Scroll To Top

Election 2008:
The Iowa Caucuses, Dispatch 4

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.

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."

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Kerry Eleveld