Friday, February 12, 2016

Making The Caucuses Happen: What Next?

The Johnson County Democrats are holding a caucus chair debriefing  on Monday the 22nd at 7 PM at the Iowa City Public Library. That may be the first of many, many steps in figuring out What To Do Next.

But before we launch into a long, system-wide  Reform And Review Process we need to realistically assess our chances of survival, and we can't do that until we see who the ultimate winners are.

Either way, it doesn't look good on the Democratic side; many of Bernie's folks are convinced The Fix Was In (pro tip: HRC2016 plates don't help - even in my little local role there was a reason I stayed neutral until literally the moment that Uncommitted was non-viable.)

And Hillary's folks are mad that they had to break a sweat and that the best field staff ever assembled had to bust their butts for months to just barely beat a 74 year old socialist who's been a Democrat for about 10 minutes, and with under 50%.

It seems our best hope is that President Ted Cruz owes Iowa a debt of gratitude. And First In The Nation isn't worth THAT. The only thing President Cruz has to offer Democrats is tips on Canadian citizenship.

But if Hillary or Bernie wins, the Democrats become a non-event for 2020 and the fight for First becomes a Republican fight - which nevertheless impacts the Democrats.

An unspoken truth: The meltdown wasn't anything new. It was just more visible because it was a tie. There were just as many problems in 2008. There were even MORE problems in my county in 2004, when turnout jumped from 5000 in 2000 to 11,000. The apocryphal story is that so many places ran out of so many forms in 2004 that people signed in on a pizza box. I never saw the box. But I did see paper towels.

But there were other stories those years: Obama's historic win in 2008. And in 2004...

So the national press didn't care about our pizza box, because Howard Dean yelled... and because it wasn't a tie.

In the early, TOO early, discussion, the raw body count is the thing people want to talk about. But the body count is not the be all and end all, and is not even the biggest problem.

The problem with the body count, which no one in a position to truly know will say on the record but which everybody understands implicitly, is that the New Hampshire Secretary of State believes body count plus committed delegates is a PRIMARY not a caucus, and he WILL have the first primary.

And don't compare the Dems to the Republicans. the Republicans fudged it. They have uncommitted delegates. Their votes will get automatically cast on the first ballot in proportion to the caucuses... but on a second ballot which after the splintered result of New Hampshire seems plausible, all bets are off. We could still be hiding a stealth Rand Paul delegation. But not likely. For one thing, you can only get away with stealth once, and for another thing the results.

If Democrats try that trick we're asking the DNC for TWO exceptions: the early date AND an exemption to the delegate selection rules.

OK, So we know it's tough, but why not ask anyway? Counter question: why burn our energy and use our very limited supply of chips (since Tom Harkin's retirement Iowa Democrats are in the weakest position nationally that we've been in decades) fighting a battle we can't win?

So setting aside the raw vote count issue for now, what else can we do?

All hands on deck. IF we are ever going to have anything remotely resembling The Caucuses As We Know Them ever again, we need 100% institutional buy in from all the key non-"political" players. First has its critics even within Iowa, but First is important to our economy and our national reputation, sullied as it may be. As I told the QC Times, the schools don't just belong to the schools, they belong to the whole community. People need to look at it as a civics thing rather than as a politics thing.

And newspapers: give those small county parties a break and run those caucus site ads as a public service. Or legislators: repeal that archaic requirement, and a lot of other archaic legal publications. Even Pole Bean County has heard of this Interweb thing. While you're at it, maybe require schools to cancel activities on caucus night. The only way to manage the crowds is to basically shut down everything else and treat it like Game Day for the whole state.

Fixing It With Technology Is Harder Than It Sounds. Yes it would be nice to sign everyone in on laptops. But it's hard to maintain the infrastucture of computers and data that we use to conduct elections, and that's with tax dollars and permanent staffs.

First matters. A lot. And not just for the free Demi Lovato concerts and selfies with Cornel West. It matters because the campaigns build an infrastructure and volunteer pool that transfers over to the general election, and because the candidates bring in a lot of money and visible support. The important part of the caucuses is the year before, not the night. Without First, we never see a candidate. We get a week of TV ads and maybe one rally at the Des Moines airport.

First is clearly the ONLY remaining justification for our system, which as early as 2004 had outgrown its Town Meeting roots. The cost of first is two hours in a crowded gym. If you want to trade the whole year before so that you can get an absentee ballot, I won't judge. But understand that it's one of the other, not both, because...

We can't just switch to a primary and automatically keep first, for reasons stated above. Keeping First had been a 40 year bipartisan fight with 48 jealous states and one uneasy frenemy.

Go ahead and make the ask for the body count, but don't get your hopes up. Don't invest all our energy in offering that as our big reform when it probably fails New Hampshire's test.

In fact, don't waste too much energy in trying to figure out how to fix the present system because...

It may not be our choice anymore anyway. This was our last chance and we blew it again. I say WE and AGAIN because the national press does not see this as a 2012 Republican problem and a 2016 Democratic problem. They see it as an IOWA problem.

If we lose First, just have a freakin' primary. The historic town meeting is over, a victim of its own success and excess, so the ONLY rationale for our system is First. MAYBE have a February caucus for the central committee and platform stuff, but absolutely NO president stuff. Maybe even move it to the odd year just to be safe.

I want to keep First but from my purely personal perspective? I'd have the overtime from an extra election in 2020 instead of burning my vacation days again. And my county that cast 11.4% of the votes would count for 11.4% of the result, not 6.5%.

If we lose an early state slot, forget Super Tuesday. Maybe we get something. We lose First to New Hampshire because the Beltway likes them better. Shorter flight, longer history. But maybe we keep a slot as an early carve out state with South Carolina and Nevada.

That's a hard sell, too, because of the Lack Of Diversity card and pent-up hostility and schadenfruede from other states. Debbies Dingell and Wasserman Schultz would love to replace Iowa with Florida or Michigan.

So maybe we get lumped in with the other 46 states and can't go until Super Tuesday. In that case, forget it. The glory days are over. Just combine it with the statehouse and courthouse primary - maybe move that earlier, maybe not. At this point, maybe all we deserve in 2020 is a June primary between President Hillary and Lyndon LaRouche.

Let A Thousand Oaknolls Bloom. The credentials cats say I'm being too negative so I want to end this upbeat.

When the satellite caucus was announced last spring, I was a skeptic. I had favored a very limited proxy vote system,  and I also worried that the satellites would be overkilled. I though that a campaign - OK, the Hillary campaign - would come in and demand dozens of sites as a "show of strong support."

I now wish my worst fears had been realized.

There were only four satellite caucuses in the whole state. Mere tokenism to show the nation that we were being "more inclusive," that was completely lost in the dead heat coin flip news cycle.

Three of those caucuses were duds - a grand total of ten people showed up. But Oaknoll was the crown jewel. I wish to God that the image of Iowa the nation took away was Oaknoll, not coin flips.

Oaknoll is the biggest retirement community in Iowa City, full of retired professors and every-election voters. Civically engaged, but not always comfortable driving at night or cramming into a gym. I played a tiny role in it - I mentioned to a resident that the satellite program existed, and she ran with it.

127 people signed up (the deadline was a month out) and 109 showed up - dominating the other sites. Oaknoll netted Hillary a one state delegate equivalent gain - important in a 3.7 delegate win, and they were just a couple bodies shy of sweeping the three state delegates.

But more importantly, it let 109 people participate who might not have, and it took some strain off the precinct's regular site at the Roosevelt school gym. (It was still a black hole of Calcutta - but that was the precinct I wanted to send to the Studio Arts building that argued they belonged to Menards and not to the public.)

Yes, I was a skeptic. But now I wish there had been a satellite caucus at every retirement community. I wish there had been a satellite caucus at every dorm. I wish there had been a satellite caucus at every large student apartment complex. I wish there had been a satellite caucus at every neighborhood center - just to take the strain off some of those mega-sites.

This, if anything, is the future. If the rooms aren't big enough anymore, we need more, smaller rooms. There would be a lot of logistics to work out, sure. But if there is any future for a neighborhood style caucus, it's in getting back to the true neighborhoods.

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