Thursday, March 26, 2015

Democratic Caucus Changes: What Do We Think Here?

Congratulations. If you're still reading me, you're a certified Iowa Caucus Geek. You know that the Iowa Democrats have released their draft rules for 2016, that we're making changes that will include satellite and military caucuses, and that these changes will not have a huge impact on caucus math.

The military tele-caucus seems like the best possible solution to that issue, IF the military cooperation is forthcoming which is a big if.

The satellite caucuses worry me a little more. This CAN work. I want it to work. I'm not opposed in principle, but I do have some Fear and Loathing.

My preference was for a very tightly controlled proxy vote, tied to medical or work reasons. I threw out the suggestions of licensed care facilities and handicapped plates: both things which are defined and finite, and both things which are not politically controlled. And that would also have counted those people in the regular precinct based caucus process.

But it was clear from the git-go that satellite caucuses were the way Iowa was going - because that's what Nevada did in 2008, and because the person who organized that in Nevada 2008 had IDP ties.

There were problems with predicting attendance, and with accusations that sites favored one or another candidate. Iowa's proposed rules address some of those - Nevada let anyone near the satellite site attend, but Iowa would limit it to people who lived or worked at the site. But it doesn't surprise me that Nevada is now considering a primary instead.

They can do that, because their third vs. fourth rivalry with South Carolina is nowhere near as high stakes as Iowa vs. New Hampshire. Accept the basic premise here: if Iowa is to stay first, it's a caucus.

90% of Nevada's population is in ONE county, and that community is dominated by a few large around the clock employers. That was the whole idea: satellite caucuses at the hotels and casinos. We have actual footage:

The concept was, workers couldn't get to their home precinct on lunch break, but could get to a break room on site. (This was on a Saturday afternoon - which is also a change I think Iowa should have looked at that, but was never taken seriously.)  "Lunch break" kinda turned into "most of the afternoon," which any Iowa caucus veteran can understand.

Iowa, as all the college graduates leaving the state know, ain't Vegas.  We don't have very many of those giant, tens of thousands of employee places. But as I've said, the idea is not to fundamentally change the caucuses. The idea is to increase inclusiveness and show an effort.

Not to single her out. But Hillary Clinton is casting a Mt. Everest size shadow over the 2016 nomination process. Her critique of Iowa's must attend in person caucus process began even before Caucus Night 2008.

The argument that troops and shift workers couldn't attend had some moral high ground, sure. But it was also being used to excuse away in advance the poor Iowa result Clinton knew was coming.

The real problem was that Clinton's strategists had planned poorly for caucus states, not just here but nation-wide.  That error proved fatal, as Obama scooped up the caucus state delegates that made the difference in a very tight contest. And as that endless nomination fight went on, the complaints about caucuses as a process became part of that fight, with opinions breaking largely and predictably along Hillary-Barack lines.

Don't get me wrong. These changes could be improvements in our very good system. But let's be honest: the genesis, the roots, of these changes are basically A Clinton Thing.

The Clinton 2015 campaign - if it even happens - is not the Clinton 2007 campaign. At least I hope not, for her sake and Iowa's. But it already seems clear that Clinton 2015 will be staff-heavy but light on candidate presence. The strategy is clearly following Gore 1999: crush the outgunned opposition in the first state(s), and pivot fast to the general.

"Crush the outgunned opposition" is where I'm feeling the Fear And Loathing about the process changes.

I was a pro journalist in 2007, and I followed all the candidates of both parties closely. There was a lot of what I'd call overkill in Clinton Iowa 2007, on stuff that didn't make real differences. Stuff like the way they did over-did sign war at the multi-candidate events, or the food trays at the caucus sites. (I shamelessly ate a Hillary sandwich on my way to the Obama corner. Well, not entirely without shame as I'm confessing now.)

They even had a snow shovel brigade on standby. Stuff that could be planned ahead and managed and controlled and dealt with by throwing in more resources thrown at it.

So I'm worried that these satellite caucus sites will get overkilled. I work in elections, and I've been deeply involved in the closest analogy, satellite VOTING sites, for 20 years. I've seen satellite voting petitions overkilled. And I've seen sites fail miserably at great effort and expense.

I have been reassured that the petition review process will include the opportunity for the state party to say no, which makes me feel better. Increasing inclusiveness is good, but there are a lot of legitimate reasons to say no: insufficient space, low anticipated turnout. Schedule conflicts, because believe it or not, other things may be happening in Iowa on February 1 other than caucuses. (Same problem happens with regular caucus sites. We've been bumped for ballgames before.) And, if Overkill happens, lack of resources.

The resource I'm most thinking of is skilled, experienced caucus chairs. It is really, really hard to recruit caucus chairs. Now, with a satellite caucus, we need to get one or two or however many more. The state party is saying it will take responsibility for the satellite caucus chairs. I appreciate that. But I also expect that at some point, the locals will be inevitably be asked for help.

Where exactly the line gets drawn, I'm not sure. There are two places in my county where I can legitimately see a want/need for a satellite caucus. Based on some past turnout data, I'd project that out to a couple dozen, maybe 30, in the whole state. Frankly, not every county needs one. We need enough to show we're making the effort.

If we got a third one in my county, we locals could live with it. But if we get two dozen in a county, we definitely need to be saying no. 
We've all worked through campaign cycles, both caucus and general, where the national HQ didn't listen to the locals. (John Kerry in the 2004 general was especially bad.) I'm worried that those field staffers will hit the ground with marching orders from Chappaqua: You are to get a satellite caucus in all 99 counties. You are to get a satellite caucus at every nursing home and every hospital and every factory with a second shift. You are to get a satellite caucus site in every dorm, and no we don't care that the county party has scheduled the regular caucus at the Iowa Memorial Union.

That would disrupt and upend the whole caucus culture. The default is still supposed to be: if you can, you go to your precinct caucus. The satellite caucuses are EXTRA, not instead of.

A small thing I'd like to see added to the draft rules: Require the satellite caucus petitioner to have some sort of standing. The county candidate captains or staffers shouldn't make the ask. It should be someone actually eligible to participate at the site: a resident or an employee. If the campaigns want to recruit those people, great.

My advice to the Clinton campaign, and to all of the other campaigns and semi-campaigns and bird-dogging groups: Go back to my Part 3 and read the math. The satellite caucuses, as a whole, are the 98½th biggest county. You should not put any more effort into the satellite caucuses than you put into Adams County. 

But if Overkill happens it will not be about the few delegates at stake. It will be about making a rhetorical statement. This is a Sign Of Our Strong Support. And, implicitly, it will send a message of Iowa You've Been Doing It Wrong.

And that gets to my existential fear about Iowa's future. My prediction stands: If Clinton wins the nomination and election, which I expect, she tells the DNC no caucuses, only primaries. New Hampshire wins that battle, Iowa loses its role, and this affects both parties.

I know a lot of people who agree with me. I'm just the only one who says it in public to reporters.

It's on record: Hillary Clinton does not like the Iowa caucuses. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's Game Change is full of blind quotes and a bit sensationalist, but here's how they describe the mood of 2007:
If Hillary was going to be competitive in Iowa, she would need to go all out. The problem was, she hated it there….

She found the Iowans diffident and presumptuous; she felt they were making her grovel. Hillary detested pleading for anything, from money to endorsements, and in Iowa it was no different. She resisted calling the local politicos whose support she needed.

One time, she spent forty-five minutes on the phone wooing an activist, only to be told at the call’s end that the woman was still deciding between her and another candidate. Hillary hung up in a huff. “I can’t believe this!” she said. “How many times am I going to have to meet these same people?”
Me, she met twice. Both experiences were very positive. I can't get into why but I knew that she remembered me and the story I told, and that she actually cared about it. And as I watched her interact with others, I could see that Hillary Clinton is an excellent retail politician.

Yet it seems clear, from the macro-strategy of the 2008 campaign and from the pre-campaign phase of 2016, that she does not like retail politics, especially the unpredictability of it. And especially especially the press part of it.

Two days before the caucuses, on New Year's Day night 2008, I attended my last caucus event, a Clinton rally in downtown Iowa City. I spent most of the next day writing this piece summing up her Iowa campaign:
The Clinton campaign, in contrast, ran a cautious general election campaign in the ultimate retail environment.  But like a singer with perfect pitch who misses the meaning of the song, Clinton kept errors to a minimum but failed to capture the spontaneous spirit of the caucuses...

No one incident captures this perfectly, but little detail after little detail paints the picture.

A staffer subtly steering me away from a friend of many years, directing her to the public seats and me to the roped off press area.  Offering the press free pizza after the speech, rather than what we really wanted: time to ask the candidate a question.  The relentless focus on sign war at cattle call events, bringing in loads of staffers and making it harder to ferret out the genuine levels of support.  The careful release, then quick denial, of a strategy memo last spring arguing that Clinton should skip Iowa, underscoring her relative weakness in the state and inoculating her against expectations.  Supporters leaving the Harkin Steak Fry after Clinton spoke without hearing the rest of the candidates, as if to send a scripted message of "I'm only here for Hillary."

Clinton was the only candidate who did not do a question and answer event at the University of Iowa or the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, and got caught red-handed planting questions at Grinnell.  Even little stuff like Chelsea Clinton smiling but saying not a word from the stage, and no-commenting a nine-year-old child reporter, made the campaign look too careful, too cautious.

A University student who attended a rally in Manchester reported that he was not allowed in until he put on a Hillary sticker, and said that at the end of the speech Clinton offered the crowd a choice: "I can answer some questions, OR, I can shake some hands."  The crowd roared its approval at the chance to meet, maybe even touch, the woman who would be president.

Iowans, of course, expect to shake hands AND ask questions. And all that (and the Iraq vote) was what landed her in third place.

This one really bothers me most: Post-caucus, there were rumors and backstage accusations that Obama had gamed the caucuses with supporters "bussed in from Illinois." (In Iowa City, that has a VERY strong racial subtext. Not even a SUB-text, really.) I heard it from locals; Game Change blind-quoted it to Bill Clinton.

The accusation was disproven fairly easily and quickly, in a Des Moines Register piece that I can't seem to find. tl;dr version: the tiny handful of "bad" registrations were honest mistakes like missing apartment numbers or bad handwriting. Caucuses, in fact, are HARDER to game than elections, because you need live bodies, and people can only be in one place at once.

People say things in the pain of defeat that they may regret later. But it's been a long time, and those statements are still hanging, unrevised. And this isn't snark from the Twitter staffer. This is the candidate.

Iowans don't like being not liked. But we are forgiving, friendly folks. And, back to the point here, the Iowa Democratic Party's plan is a well-prepared, good faith effort to address the concerns about the Iowa caucuses that are legitimate.

But now that we've done so, is it too much to ask the person who most prominently raised those criticisms to come here and say something nice about our process?

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