Monday, May 04, 2015

A Caucus Decision

I've made my caucus decision for 2016. Actually, I made it a month or so ago, and was waiting for the right moment. But a national reporter scooped me on my own endorsement, so I'll make it official.

Before I do, I'm going to walk you through some of my personal history with the Iowa caucuses, because it explains why.

I am an Iowan because of the caucuses. I came to Iowa City in 1990 as a grad student hoping to write The Definitive Academic Study Of The Iowa Caucuses. Thanks to Tom Harkin, 1992 was the wrong cycle to do that, and I got sidetracked by journalism and local politics and life.

No regrets; the most valuable thing I learned in grad school was that I did not belong in grad school. In the end, the universe needed me to write this blog instead, and Dave Redlawsk took care of Definitive Academic Study Of The Iowa Caucuses. Though I have considered turning District Of The Day in for academic credit, since it's long enough to be a dissertation.

When I got here, the caucus wounds of 1988 were still raw. Johnson County was Paul Simon and Jesse Jackson territory. Dick Gephardt was a very weak fifth, in part because we were about the only Bruce Babbitt hot spot anywhere.

Back then, precinct chairs reported their results to the county chair, and the county chair called Des Moines when the county was complete. The way the story goes: the county chair, a Gephardt guy, supposedly waited until the Register had printed its GEPHARDT WINS headline before he called in with our numbers. There are people who are STILL angry about this, and who STILL believe "Simon really won Iowa," even though that long ago chair and Paul Simon are both dead.

Some people - there's a non-random amount of overlap - are also still mad about 1996 of all years. The marching orders from Des Moines were "President Clinton WILL have a unanimous re-nomination," but a handful of midtown Iowa City precincts elected some Uncommitted and Ralph Nader delegates. The results did not get reported. Eventually I found the local paperwork and corrected the historic record.

(Now, in large part because of incidents like these, results go directly from the precincts to Des Moines.)

In 2000, the moment it became clear that Bill Bradley was the only challenger to Al Gore, I started walking on hot coals for Bradley. There was a lot of pushback. Party leadership in Des Moines and DC made it very clear that the Vice President did not want a nomination contest and that they were very disappointed in us. The quote I'll never forget: "All the GOOD Democrats are for Gore."

Johnson County was the number one Bill Bradley county in the country. In November I voted for Nader. No regrets.

I had started this site by 2003, so in the archives you can see I committed to Howard Dean very early. But well before caucus night, I'd been pulled away from doing much Dean stuff. By December 2003 there was no Johnson County Democratic Party remaining. There were just campaign crews. We had gone through two chairs in two months because they'd gotten involved in campaigns.  No one was left to make sure the actual caucuses HAPPENED.

About four of us tried to get it done, and we damn near dropped the ball. The state party got our delegate math wrong, we ran out of every form, and turnout was so overwhelming we actually signed people in on paper towels. (Rumor also says pizza boxes - I believe it, but never actually saw the box.) We overpacked every room everywhere and the fire marshal almost threw us out of the Iowa Memorial Union.

I was there for Barack Obama's first two tests of the Iowa waters in 2006, the Harkin Steak Fry and the Ped Mall rally two days before the election. I was at the announcement day event in Cedar Rapids. By then I knew. But I was never too active in the Obama caucus campaign.  I got the professional writing gig with Iowa Independent (RIP) right about the time the campaigning got serious. So I never "endorsed," but most people who knew me knew where I was.

By 2012 I was back on amateur status and publicly backed Obama, but spent most of my time on caucus logistics. I met with the Uncommitteds, who were viable in Johnson County, to explain rules. As I described the video message from the president, they called it an "Obama Nuremburg Rally." (Yep, the Paul Simon Got Screwed people again.)  While they listened to me on rules and math, I felt some distrust because I'd been up front with them that I was supporting the president.

Three points here with these old war stories.

1: There are people in and/or around the Democratic Party, some reasonable and some not, some old and some new, who walk in on caucus night expecting to get screwed by the system. I've been on both sides of that. People who feel like the fix was in may not come around in the fall, and the consequences can be long-term.

2: There are very, very few people who both know how to organize a county-wide set of caucuses AND are willing to take time away from the candidate campaigns to do so. We saw that all too clearly on the Republican side in 2012, but in fairness the Democrats have made plenty of mistakes over the years too. We just didn't make them in a tied race.

3. In 2004 and 2008 I got to caucus for candidates who were compelling personal favorites. And in 2000 I had only one anti-Gore option. This cycle is different, so now let's get to my choice.

No one considering or already in the race is unacceptable to me, the way Gore was. I WILL be voting for the Democratic nominee in November 2016. (Actually, probably as soon as I can in late September at a satellite voting site.)

My first choice was Elizabeth Warren.

I said "was." Because about a month ago I came to the reluctant conclusion that nothing is going to get her into the race. This means I'm not burning with a need to endorse someone.

I have a few concerns about Hillary Clinton, some of which are being addressed and some of which I know won't be. But having played the gender card so hard in other recent races, it's harder for me to come out for one of the old straight white males either. (One of the many reasons Warren was my first choice.)

Despite the gender card thing, I like Martin O'Malley a lot, and was grateful for his frequent Iowa visits for state and local candidates. I have yet to see Lincoln Chaffee or Jim Webb.

I'm a long time Bernie Sanders fan, back to those abortive grad school days. But having seen him live now, I give him a 10 on issues but about a 3 on style. And frankly his local supporters have been negligent or even hostile in reaching out to the party regulars.

Funny thing is, the "party regulars" and even elected officials in Johnson County would be considered the Radical Left in most counties. Case in point: The New York Times citing me of all people in an article headlined "Hillary Clinton Courts the Democratic Left," when the left of the left here thinks I'm "establishment."

Yet other than a few purely local issues, I think I have a reputation as being opinionated but fair, especially at number crunching and election rules and laws, but also in my writing. People who've been on barely speaking terms come around and ask me when they need those kinds of answers, and even the Republicans think I'm "98% fair."

My day job in the auditor's office just enhances that credibility, and also keeps me in constant shape on the logistics of elections and election-like events.  As I've noted: the difference between a caucus and an election is that an election is my job and I get paid government union goon wages to do the work. In a caucus I do many of the same tasks except I not only don't get paid I have to use vacation time to do it.

I've co-chaired our county convention credentials committee since 1996, been in the loop of site set up and chair recruitment since 2000, and coordinated the caucuses for my county from beginning to end in the 2014 off-year cycle.  Someone has to, and I'm going to do it again. (I'm going to need a LOT of help.)

And because someone has to organize the actual caucuses and I'm good at it, and because I don't have a compelling favorite, and because there are always people suspicious of the process and the party, I've made the decision to be neutral in the presidential race.

At least for now, probably till the very end. Neutral is not Uncommitted and it is not None Of The Above. I will, at alignment time, pick my corner.  Before then, some candidate may say or do something disqualifying. And there's still a non-zero, but near-zero, chance that Warren changes her mind.

Neutral is a strange place for an opinionated guy like me. And maybe I'm making too big a deal of myself with this announcement. High-level electeds and county chairs do the Neutral thing, not rank and file activists. But right now Neutral feels like the best place to be.

It'll make me better able to meet with and work with the representatives of all campaigns. It'll make it clear that my only agenda is running a good caucus and building the Democratic Party. And it may help with my writing. As much as I hate the American media paradigm of Objectivity, it's still an expectation people have. From a Neutral stance I'll better be able to cover, and have more access to, all the campaigns, Democratic and Republican.

All campaigns, feel free to twist my arm. And I still owe my mentors who fed me in Cedar Rapids in 1992 a bunch of lunches for staffers. I'll give you my best judgement, and maybe I'll walk to your corner in the end.

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