Monday, November 26, 2007

Caucusing Is (Sort of) Easy For Democrats

Caucusing Is (Sort of) Easy For Democrats

The Hillary Clinton campaign is having Fun With Video again, poking fun at the candidate and the husband in its "Caucusing is Easy" video. While caucusing may be easier than getting Hillary Clinton to sing in tune, it does take a little training.

Clinton needs a Caucus 101 program more than some of her rivals because, more and more, it appears she is counting on first-time caucus-goers. Polls are showing that Clinton, not Gen-X phenom Barack Obama, is doing best among 18-29 year old potential caucusers (particularly young women). The flip side, as Jerome Armstrong writes at MyDD:

The Clinton campaign must have polled and segmented and projected that, with the given caucus universe, they just can't win in Iowa -- recall their internal memo earlier this spring that considered ditching the state. So instead, the focus moves to the technique of expanding the caucus universe. More than 60 percent of those who have identified themselves as Clinton supporters, senior strategists say, have never participated in the Iowa caucuses.

Obama, given how much he's spent already on TV, is probably coming to the same conclusion-- he can't win with the current universe of caucus attendees. So like Clinton, he's got to identify supporters that haven't caucused, educate them about the process, and get them there the night of the vote on January 3rd.

So this isn't just a silly video, this is a serious effort, and as such it deserves a serious look for how it portrays the caucus process itself.

At 0:54 into the video, we hear, "You don't have to be registered, or even a Democrat, you can register at the caucus that night." Partially true; you can register onsite, but when you do you have to register as a Democrat. And if you're already registered as GOP or no party, you have to re-register as a Democrat. The local party gets lists from their state party offices, listing just the registered Democrats, and if you're not on the list ...fill out the form.

At 1:20 into the Clinton video, we hear: "Be sure to be (at the caucus site) by 6:30; doors close at 7 p.m. sharp." Democrats have to be signed in or in the line to sign in (the video never shows that long line) by 6:30, which is when the caucus actually starts. 7:00 is the earliest time you can break into preference groups, the "voting" stage of the caucus.

So what happens between 6:30 and 7? The people still in line get checked in, mostly, but the first half hour starts with the election of a permanent chair. 99 times out of 100 the "temporary chair" appointed by the county party to start the meeting gets elected as the permanent chair.

1:23 in: "Bring a friend, a family member or a neighbor." Sure, the more the merrier -- as long as they live in your precinct. Your across-the-street neighbor might caucus somewhere else, and your friend who lives across town almost certainly will.

The funniest part of the Clinton video is about 1:35 in when they show an orderly school gym with about 50 people (carefully selected for diversity) and actual room to move around, even for the two people in wheelchairs. (One would be tokenism, two is a demographic.) Take that crowd, in a room that size, and multiply it by about eight or ten, and you'll get a more realistic picture.

While this fantasy is happening on video, the narrator says precinct captains "will direct you to the Hillary corner. It'll be the one with the Hillary signs. Then stand there and be counted." That's how you vote in an Iowa Democratic caucus. You stand there, in front of your neighbors, and wait to get counted.

At 1:49 into the Clinton video, a woman asserts "it usually takes about an hour." Theoretically possible, but in reality, very, very few precincts will be done with the "voting" stage that soon. The Clinton video skips over the wheeling and dealing and second-choicing that the Iowa caucuses are famous for, perhaps out of fear that a frank assessment of how long it takes won't get first-timers there.

The deepest, darkest secret in the political universe is the vote total from the Iowa Democratic caucuses. It's never reported, it doesn't even exist. The only thing reported on caucus night is delegate numbers.

Even that word "delegate" is confusing, conjuring up images of the national convention in August. The delegates elected on caucus night aren't going that far, they're going to a county convention in March, by which time it likely will be obvious who will be the nominee. The county conventions elect delegates to congressional district and state conventions, and these last two conventions choose the national convention delegates. It's much like a stack of Russian nesting dolls, or the man who was going to St. Ives.

Each precinct is allocated a set number of delegates to the county convention based on general election performance, not past caucus attendance. Doesn't matter how many people caucused in 2004; what matters is votes for John Kerry in `04 and for Chet Culver for governor in `06.

This leads to some interesting anomalies on the Democratic side. The results reflect not the caucus-going electorate, but a hypothetical, projected, general election voter pool. So in some Democratic precincts, where caucus turnout is high, it takes a lot more people to earn a delegate.

For example in 2004, in Iowa City Precinct 18, a hotbed of activism full of liberal professors and students, 534 caucus-goers recreated the Black Hole Of Calcutta in the Longfellow Elementary School gym. In North Liberty Precinct 1, full of trailer courts, newly developed housing and independents who marked their fall ballots for the Democratic ticket, only 171 people showed up. But based on their general election voting in 2000 and 2002, North Liberty 1 and Iowa City 18 each elected the same total of 10 delegates.

Much has been made of the 2008 caucuses falling during colleges' winter breaks. That'll affect turnout, but not delegate counts. In Iowa City Precinct 5, made up almost entirely of students, it doesn't matter if their turnout equals the 327 who showed up in 2004, or if it's 27 or even 7. They still elect the same six delegates in 2008.

So now it's time to allocate those delegates, and we rejoin the Clinton video in the Hillary corner with the Hillary signs. Needless to say, there's also an Edwards corner and an Obama corner and so on. With six to eight candidates, there's not enough corners -- or delegates.

If you remember one word about the Iowa Democratic caucuses, remember the word "viability."

In order to elect those county convention delegates, your corner has to have enough people to be "viable." That means 15 percent of the people in the room (the percentage is higher in the very smallest precincts). If your group is smaller than that, you have to go to Plan B: realignment.

Realignment is just making your second choice. (Does the Clinton video skip this part because they're confident they'll be viable everywhere, or because they're pessimistic about picking up second choices?) You can walk over to your second choice candidate, alone or en masse. Or you can play hard to get, waiting to be wooed and persuaded. The small fry can band together -- the James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and Martin Van Buren groups join to form Uncommitted. (Using dead presidents as examples keeps me out of trouble with the campaigns.) You can cut a deal: "My 15 Truman people will join your FDR group if two of us get to be delegates." The larger groups usually oblige, because who's a delegate matters less than the number that's phoned in.

Once everybody's realigned into viable groups, the results get called in from the precinct to Des Moines, using a touch tone hotline. The process bypasses the county chairs; old timers will share not-for-attribution rumors of county chairs who delayed their reports back in the Bad Old Days to manipulate the media reports.

The result that gets reported is delegate counts only. "JFK two delegates, Woodrow Wilson two delegates, FDR four delegates, Uncommitted one." There's no indication at all that anyone supported Harry Truman as a first choice, or that the Uncommitted group is really a coalition of the Lesser Known Presidents.

Back in the Clinton video, at 1:56 in we hear: "It's usually over early enough to get you back in time for your favorite TV show." Kickoff for the Orange Bowl is 7 p.m. Iowa time Jan. 3 and you might catch the second half if you're lucky. "ER" or "Without A Trace" at 9 are maybes, and "Gray's Anatomy" or "The Office" at 8:00 are lost causes.

"Then, go home," says the video at 1:59. There's generally a mass exodus at this point, but there's still some work to do. As the delegates have been divvied up and the results are reported, it's just the relative trivia of who actually gets to be a county convention delegate. Sometimes these in-group elections are spirited in the caucus-night intensity, other times they're solved by "raise your hand if you're willing to be an alternate." Caucus veterans know that a lot of the delegates won't show up at the March county convention, and that the alternates usually get seated if they want to.

After all the groups have picked their delegates, the whole caucus -- what's left of it, anyway -- gets back together and elects the precinct officers and deals with the platform.

Easy? Sort of like long division: possible on paper, easier with a calculator. At least at the end of the video Bill gets his burger.

Tuesday night, Democrats and Republicans hold a joint caucus training at 6 p.m. at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City.

Wednesday: Things are easier for Republicans.

No comments: