Photo by Deckhand
[digg-reddit-me] The New York Times quoted Barack Obama in Guttenberg, Iowa:
“You in Iowa have this extraordinary privilege of choosing who the next president of the United States is going to be. Whoever wins this caucus is likely to win the nomination and is likely to win the presidency.”
There’s a lot of justified criticism of Iowa’s caucus procedures (for example, these recent pieces by Jeff Greenfield and Christopher Hitchens at Slate) – especially for the Democratic procedure, which forgoes the secret ballot in favor of publicly standing for your candidate. Iowa’s caucuses also make the same mockery of the principle of “one citizen, one vote” as the American electoral college – giving those candidates with broad support across every one of Iowa’s 99 precincts an advantage over a candidate whose support is centered in high population urban areas.
Defending the Caucus
On the other hand, Iowa (and New Hampshire) are two of the very few places in the United States where candidates actually get to meet with their prospective commander-in-chief. Justin Webb of the BBC provides the best defense of Iowa’s caucuses (as well as an insight into how the caucus is viewed internationally). Necessarily, Webb’s defense is anecdotal:
I would have more chance of getting an informal off-the-record chat with the Pope than I would with Mitt [Romney].
Unless, that is, I were an Iowan.
Iowans have dozens, literally dozens, of opportunities each week to meet all the candidates and often to talk to them.
They are in diners, in hotel lobbies, in churches, in schools, in hospitals.
Iowa in campaign season is like a single British rural parliamentary constituency – think Ross and Cromarty – with everyone spending all their time campaigning there.
The result is dizzying. A great US political story has two voters chatting about their choices in one of the early voting states – Iowa or New Hampshire, I think.
One asks the other about whether he likes a particular candidate, “Oh I don’t know,” comes the reply, “I’ve only met him twice!”
Regardless of anyone’s studied opinion of what the relevance of Iowa should be, and of what the flaws in the caucus process are, it is clear that the winner of today’s caucus will have a significant advantage in the New Hampshire primary five days later, and that the publicity of an Iowa win will boost his or her campaign numbers nationwide. There is even a substantial chance – as Barack Obama said that, “[w]hoever wins this caucus is likely to win the nomination and is likely to win the presidency.”
How the caucus works
So let’s examine the process. ((Only for the Democratic side. The Republicans have a simpler system that basically just involves writing a name on a piece of paper and stuffing it in a ballot box at one of the Republican precinct stations – a glorified straw poll.))
Iowans go to their local precinct to caucus – Democrats and Republicans have separate caucus centers, although anyone can register or switch registrations at the site itself. The caucus-goers are not actually voting for presidential candidates, or even for delegates who are going to nominate a presidential candidate. They are actually one more step removed from the end result. Each of the
nearly 2,000 1,781 precincts elects a fixed number of the 2,500 delegates to one of Iowa’s 99 county conventions. These county conventions in turn select the state delegates to send to the Democratic National Convention to nominate a candidate for president.
Another quirk of the Democratic caucusing process is that the number of delegates each precinct is assigned is based not on the number of caucus-goers who show up, but on the number of votes for the top Democratic candidates the precinct cast in past general elections. This means that, as happened in 2004, the 500 people who show up at an urban precinct to vote for Howard Dean can be equivalent to the 50 people who show up at a rural precinct to vote for John Edwards. That said, over half of the delegates elected in the precincts will come from the largest 11 counties in Iowa.
Yet another difference between the Democratic caucuses and a primary is the viability rule. Each caucus center requires each candidate’s supporters (and often the undecideds) to stand in a designated section of the center to support their candidate (or to indicate their lack of decision). At this point, the viability of each candidate is assessed.
- If the precinct has only one delegate to elect, then 50% of the vote is needed for viability.
- If the precinct has two delegates to elect, then 25% of the vote is needed.
- If the precinct has three delegates to elect, then 16.67% of the vote is needed.
- Otherwise, at least 15 % of the vote is needed for viability.
Those caucus-goers whose candidates fail the viability test then have 30 minutes to either draw in enough support to make viability or to choose another candidate to support. As Dan Balz explained in the Washington Post, “That’s when persuasion, hard bargaining, deal-making between candidates’ staffs or even chicanery comes in. Inducements are allowed; bribes are not.”
All in all, the caucus is a long process. The Caucus Guide for the press and caucus leaders lists 36 steps. In the past, campaigns have found it hard to convince new supporters to show up to caucus. For example, Howard Dean – who infamously led in most polls before the caucus – came in a distant third to John Kerry and John Edwards because he was unable to convince many of his supporters to caucus (and because his supporters were centered in urban areas and college towns rather than spread out around the state.)
John Edwards is counting on the same strategy that led him to second place in 2004 to bring him a victory in 2008. He has focused his efforts on recruiting diehard caucus-goers who have caucused several times before and show up no matter the weather; Edwards’s second tactic has been to try to secure his place as the second choice of the largest number of people – counting on the viability test to free up more votes for him.
Hillary Clinton has focused on bringing in the demographic that seems most likely to support her: older women (apparently both those from 90-110, and more potently, those 55 and older). Part of Hillary’s grand strategy has been to organize cars to pick-up these women and to distribute shovels to dig them out of their houses in case of a snowstorm. Perhaps most effectively, Clinton is organizing appetizers to draw supporters to the caucus centers before the event is gaveled open at 6:30 pm so her staff can identify who has and has not arrived. Hillary seems to be trying to repeat the success of John Kerry who targeted one specific demographic – in his case, veterans – and by turning this demographic out in significant numbers, won the state.
Barack Obama has an altogether grander and more transformational goal. He plans on increasing the number of caucus-goers by a large margin. Polls show him slightly behind or tied with John Edwards if when the sample is limited to past Democratic caucus-goers. But his Iowa co-chair seems confident in a large turnout today. In fact, he is predicting an increase of over 60% from the 2004 caucuses. The fact that this caucus will occur when colleges are on winter break also has the potential to benefit Obama, as his supporters will be spread out throughout the state in their hometowns rather than centered in the cities where their colleges are. Most recent polls have shown Obama to be leading both in first and second choice among likely caucus-goers.
So far the candidates of both parties are projected to spend $50 million by today, at an average of $200 per vote. All of this to win barely 1% of the 4,366 delegates who will choose the Democratic nominee for 2008.
For live, updated results from the Iowa Democratic party tonight, the Democrats have set up IowaCaucusResults.com. The Republican Party’s live results will be found on the main page of the Iowa Republican’s website.
Obama will win by more than 5%, with Hillary and Edwards coming in 2nd and 3rd with virtually no room between them. Edwards will stay in the race until South Carolina, but will no longer have much of a shot to win if he does not win Iowa outright. Hillary will stay in until February 5 but will make her last effective last stand in South Carolina. The closer she feels she is to victory between now and February 5, the more vicious she will be in attacking Obama.
If Edwards is able to beat Hillary by more than 3% in the caucuses today, he has a chance to knock Hillary out in New Hampshire – forcing her to a third place finish there as well. She will stay in the race until February 5, regardless of her placement in the next four contests – but in the extremely unlikely scenario she comes in third in both Iowa and New Hampshire, her campaign will effectively be over.
If Obama wins today- and wins big, as both he and Hillary apparently expect to happen – as his campaign has started to build up the importance of today’s caucus and Hillary ordering her staffers to lower expectations – it will be almost impossible for Hillary to beat Obama in New Hampshire – where he already has the edge in a virtual tie.
I don’t want to celebrate too soon – but if Hillary loses Iowa by any significant margin, she needs a game-changer – some scandal, some major gaffe – to get back in the race. And if she hasn’t leaked it already, it’s likely they couldn’t find any scandals worth mentioning.
And so we are on the precipice of an historic moment, as Iowans will go to stand in the corners of their local precincts for their respective candidates and may well determine course of America for years to come.