Election 2008: The Iowa Caucuses, Dispatch 4

Caucusing 101: Drake University Professor Rachel Paine Caufield gives The Advocate the lowdown on caucusing in Iowa, how unpredictable it is, and why it matters to have an LGBT presence.

BY Kerry Eleveld

January 01 2008 12:00 AM ET

Rachel Paine Caufield

Drake University

Associate Professor, Department of Politics and
International Relations

Caucusing v. Primaries

Unlike a primary
where everybody just pops in and votes and leaves, says
Caufield, “The fundamental difference is that a
caucus is an actual neighborhood meeting, where
everyone comes together at one time in one
place.”

Turnout tends to
be low. In 2004, around 125,000 of the
approximately 2.2 million people living in Iowa caucused
according to most reports – or what translates
into about 5-7% of the population.

Why the low
turnout? It’s a long intensive process and, says
Caufield, “Everybody has to be in one place at
one time. If for some reason you can't be there -- you
don’t have child care, you work a second job, or a
family member’s in the hospital -- you’re
going to attend to that.”

Polls, Polls, Polls…

“I hear
all these people talking about how candidates are doing in
Iowa and hypothesizing about what’s going to
happen on caucus night,” says Caufield,
“and I think one of the things that’s being
ignored is that on caucus night, the candidate is not
in the room. At that point, it depends entirely upon
your supporters. Not only are your supporters energetic and
enthusiastic, but can they bargain, do they know the process
well enough to use it?”

In
Caufield’s 2004 caucus, John Kerry supporters were
“incredibly articulate” and made a
really strong presentation. “The people who spoke
on behalf of Dean, were first-time caucusers, had nothing
prepared, had no idea that they were going to be
getting up and talking about Dean,” she says.

Not surprisingly,
when it came time for realignment – where people
whose candidate didn’t reach the 15% support
threshold choose a second candidate – the
Howard Dean pitch fell flat and Kerry picked up most of
the votes in the room. (Kerry ended up making a surprising
first place finish in Iowa in 2004, whereas Dean, the
supposed front-runner, took third.)

“The
really good campaigns have set up their precinct captains in
each precinct, and that’s a huge
advantage,” says Caufield. “If you have
someone who’s caucused before, who’s taken the
time to learn about it and can use the process itself
to their advantage, that’s what’s going to
matter on caucus night.”

(On the
Democratic side, this lesson may bode well for John Edwards,
who has spent four years building on the experienced
network that brought him a strong second place finish
in 2004. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both started
from scratch in Iowa and are hoping to motivate new voters
to the caucus in a massive get-out-the-vote effort. Obama is
focusing on younger voters, around 35 and under; while
Clinton has her sights on older women, 65 and up.)

The Dems v. The GOP

The Democratic
and Republican caucuses are very different in terms of how
the meeting proceeds.

“In the
Republican party, they do a simple preference vote --
meaning everybody just has the opportunity by secret
ballot to express their preference for a presidential
candidate. It actually looks somewhat like a
primary,” explains Caufield.

After the vote,
some people stay to talk about the party platform and
major issues, while others may choose to leave.

In the Democratic
Party, they talk about party issues and the rules of
the caucus for about half an hour, and then, about half an
hour in, they physically get up out of their seats and
move into preference groups associated with their
candidate.

“Every
group has an opportunity to tell the caucus why their
candidate is the best," says Caufield, "what the major
strengths and weaknesses are of any candidate. They
can speak on anything, but usually it’s just
one person from each group.”

Then a head count
is taken, and any candidate who has at least 15% of the
participants in the room is considered to be
“viable;” any candidate who falls short
is not viable, at which point there’s a second round
of voting.

“Anybody
can move from the preference group that they’re in,
into another a preference group, which is called
realignment,” says Caufield. “At that
point, they take a second count and that’s the final
count,” which is then reported back to the
election headquarters in Des Moines.

Then, similar to
Republicans, some caucusers stay to talk about party
platform and others leave.

Why Gay Caucusers Matter

“What’s really distinctive about a caucus is
the conversation in the room at every stage of the
process,” says Caufield, “particularly in the
Democratic Party, there are conversations going on among
friends and family and neighbors. So, for example,
during the period of realignment -- that sounds really
easy. In actuality, there’s a lot of bargaining
that’s going on, a lot of issues and it happens
pretty fast. Framing the agenda and knowing how to
talk about issues is really important, knowing how to
talk about candidates is really important.”

To make their
presence known this year, some LGBT caucusers will be
wearing green and yellow “Equality ‘08”
t-shirts with the Human Rights Campaign and One Iowa
logos on them. The two organizations orchestrated six
different caucus training sessions throughout the state in
order to encourage LGBT participation.

Caufield also
notes that people who stay for the later conversation about
party platform can really influence the policy positions of
the party.

“This is
one of the reasons of why social conservatives have so much
power in the Republican Party in Iowa,” she says.
“They come to caucus and they stay, and they
don’t go and, therefore, they influence the party
platform. They’ll stay forever –
they’ll stay as long as they need to
stay.”

Staying power is
especially strategic because, later in the evening,
after some people have left, participants can reopen an
issue that the caucus has already debated earlier in
the evening. “The longer you stay, the fewer
people you have in the room, the more you have a chance to
influence the agenda,” she adds. “Anyone who
wants to can propose any resolution that they want to
their precinct. Often times people come with really
well written copies that they can pass out so people can see
the language.”

If the precinct
approves it, then it gets sent to the state party, where
a committee coordinates all of the platforms for review,
debate, and voting at the county conventions.
Successful planks are then filtered to the district
level and, if they pass there, they go up for consideration
at the state convention.

Why Iowa?

“There is
no rational reason why Iowa goes first historically. No one
sat down and said Iowa is best,” says Caufield,
“It happened by accident for the most part.
Having said that, I actually think Iowa should go first.
There’s a political culture out here now where people
really do pay attention. Any caucus is going to have
low turnout, but it’s a community driven
process, it’s a conversation driven process.”

In that sense,
says Caufield, there’s low participation, but the
people who are involved are incredibly well informed,
they’ve met the candidates, and they’ve
paid close attention to different issues.

“I would
rather have 6 - 7% of voters who really care than have 50%
of voters and have most of them not really
care… and maybe that’s the political
scientist in me,” she says. “But I think
it’s a really good indication of what’s
going on among people who are really serious.”

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