Governmental minimalist Ron Paul is a near cinch to win the biggest bastion of the public sector in Iowa in Tuesday's caucuses, in large part with Democratic votes. But at least one Democrat -- that would be me, in my press hat -- wasn't welcomed at a Friday night training session and was asked to leave.
How is the gold standard, shutter the government libertarian cleaning up in a town where the largest single employer by a factor of ten times is the public University of Iowa? A town so liberal that its political nickname is "the People's Republic of Johnson County?"
The top three reasons are war, war, and, let's see... war. Sure, there are some legit libertarian Republicans here in Iowa City. Paul drew 15% of the Johnson County caucus vote in 2008 to finish fourth, just six votes out of third place.
But that was against a fully contested Democratic caucus that drew over 18,000 attendees, compared to the GOP's 4,000. (The county's party breakdown isn't quite that lopsided, though Obama did carry Johnson in November with 70%.) This cycle, the Democratic race is essentially uncontested, and anti-war Democrats are seeking a way to express themselves.
Three weeks ago I attended a meeting organized by Jeff Cox, a history professor and former local county Democratic Party chair. His goal with a "Healthcare Not Warfare Caucus Campaign" is to elect uncommitted Democratic delegates. Unlike the Republicans, who forego the presidential vote in re-election years, Democrats do the whole thing every time. I agreed to attend the meeting to explain the relatively complex Democratic rules, even though I'm caucusing for the president myself.
But as the two dozen or so people in attendance went around the room introducing themselves, a pattern became clear. Roughly half were not attending the Democratic caucus at all. They were crossing over for Ron Paul. Jim Walters, a longtime Democratic and union activist, gave an impassioned indictment of Obama administration foreign and military policy and urges the would-be Uncommitteds to join him at the Republican caucuses instead.
To these folks, Paul's foreign policy "gaffes" in debates, like arguing that it doesn't matter if Iran has nuclear weapons, or saying we should come home from Korea after 60 years, aren't mistakes at all. They're the reasons to support Paul. For every regular Republican he lost in the last pre-Christmas debate, Paul probably gained an independent and a Republican.
It helps Paul that the Democrats don't have a significant contest, that an Obama primary challenge never happened. A guy like Jim Walters wouldn't be crossing over to the GOP if there were a Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic race.
My perspective is likely skewed by my residence in the People's Republic. But I smell a Paul win. Super number cruncher Nate Silver of the New York Times notes that many polls only include registered Republicans. But in Iowa, crossing over is easy. You can re-register and switch party on caucus night. Some of the regular Republicans have grumbled about it a bit.
And after Paul wins Iowa, that grumbling will get even louder. (Yet the party will no doubt brag about its gains in party registration the next time the voter registration totals are updated. They did the same thing last year after their numbers were swollen by a divisive primary for governor.) And the party establishment will rapidly unite behind whoever comes in second to Paul, preferring to lose an election rather than let the libertarians take over the party.
Which they may do anyway. In fact, they kind of started to already.
The secret of the Iowa Republican caucuses, and the difference between them and the Democrats, is that the numbers reported on caucus night have nothing to do with the national delegate count.
Most people's vision of the Iowa Caucuses is the Democratic caucus, because the process is more colorful. You literally divide up into corners of the room. No ballots: Obama people over here, Edwards people over there, Hillary people on that side. The county convention delegates, who eventually choose the congressional district, state and national delegates, are chosen out of each group. (I'm simplifying it a LOT; I know no non-Iowans who actually understand Democratic delegate math.) The "votes" don't count until the moving around the room is done, and the "votes" that are reported are the delegate counts: Obama 4, Edwards 2, Hillary 1.
But the Republicans are simple. You show up, you vote. Let's say 100 people go to your Republican caucus. The hypothetical result is Romney 32, Santorum 22, Paul 15, Perry 15, Gingrich 9, Bachmann 7, Kevin Phillips Bong 0. That number gets reported to Des Moines (or, rather to the "undisclosed location," yes that's the actual phrase they used, where results are tabulated. Guess that means Dick Cheney is in charge.)
Here's the catch: A lot of people, after the vote is reported, go home. And it's the people who STAY that choose the delegates, undifferentiated by candidate preference. And the people who stay choose the committee members and write the platform and that's why Ron Paul's supporters are heavily represented on the state central committees -- because Ron Paul supporters are the ones who stay at the meeting.
And that was kind of the explanation I expected to get tonight at the Ron Paul Caucus training, one of several dozen being held sequentially across the state this week. And in best Ron Paul fashion I wanted to be the one to stay at the meeting. But they didn't let me.
There's been word of an attitude of secrecy around the Paul campaign. Out of state volunteers are asked to agree not to post about the campaign to social media, for example. The campaign announced that it was holding caucus trainings around the state but the web site listed only cities and dates, not times or locations. To get the details, you had to sign up. After signing up, you got an email that said you would get ANOTHER email before the training with the site and time. None of that was hard, but it was a bit unusual compared to the typical campaign effort to publicize date time and location as loudly as possible.
I signed myself up. Though I'm a Democrat, I've been writing a long time and I attend GOP events, openly as a writer and a liberal, as often as possible. The local Republicans know me and give me just the right amount of ribbing. and I've had a good working relationship with local Republicans on caucus logistics. We fight like cats and dogs on issues, but Iowa Democrats and Republicans are solid partners in the business of keeping our quadrennial tradition of first place. If you walk into a Republican caucus by mistake in an Obama shirt, you might get teased a little, but you'll get friendly directions to the other room down the hall.
So that's the mood I expected when I walked into the local Ron Paul headquarters. Only two candidates have a Johnson County headquarters: Ron Paul and Barack Obama. On the way in I saw an eclectic mix of bumper stickers: the Johnson County plates had anti-war stickers, a car from next-door rural Washington County had a "Stop Zoning" sticker next to the Ron Paul.
People kept arriving as I did, with the body count close to 20. I recognized a few faces from other Republican events. A few of the locals recognized me including Beth Cody, a libertarian and fellow member of the local newspaper's guest contributor group. One person asked me where my hat was; my inadvertent trademark as a blogger is a red beret that I wear to indicate whether we're on or off the record.
I dutifully put it on, as it's a well-known part of the act, and introduced myself to the two people who appeared to be the trainers in charge from the Paul campaign. They may have been staff, they may have been volunteer. Didn't get the chance to ask. I explained that I was a blogger, yes a liberal but interested in what they had to say for a story. The young woman from the campaign chatted a bit more, but her young male colleague stepped away to make a phone call. I chatted some more with the friendly local Paul supporters, but noticed the phone call.
As I prepared to take a seat next to a woman who has been registering voters for the Paul campaign, my suspicions were confirmed as the young man returned to relay his orders from state HQ. And that was that the event was volunteers only and I would have to leave. I said I understood, but added, "well, that'll have to be my story, then."
So that's my story, then. (Also featured at huliq.com)