Friday, December 28, 2007

An Insider’s Look at The January 3 Iowa Caucuses

AS I DRIVE THROUGH THE STREETS OF DES MOINES it is hard to miss the campaign buses and network news vans that are covering the campaign for the Iowa Caucuses. Unfortunately, outside of Iowa not too many people understand what a political caucus is or how it works. So here is a quick primer on the caucuses adapted from a column I wrote for The Wanderer:

First, a caucus is simply a precinct meeting where party members do more than pick a candidate. They also select delegates to county conventions, who will in turn select delegates to go on to district, state, and national conventions. They will also discuss items for inclusion into the party’s platform and will elect precinct committee people who will organize the local party infrastructure.

Second, in some areas up to 200 plus people will attend a single precinct caucus. Anyone who will be 18 by Election Day 2008 may participate and you can go to either party’s precinct caucus by simply claiming to be a member of that party.

Third, and most important, as far as presidential preferences go the Democrats and the Republicans conduct their caucuses very differently.

In the Republican caucus, each participant is given a piece of paper and told to write down his presidential favorite. Those ballots are counted and the results called into to county and state headquarters where the totals are added together to produce the resulting state-wide totals. In many respects it is similar to a primary election held within the caucus meeting. Republicans then go about their other business without regard to presidential preferences.

Democrats, on the other hand, tie their delegate selection process to presidential preferences. Thus, Democrat caucus attendees will be asked to divide into presidential preference groups. Any candidate with 15% of the caucus attendees is considered viable and that group will be allowed to elect a proportion of the precinct’s delegates to the county convention. Any candidate group with less than 15% is considered non-viable and will not be allowed to elect a delegate. However, those attendees will be given the opportunity to re-group.

During the re-grouping, minor candidates can join together to produce an uncommitted group which, upon reaching the 15% threshold, could elect a delegate, or they can join with another candidate to augment that candidate’s strength. So for the Democrats, the attendee’s second choice can be as important – and sometimes more important – than his first.

The differences between the parties can also impact the results in other ways, too. For example, since Democrats divide pre-determined numbers of delegates by presidential strength, a candidate who can attract an additional 100 voters in one precinct will not be as competitive as another candidate who can attract 20 additional voters to five separate precincts. The effect is much like the Electoral College where the winning candidate needs to have his support spread throughout many states rather than concentrated in only a few.

This presents a problem for candidates who courted the college vote. Since most college students live in precincts surrounding dorms and off-campus housing, they could affect only a small number of delegate races without upsetting delegate selections in the vast majority of precincts. A big win in one precinct will only shift the delegate count in that precinct. Since the results are reported by delegate count only, the student effect state-wide could be limited.

Republican students, on the other hand, will have their strength added to the party’s state-wide totals. Therefore, no matter what their numbers – big or small, concentrated in one area or not – their numbers will be reflected in the final results.

So a little strategy: Like any election, this is a numbers game and you need to produce the numbers to have any hope of winning. Thus a good organization that can identify and turn out your supporters is a must.

For Democrat candidates, however, you must be concerned with second choices. If, for example, you are supporting a candidate who may not have enough participants to form a viable group, where do you go?

Four years ago former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) cut a deal with the supporters of Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to support one another in precincts where one was not viable. The deal worked to Edwards’ advantage who used Kucinich’s support to take second place.

This year those second and third tier candidates will not want their supporters going to either Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) or Sen. Barrack Obama (D-Ill), since a good Iowa finish could propel either to other early victories and a quick wrap of the nomination. So it might make sense for them to urge their supporters to go to Edwards. He has the poll numbers in Iowa to put him in a position to win, but he doesn’t appear to be a threat anywhere else. Thus, he could be useful as a way to stop Obama from catching fire and to tarnish the image of Hillary’s inevitability.

The Republicans just need to turn out their supporters; they have no problems with second choices. However, there is a bit of strategy here, too. Social conservatives and Evangelicals who make up about a third of the Iowa party base are rallying around former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee’s rise seems to be the result of several factors, not the least of which is the unimpressive showing of the great conservative hope, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).

Huckabee’s tortoise-like rise in the polls, from the low single digits in early summer, to now besting the long-time Iowa frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, plays into the hands of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Arz.). Romney’s strategy was to win Iowa and New Hampshire, the two early contests, to create his own image of inevitability and to off-set an expected loss in South Carolina where his Mormon faith is suspect. To affect that, he has spent a fortune in advertising, built the best organization, and took a commanding lead in the early polls.

Huckabee’s rise has given added hope to Giuliani and McCain. They have more-or-less abandoned Iowa, hoping for a Huckabee victory and waiting to take on a damaged Romney in New Hampshire where both have the funds to compete, unlike Huckabee who has only a shoe-string budget and can be expected to run out of money.

Predictions mean nothing in this game, but if my analysis is correct, look for Democrat Edwards to be the recipient of a lot of second choice votes. On the Republican side, look for a contest between the plodding tortoise and the hare’s organization; my guess is the tortoise, by a hair.

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