candidate receives."

That means my vote in high turnout Johnson County will matter less than the vote of an Iowan in a low turnout rural county. But exactly how much less will it matter?

An analysis of 2016 caucus attendance shows that, on average statewide, it took just over 122 people to elect a state delegate equivalent. But that varied dramatically by county, and (while I won't dive into details) by precinct within counties.

The easiest place to elect a delegate was Fremont County, where it took 45.33 attendees to elect a state delegate equivalent. Five other counties were at or below 61 people per SDE, less than half the statewide average. The bottom ten is filled with small, rural, population losing, Republican counties.

And as always, the same places stood out as the most difficult places to elect a delegate: campus communities most of all, urban areas, and high growth suburbs.

Four counties are bunched at the top, in a near dead heat. In these places, you needed 211 to 213 people to earn a SDE - nearly twice the state average and 4.7 times Fremont County. Put another way, a vote in Fremont County was worth nearly five times as much as a vote in these four counties.

Jefferson County, with its very active meditator community and Maharishi International University, was at the very top at 213.22. Story and Johnson, home to the two biggest Regents universities, were number 2 and number 4. Poweshiek County was third - and that statistic was almost entirely driven by the 935 people who attended the caucus for the Grinnell College precinct.

In Winneshiek, home to Decorah's Luther College, it took 154.64 people to elect a state delegate equivalent, putting them in fifth place (they were the hardest place to earn an SDE in 2008).

Another half dozen counties were above the state average of 122 voters per SDE. Two were the two biggest in the state, Polk and Linn. Two were in rural outlier counties, Decatur and Sioux, where the novelty of having a large number of Democrats in one place may have spurred attendance (though the county grand totals are still far below an east side Iowa City precinct).

And two were in high growth suburban Dallas and Warren counties. High growth makes it harder to elect a delegate from your county. A voter who moved to Dallas County three years ago won't count in the county's presidential vote totals used to calculate delegates, because they voted somewhere else.  A voter who moved in after the gubernatorial election wouldn't count at all toward the delegate count.

The flip side is, people in shrinking rural counties who moved away or passed away still contribute to the county's delegate allocation, meaning it takes fewer LIVE bodies to win delegates.

Ultimately, the apportionment rules mean candidates have to carefully allocate their resources and fight on all fronts at once, and part of that allocation is making the effort where the most bang for the buck is available -- the small towns.

Is that fair? Depends on where you live. I'd like to see someone take on the formula at the state convention this June. If we're going to keep having a caucus, which I don't think we should, we could at least get closer to one person one vote. If the rural counties don't like it, they can do what my county does and show up.

State Delegates and Caucus Attendance, 2016 Democratic Caucuses

Rank County Delegates Attendance Attendees per delegate
1 Jefferson 9 1,919 213.22
2 Story 46 9,757 212.11
3 Poweshiek 9 1,904 211.56
4 Johnson 92 19,407 210.95
5 Winneshiek 11 1,701 154.64
6 Polk 228 35,181 154.30
7 Dallas 29 4,209 145.14
8 Decatur 3 428 142.67
9 Sioux 4 541 135.25
10 Linn 121 15,026 124.18
11 Warren 22 2,731 124.14
12 Van Buren 2 237 118.50
13 Madison 6 696 116.00
14 Scott 82 9,503 115.89
15 Muscatine 18 2,073 115.17
16 Washington 9 1,019 113.22
17 Cedar 8 882 110.25
18 Marion 13 1,431 110.08
19 Boone 13 1,428 109.85
20 Black Hawk 69 7,459 108.10
21 Henry 7 742 106.00
22 Dubuque 48 5,056 105.33
23 Hamilton 6 629 104.83
24 Iowa 7 719 102.71
25 Jasper 18 1,843 102.39
26 Guthrie 4 409 102.25
27 Marshall 18 1,835 101.94
28 Pottawattamie 31 3,082 99.42
29 Union 5 497 99.40
30 Des Moines 20 1,967 98.35
31 Davis 3 293 97.67
32 Jackson 9 877 97.44
33 Bremer 12 1,165 97.08
34 Mahaska 7 678 96.86
35 Clayton 8 762 95.25
36 Greene 4 376 94.00
37 Wapello 15 1,404 93.60
38 Carroll 8 748 93.50
39 Winnebago 4 364 91.00
40 Woodbury 36 3,263 90.64
41 Harrison 5 453 90.60
42 Ringgold 2 181 90.50
43 Buena Vista 6 542 90.33
44 Louisa 4 361 90.25
45 Sac 3 270 90.00
46 Clay 6 540 90.00
47 Appanoose 5 449 89.80
48 Montgomery 3 266 88.67
49 Lucas 3 266 88.67
50 Emmet 3 266 88.67
51 Page 4 354 88.50
52 Clinton 24 2,121 88.38
53 Cerro Gordo 22 1,938 88.09
54 Audubon 3 264 88.00
55 Adair 3 263 87.67
56 Lee 17 1,489 87.59
57 Floyd 8 698 87.25
58 Hardin 7 608 86.86
59 Webster 16 1,369 85.56
60 Mills 5 417 83.40
61 Monona 3 249 83.00
62 Benton 12 991 82.58
63 Tama 9 738 82.00
64 Grundy 4 328 82.00
65 Dickinson 7 574 82.00
66 Buchanan 10 809 80.90
67 Lyon 2 161 80.50
68 Cherokee 4 321 80.25
69 Humboldt 3 239 79.67
70 Clarke 4 316 79.00
71 Allamakee 6 474 79.00
72 Fayette 10 788 78.80
73 Jones 9 703 78.11
74 O'Brien 3 234 78.00
75 Calhoun 4 309 77.25
76 Keokuk 4 308 77.00
77 Plymouth 7 535 76.43
78 Wright 5 376 75.20
79 Butler 6 449 74.83
80 Howard 4 297 74.25
81 Kossuth 6 445 74.17
82 Chickasaw 6 433 72.17
83 Wayne 2 143 71.50
84 Monroe 3 214 71.33
85 Hancock 4 285 71.25
86 Shelby 4 284 71.00
87 Franklin 4 284 71.00
88 Cass 5 351 70.20
89 Ida 2 137 68.50
90 Worth 4 272 68.00
91 Mitchell 4 272 68.00
92 Osceola 1 67 67.00
93 Adams 2 130 65.00
94 Pocahontas 3 183 61.00
95 Taylor 2 121 60.50
96 Crawford 5 302 60.40
97 Delaware 8 454 56.75
98 Palo Alto 4 222 55.50
99 Fremont 3 136 45.33
Total/
avg
State 1401 171290 122.26

Friday, January 03, 2020

Cassandra At The Caucus: One Month Out

I have been quite busy since my semi-retirement from blogging, doing rather than reporting. I last attended a candidate event in September. In addition to getting through the city-school election at my day job, I have been doing the leg work for my county's caucuses.

And here we are: the 12 year anniversary of Barack Obama's win, the 8 year anniversary of the Republican dead heat, and one calendar month away from 2020.

One old caucus hand told me I should complain about the caucuses less and do more to help, though I don't know what more I can do besides recruiting almost all the chairs, booking the rooms, helping train the volunteers, answering the questions, and doing more media interviews than I can count.

After doing one of those interviews yesterday via email, I realized that I had more or less written a blog post. It may be repetitive to my long time readers, but I have been shouting the same warnings into the wilderness for four years to no avail, so I may as earn one more right to say I Told You So after the fact.

Essentially nothing has been done to address the issue of overcrowding in the largest urban precincts. But to be fair about this, the Iowa Democratic Party was making a good effort with its plan for a phone-in "virtual caucus." That was mainly meant as an accessibility program, to include people who could otherwise not attend. The campaigns were not buying in because it counted less than in person attendance, but nearly a third of likely caucus goers were telling pollsters that they would consider it anyway. The Johnson County Democrats were planning to make a big push to encourage Virtual Caucus in order to take pressure off our most crowded sites.

IDP spent nearly a year working on Virtual Caucus, and they were assured by the DNC every step of the way that it was a good plan - until all of a sudden in September it wasn't anymore. Had they told us from the start "we think a phone in system is a security risk," we would have had time to come up with another plan (like actual absentee ballots).

But in September, it was too late to come up with any major new changes and build a new system from scratch. Thanks, DNC. Satellite Caucus was dusted off, basically because it was the only plan that was on the shelf and it had been tried in 2016 with limited success. (Four sites statewide - three flopped but Oaknoll, the biggest retirement community in Iowa City, was a smash hit.)

There are 99 satellite caucus sites this year, but some are very obscure, like a guy's house in Tblisi, Georgia at 4 AM local time (which is caucus hour here). Basically, you had to be in the loop during a very narrow window in October and early November to know you needed to ask for a satellite caucus. It will help a few in-the-know snowbirds, the people at Oaknoll, and the nurses at UIHC and the firefighters at the West Side station who have to work that shift. But it won't get a single body out of our most crowded rooms. Basically everyone at a satellite caucus will be someone who would just not have attended otherwise.

(Aside: That term "satellite caucus" is unfortunate. In our county people hear about it and think that means the kind of satellite voting we do, zip into a public library and zip out. They don't realize that it means a mini-caucus at a different location.)

I also appreciate that the severe overcrowding is, to some extent, a "Johnson County problem." I was madder about that type of dismissal till I looked at the numbers and realized that's, well, kind of true.

Of the 11 precincts in the state (out of 1681 total) with over 600 in attendance in 2016, there was the campus precinct in Grinnell, the campus precinct at Iowa State, two in Des Moines... and seven of ours. That's a big burden to place on one county.

In 2016 the mean average attendance statewide was 102 people. The median was just 65.  In Johnson County, the average was 342. We had seven of the 10 biggest precincts in the state and 19 of the top 40. The last time I saw anyone with 7 of the top 10 and 19 in the top 40 was when Drake dropped an album.

The caucus process was never designed to be a mass participation event that was the equivalent of an election. It was meant to be the handful of core party activists in the precinct - 20 or 40 people who were familiar with process and rules and were meeting at their friend's house.

In some parts of Iowa it's still like that. In off years it's still like that in Johnson County. And at that size it still works.

As we argued last spring over the way the late unlamented virtual caucus vote was being allocated, it became clear to me that the caucuses are yet another rural-urban split in Iowa. The rural counties are convinced that without mandatory in person attendance to vote, they will not be able to organize their counties - and I understand that, and I understand that we are supposed to be all about Winning Back The Rurals this year.

A 2008 caucus on the east side of Iowa City, with 719 people attending.

But what about the BEST county? What about the county that for the last three cycles, in every state and federal race, has voted 13 to 15% more Democratic than any other county in the state? We are ALREADY organized, and this process hurts more than it helps. Knowing that's it's mostly a Johnson County Problem does not solve the problem. And - and this is what I'm still upset about - it does not mean the problem should just be dismissed.

We simply need a different system for the urban counties, a system that recognizes our lifestyles and needs and political folkways - and that rewards our outstanding performance each general election. Win back the rurals, yes, but give Johnson County and Polk County some credit and some respect. And in Johnson County, what we like and what we want and what we need is convenient multi-option early voting.

The biggest precinct in the state in 2016 was Iowa City 17 with 945 people. (We beat the Grinnell campus precinct by ten voters.) Our biggest in 2008 was 720 in precinct 18 - but remember that 2008 was on January 3 during UI's winter break, which suppressed turnout. We expect to top 1000 in both these precincts this time. We expect to be over 500 in dozens of our 57 precincts. And a caucus process that was designed for 20 to 40 people does not scale up well to a crowd of 500 to 1000. Once you get past the grade school gym capacity of 200 to 250, you can't do any "organizing." It's just crowd control and anger management.

You can do a lot to prepare for 500 people. You can train better, you can get more volunteers. But you can't solve the problem of the biggest room in (or near) the precinct being too small to hold the crowd you KNOW will be there. What is my county party supposed to do, build an 8000 seat arena with a 6000 car parking lot on the east side of Iowa City?

We've done better with rooms than we did in 2016. Sometimes that was due to better cooperation from the University and the schools but sometimes it was rented space at considerable expense to the county party. For example, we outgrew the free location at the Iowa City Public Library, so we rented out the Englert Theater. We had a hotel ballroom on the far north side of Iowa City that we turned down for the cost in 2016. We regretted that and we took it, at a slightly higher cost, this time.  It's money well spent - but it's another extra burden on a local party, in a community that is already expected to export money to other races across the state.

In some places, residential precincts full of single family homes, there's not an option like the Englert and we have to take a too-small school. There is not going to be enough parking anywhere, so walk or carpool if you can.

So my advice to Johnson County Democratic caucus goers is to set your expectations appropriately and be prepared. It's important to remember that everyone, including me, is a volunteer and is legitimately trying to do their best in a tough situation.

I know sports analogies are overdone, but my dad was a coach and my Packers are in the playoffs so I'm using one. Caucus night is like game day. It's exciting and we all want the Hawks to win. But you don't expect to walk in, watch a game highlights clip, and go home. You're there for a long time, two or three hours for the caucuses. And not every play is an exciting thing like a long touchdown pass. Sometimes you're stopped at the line of scrimmage, the ref throws a flag, and you have to sit around and wait while the three refs talk among themselves and figure out the call and everyone else is confused.

And you can't expect to show up 15 minutes before kickoff and get a parking space across the street from Kinnick Stadium. Expect to walk. If you can't, make plans for a ride, and remember that your candidate has more resources for that than the county party.

And frankly, think about whether you should even do this.

My parents are in Wisconsin, not Iowa, and never miss an election. They are 85 and 84 and having more trouble moving around than they used to. I've told them: "If you lived in Iowa City 17 and had to walk four blocks from your parking place to attend a three hour meeting with 1000 people, I would tell you, don't go. Don't do that to yourself. And then I would tell you to call your legislators and tell them what you think of that process."

I'll have more to say soon about some small process changes and maybe some candidate related thoughts.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Caucuses' Greatest Hits: 4th Edition Revised 2019

And a revised mission statement as well.

My dual role as press-activist, which was what led to the invention of the beret as the "blogging hat," back in 2007 when I unexpectedly found myself back in a professional journalism job for a year and a half, has been getting in the way of the activist role. (It's actually a TRIPLE role, but we'll leave my job out of the mix for the moment.)

Lately I found myself not able to have conversations that were critical to my activist role. I was getting left out of other things I wanted to do.  And I felt less and less like I really "belonged" on press row - including a few nasty looks the last time I sat there at the Hall Of Fame event in Cedar Rapids in June.

It's a lot harder to justify the travel and time at events when it's a hobby, not a second job. I haven't really written enough in a long time to justify a press pass - including no long form blog posts at all the entire month of July and nothing in August but a music post. Twitter has really been my main medium for a long time.

Another problem for me as "press" is that I really, really, really hate doing interviews. As I get more open about being on the autism spectrum I can confess that I always felt extremely uncomfortable and awkward asking the questions. But if YOU interview ME about MY favorite subjects I'll talk all day (again: the spectrum).

So the beret is going into semi-retirement. I'm not going to attend events as "press" anymore. This isn't "quitting" as much as it is an acknowledgement of what my reality has been for some time.

Irony: At the first event where I deliberately decided not to go as press, Elizabeth Warren's Thursday rally on campus. I walked out of the closed door, no-press pre-event and out to the main rally - and Team Warren was playing my song as pre-rally music.



Literally the only good thing about Prince's death is that now you can find his videos on the internet. He was extremely aggressive about blocking his content online.

I'm always happy to be a source for real working journalists. The actual beret may appear on special occasions. And I'll still write occasional long form posts when I feel like it,  when that medium works best, and when it's my specialty: number crunchers, caucus process, election law, and history.

Like this.

In a post I first wrote back in 2006 and have updated periodically. I've looked at and ranked all the caucus cycles back to 1976.  As for history and the caucuses themselves, a mixed bag.  Irrelevant nearly half the time, critical a little less often.

Not Worth The Airfare To Waterloo

19. 1984 and 2004 Republican. The Republican tradition was to hold no presidential vote at all in incumbent re-elect years.That tradition looks likely to end in 2020, not because of Trump's minor opponents but because state party leadership seems to think not having a vote in 2020 hurts the case for First in 2024. Ironically, this is happening as other state Republican parties are canceling their contests.

18. 1996 Democratic. The word went down from Des Moines to the Democratic county chairs: “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” Self-starters in a couple lefty college precincts elected a very small handful of Nader and Uncommitted protest delegates, but those results got swept under the rug. Clinton came out and campaigned the final weekend, largely to step on the GOP story (Actually Being President trumps winning the caucus), but it was in basketball arenas, not chat n’ chews.

17. 2012 Democratic.  As close to an unopposed caucus as possible short of “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” The state party went to bat for actually having an alignment, which Chicago didn't want. But without a live person as an Obama opponent (despite Bernie Sanders' suggestion), the dissenters were split between Uncommitted and crossing over for Ron Paul. In the end the Uncommitteds, mostly made up of folks allied with the simultaneous Occupy movement, made a lot of noise out of proportion to their 1.5% of the delegates. Rated up one notch because that 1.5% actually got honestly reported, not suppressed as in 1996.

16. 1992 Republican. The Pat Buchanan Brigade was looking like a serious threat to win New Hampshire - he ended up at 37.5% there - but the inside the Des Moines Beltway crowd stuck with the tradition of not having a vote in an incumbent year. That decision was a small win for George HW, so this gets the highest rank of the uncontested caucuses.

Ultimately Irrelevant

15. 1992 Democratic. Hometown boy Tom Harkin runs and wins big, though not as big as it looked because of some skilled realignment work at viability time. That 76% Harkin delegate count included a lot of stealth supporters of other candidates.

Paul Tsongas was already on the ground in Iowa when Harkin announced, but he quickly bailed. There were a couple feints from Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown but nothing serious. Everyone showed up for the cycle's lone cattle call, the then-Jefferson Jackson dinner, but between low interest and a blizzard the hall was half empty.

In the end, Iowa kept first place after `92 only because Tom Harkin was the only Bill Clinton rival who enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. The other also-rans could barely hide their obvious contempt for Clinton. (Kerrey and Brown probably wrote themselves in that November.)

The long term importance of the 1992 caucuses may be that Bill, and by extension Hillary, Clinton did not have to retail campaign in Iowa, and that had a ripple effect into 2008 and 2016.

14. 2000 Both. On the Democratic side Al Gore easily beat Bill Bradley in what was merely the first moment in the overall national dynamic; Dollar Bill made his stand on friendlier turf in New Hampshire and fell just short there, and that pretty much ended it.

On the Republican side it was like one of those boycott-era Olympics: W won but the toughest competitor, McCain, was a no-show playing a Screw Iowa strategy. The truly significant GOP event was the straw poll that winnowed out more candidates (E. Dole, Quayle, and Buchanan bolting to Reform) than the actual caucus (Orrin Hatch, as if that wasn’t obvious).  Comic relief: People who took Gary Bauer seriously, Alan Keyes in Michael Moore’s mosh pit.

Secondary event in nomination contest

13. 2016 Republican. Whichever contest was first would have narrowed a field that peaked at 17 candidates. The biggest event of the cycle was actually a non-event - the Ames Straw Poll that had been the dominant pre-caucus event from 1987 to 2011 was first moved out of Ames, then canceled entirely when the leading candidates refused to show up.

The field was down to a mere 12 by caucus night. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio, in that order, each took about a quarter of the vote, with the other nine splitting the remaining 25%. The immediate two past Iowa winners, Huckabee and Santorum, fizzled, and that effectively ended their campaigns.

Rand Paul failed to keep his father's coalition, because all of the "he's alternative, dude!" vote was caucusing for Bernie Sanders. The dudebro overlap between Ron/Rand Paul and Sanders supporters, which makes little ideological sense but is clearly a Thing, is a Ph.D. dissertation for someone.

Cruz's win turned out to be an anomaly and a relatively minor event. Cruz wasn't even Trump's final opposition - that turned out to be John Kasich, merely because he refused to quit.

12. 1980 Democratic. The incumbent won the first test of Kennedy-Carter, but that battle of giants was played out on a national, even global, stage and Iowa was a bit player.

11. 2008 Republican. Important to the dynamic of the contest, but not central to the result.

Mitt Romney was looking like the guy to beat in December 2007. Which Mike Huckabee did in January 2008, after first beating Sam Brownback at the straw poll to win the mantle of THE religious conservative candidate. Had Iowa Republicans gotten behind the Mitt, they may have headed off the chaos that was the GOP field in January. Instead, we proved that there was no there there for Fred Thompson, and that the Ron Paul Яэvoutionaries were noisy in disproportion to their actual numbers (but see 2012 below). But really, we just stirred the pot, and the decisive event was in Florida between two men with Screw Iowa Lite strategies, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

Our next contest was very similar, but the tiebreaker is that the Iowa winner actually won the nomination:

10. 1996 Republican. What might have been: Pat Buchanan was within 3% of Bob Dole, but the social conservatives in Cedar Rapids backed Alan Keyes instead; Keyes thus won the second biggest county. One minister at one mega-church makes a different choice, and we’d have had a major upset.

Some all too obvious field winnowing (Dick Lugar???) happens. Phil Gramm gets out too, but his real stumble was in Louisiana’s jump-the-starting-gun contest a week earlier. 

Comic relief: Easily the funniest caucus! Dole, genuinely witty in his non-Satan mode, Steve Forbes the android, Alan Keyes… but they all pale next to Morrie Taylor, the tire magnate who literally tried to buy a win one vote at a time. Failed miserably but looked like he had more fun than the rest put together.

9. 1988 Democratic. Other than Tom Harkin's favorite son run, this is the only time in the post-Carter modern era of the caucuses that Iowa Democrats did not vote for the eventual nominee. The nomination contest came down to Dukakis vs. Jackson, neither of whose fortunes were affected by Iowa.

In `88 Al Gore, dirty Prince lyrics still ringing in his ears, was the first candidate to use the Screw Iowa strategy.  It's never worked (save for the Harkin year), but nevertheless Gore wound up outlasting the two Iowa leaders.

There's a story, long told by Paul Simon loyalists, that a county chair sat on his Simon-friendly results until the Register had printed its GEPHARDT WINS headline, which mattered in the pre-internet era. Rules got changed after that so that results are reported direct from the precinct to the state without going through a county chair, but this one proved the winner-take-all-news theory that was prevalent at the time (and which was supposed to be the anchor of my aborted masters' thesis).

Comic relief: Gary Hart’s last minute return to the race, campaigning with his wife.

8. 2012 Republican. The real importance of the 2012 Republican caucuses was not its relatively small role in designating the nominee. That was always going to come down to Mitt vs. Not Mitt.  Rick Santorum never really got the bump from the win, because of the dead heat, the botched result announcement, and the recount that delayed the final result. And also because Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich on life support far too long,

No, the real importance was what happened to the Republican Party of Iowa after the presidential vote. The Romney and Santorum people both said "yay, we won," went home, and both in turn were right. The Ron Paul people stuck around, elected themselves as all the delegates and committee people, and took over the state party structure.

The consequences had a huge ripple effect through state, and even national, internal Republican politics for the next two years, until Terry Branstad, Jeff Kaufmann and the rest of the grownups took party control back in 2014 (the most important OFF-year caucus). This one may move up the charts depending on the long-term fate of the caucuses, and so may the next:

7. 2016 Democratic.  Iowa was a big deal - in the same way that the first post in an epic flame war that eventually breaks Godwin's Law is a big deal.

Had Hillary Clinton solidly beaten Bernie Sanders in Iowa, 2016 would have been over as fast as you can say "Bill Bradley" and the whole Sanders phenomenon would never have happened. Oh, he might have stayed on some ballots and accumulated a few votes. But without the dead heat in Iowa, and the money and attention that followed, he would have been an asterisk, like Dennis Kucinich playing out the string in the late states in 2004 after John Kerry had clinched and everyone else had quit.

I have long said that half the Sanders vote was simply Not Hillary, and that alone would have gotten Martin O'Malley to 30 points in Iowa had Sanders not run. Indeed, that was probably O'Malley's whole strategy, to be the only person willing to run against Clinton.

The fact that Sanders was even allowed to run in 2016 without joining the Democratic Party was a decision by the DNC - ironically, headed at the time by the same Debbie Wasserman Schultz who supposedly "rigged" the nomination against Sanders. DWS's inability to take Sanders seriously as a threat to Clinton, and her under-estimation of Clinton's negatives, are just more signs of her ineptitude.

Sanders himself may have faded (from 49.9999% in Iowa on Caucus Night to 11% in last night's Register poll) but his campaign mainstreamed a progressive stance that other candidates without Sanders' negatives, most notably Warren, are now seeing success with. The long range ranking of 2016 may move up if this turns out to be a permanent change.

Significant event in nomination contest

6. 1988 Republican. Pat Robertson pushes George HW into third place. Robertson was insignificant thereafter, but the blow made Bush go on a fight of his life attack against Bob Dole in New Hampshire. Dole took the bait and was goaded into “stop lying about my record.” This convinces HW that hard negative was the way to go. That road went through the flag factory and Willie Horton, and ended at the White House. Comic relief: Al Haig.

5. 1984 Democratic. Gary Hart barely squeaked past his old boss, George McGovern. But second, no matter how distant, was enough to make him the Not Mondale and propel him up about 40 points in eight days for a New Hampshire win, a brief but genuine shot at the nomination, and (pre-Donna Rice) 1988 front-runner status. The Right Stuff sank like Gus Grissom’s capsule, and you're an old timer if you catch that reference.

Decisive event in nomination contest

4. 2004 Democratic.

Iowa was the whole ball game in 2004. Nothing that happened after Iowa mattered nearly as much as what happened in Iowa.  The guy who won got the nomination, and the guy in second got VP.  And the guy in third?



The Dean Scream goes down as the single most memorable caucus moment, but everyone forgets The Scream was after The Much More Important Disappointing Third Place. After Dean had been the front-runner for months, Iowans got scared at the last minute - mostly thanks to Dick Gephardt, who went on a suicide attack that took them both out and set Gephardt up for reward in the Kerry Administration.

Made History

3. 1976 Democratic. This one made both Jimmy Carter and the caucuses themselves. Carter didn’t actually win this, you know. He was second to Uncommitted. But I know folks who still brag “Jimmy Carter slept on my couch.”

I’m torn about ranking a caucus that directly produced a president below one that didn't. But read on.

2. 1980 Republican. In the first true Iowa Republican caucus, an obscure former ambassador, spy boss, and failed Senate candidate George Herbert Walker Bush shocked the ten foot tall colossus of the GOP, Ronald Reagan. This one win puts Poppy on the map and ultimately on the ticket (after the botched Ford “co-presidency” deal at the `80 convention).

So why rank this ahead of Jimmy Carter, especially since Bush Sr. lost that 1980 nomination? The ripple effect. No Iowa win = no Bush 41. And with no HW, do you REALLY think Bush 43 or 45 (please clap) would have made it on their own? 1976 made a president, but 1980 made a dynasty.

Number 1: 2008 Democratic. There's no question the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses created a president. Iowa was the honing ground for Barack Obama's message and appeal and ground game. We eliminated the entire second tier, and proved that voters in one of the whitest places in America would support a black candidate. Remember, a lot of African-American voters were sticking with Hillary Clinton before Iowa, because Obama "couldn't win." Iowa shattered that myth and the perception of Clinton's inevitability.

It's too soon to tell, and Trump's win blurred things, but the 2008 caucuses may have ushered in not just one president, but a whole era, a new alignment of states that ends the 1968 Nixon-Wallace southern-western coalition for good, at least at the presidential level.

2008 was a whole new map. As late as the first John Edwards campaign, people were sill seriously saying it was impossible to break the Republican "electoral college lock" without southern rural white male voters. Trump has since proven those voters are gone forever - maybe in the urban and exurban North as well.

But that old South has been replaced by the new South, driven by suburban voters who migrated from the North, women, and minorities. Virginia three times, Florida twice, North Carolina once, Georgia becoming an in-play mega-state, and even Texas on the horizon. Barack Obama fueled this alignment, which would not have been possible without that Iowa win.

The 1976 caucuses made one president, but his victory is a mere footnote to a Republican era, brought about by the intensity of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. The 1980 Republican caucuses made two presidents, but they followed the electoral footsteps of others.

How many presidents in an era? Obama wasn't able to transfer this alignment to a successor, because some anchors of the old coalition fell in 2016 (Trump essentially drew three cards to an inside straight with his narrow Wisconsin-Michigan-Pennsylvania wins). If the 2008 caucuses ushered in an Obama Realignment, like the FDR Relignment or the Nixon-Wallace Realignment, they could lead to four or five presidents.It's a weaker case than it was four years ago, but 2008 still deserves the number one spot.

Friday, September 06, 2019

No One Wants An Absentee Caucus

Virtual Caucus is dead.

That became official today when a Democratic National Committee rules and bylaws meeting confirmed what was loudly leaked last week: that the phone-in "Virtual Caucus" plan that the Iowa Democratic Party developed, with nods of approval from DNC every step of the way, was unacceptable because of security concerns.

The most likely outcome, hinted at already last week, was that DNC would be willing to grant a waiver to Iowa and fellow early caucus state Nevada from the new requirement that caucus states be required to provide an absentee voting process.

The uncomfortable truth is: No one really wants the Iowa Democratic caucuses to have an absentee process.

Iowa Democratic leadership - both in the official Iowa Democratic Party structure sense and in the elected official-donor-activist base sense -doesn't want it because they're scared about risking First.

The bully of Concord, inscrutable New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, doesn't want Iowa to have absentees either, because he thinks that's an election and HE insists on the first election.

The DNC doesn't really want Iowa absentees, despite lip service to the new absentee requirement, because they are really more concerned about the much older standing fight about preserving the early state calendar.

The DNC found out the hard way in 2007, when Florida and Michigan broke the rules and went too early, that a broken calendar is unenforceable against states that are unwilling to cooperate. In part that's because election law is mostly state law, and in part that's because the only possible penalties are so nuclear that they won't be used. There was no way the DNC was ever going to refuse to seat the delegations from two huge swing states at the 2008 national convention, and everyone knew it. It ends up making the party look weak and they want to avoid having to referee between Iowa and New Hampshire.

Iowa haters and caucus haters don't want the caucus to have absentees because they think this may finally be the way to kill us. (And they have cynically recruited the tech security community as allies.)

The presidential candidates, despite rhetoric from one or two campaigns, don't really want the Iowa caucus to have absentees. They have already made battle plans that actively discouraged Virtual Caucus because "it counts less."

The Des Moines Register in particular, and the rest of the Iowa media in general, are against absentees at the caucuses because they believe it risks First - and thus risks their polls, editorial boards, national TV appearances, and bottom line.

Iowa Republicans don't want Iowa Democrats to have an absentee process because they are worried about First and about double voting - people voting for the Democrats early and then attending the Republican event on caucus night (because they want to vote against Trump twice?). That's technically illegal - but can only be discovered after the fact and only with an unusual level of bipartisan cooperation.

Rural Iowa Democratic county activists who like to brag about how badly their county swung from Obama to Trump don't want absentees because they worry that without forced attendance in order to vote, no one will show up and they will not be able to organize their county committees.

No, no one really wants the Iowa Democratic caucuses to have an absentee process...
...except for two small groups. And no one seems to much care what we think.
The first is made up of actual normal Iowans who don't want to or can't spend three hours on a Monday night just to vote, and who care more about that than about the benefits (?) of First. These are not the people asking questions or getting selfies or even going to candidate events. They don't care how many candidates are at your county party event or how the platform is worded or who is on the county central committee. They just want to VOTE.

These are also the people who work second shift or get mandatory OT or are traveling or who have small children or can't drive at night or who have problems standing or who (like me) can't handle the stress of large and sometimes hostile crowds.

The other group that wants absentees is also like me - actually, I'm pretty sure I'm the loudest: Urban county Iowa Democratic activists who are concerned about literally not being able to fit into the biggest room that exists in the precinct. No one at IDP has ever given us any constructive suggestions as to what we should do about it. Even honest acknowledgement is rare. We just get the occasional "it won't be so bad" pep talk.

You cannot "organize" and "party build" when precinct attendance is approaching quadruple digits. You can't fix The Biggest Room Is Too Small with "better planning." You CAN fix it, you can ONLY fix it, with absentee ballots.

If you're with me in those last two groups, we have two weeks to convince Iowa Democratic leadership that we NEED an absentee process and that the apparent direction from both Iowa and DNC - a waiver from the absentee requirement - is the wrong way to go.

In today's conference call, DNC Rules and Bylaws chair James Roosevelt (yes, grandson of FDR and Eleanor) said:


If Nevada can have in person early voting for caucuses, Iowa can and must do the same.

It is time to stop caring about New Hampshire thinks. It is time to stand up to Big Bully Bill Gardner.

DNC approved a calendar with Iowa first and New Hampshire second. They also approved rules that said caucus states need absentees, and we should not let New Hampshire break the rules just because we are following the rules.
If New Hampshire moves in front of Iowa, let them - and then throw their delegation out of the national convention, the way Florida and Michigan should have been thrown out in 2008.

We also have one last chance to convince Iowa Democratic leadership that the 10% delegate cap, no matter what the attendance, on an absentee process is unfair. Absentees should be reported back to the individual precincts and counted equally, and should also be actively encouraged in order to address overcrowding.

We need real early ballots and we should not settle for anything less.