News & Politics

An Inside Look at How the Iowa Democratic Caucuses Work

A veteran of rural Iowa politics reveals what really happens in the caucus room.
It's a little more than 24 hours before the Iowa caucuses are scheduled to be gaveled to order and I'm listening with disbelief as a reporter from the BBC tries to characterize the "mood of voters" here in my home state and explain the whole caucus process in less than 45 seconds. Will Democrats go with Hillary, Obama or Edwards (like there are only three to choose from)? Who will actually show up for the caucuses and what issues will be on their minds? After two years of perpetual campaigning, relentless media coverage and endless phone calls from campaign volunteers and news and academic surveyors, and a rain forest's worth of junk mail overflowing our recycle bins, are we Iowans feeling just a bit burned out -- maybe even kind of cynical?

My name is Jerald Thomas Hawhee (call me Jerry). I am a professional composer and a native and lifelong citizen of Iowa. I attended my first Democratic caucus in January of 1976 when I was 17, going on 18, and supported Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris (remember him?). I've served on Democratic central committees in two Iowa counties, have been a precinct captain for the general election in both urban and rural precincts, volunteered for the campaigns of Al Gore, Howard Dean, John Kerry and, this year, John Edwards (as precinct captain). This year marks the second time I'll also be officiating as chairperson for my local precinct caucus in the tiny village of Cantril in Van Buren County in the extremely rural southeast corner of the state. I'm here to give you an insider's view of the caucuses, tell you a little about how they're set up and run, and explain why all the horserace-obsessed polling in the media is meaningless. I hope in the process you'll come away with an appreciation for this amazing exercise in grass-roots representative democracy, and why we Iowans take our responsibility to the rest of the nation so seriously.

Actually, my official title is "temporary caucus chair" and I was appointed to it by the local party (county) chairman. I may not get to keep my title for very long since the "permanent chair" is elected by the attendees at the caucus. This is usually just a pro forma thing, but the system is set up to be as democratic, open and transparent as possible at all stages of the process. If my caucus does elect someone else to be permanent chair, I am still obligated to assist the new chairperson, since I've had the training and understand the mechanics of the system.

The caucus is about the most basic one on one form of grass-roots democracy you can possibly imagine. In my little town, mostly populated by Amish and Mennonites who don't vote as a rule, those of us who do vote tend to be a bit reticent about politics in public; this may be due to a kind of reserved upper-Midwest-Garrison-Keilor-esque sort of mind-set, the knowledge that you have to live very close to these other people all year round, and politics is one of those things that just tends to rile people up. But once every four years, when we step into the caucus room, it's actually OK to talk politics, stand up publicly and proudly in support of our chosen candidates, and offer and debate resolutions about the issues that concern us.

The basic purpose of the precinct-level caucus is to set up the local organizational machinery for the election season to come. Let's face it, you could nominate the greatest candidate who ever lived but without good organization, you will LOSE! We hope enough willing and committed folks show up so we can elect them to serve on the various committees (central, platform, committee on committees). It's these folks who go on to serve as precinct captains in the general election, hammer out the local party platform and keep the whole weird contraption called a "party" running smoothly with everybody communicating properly. If that's all we did, nobody would pay the slightest attention to us, but we also just happen to elect delegates to the county Democratic convention who may go on to the district, state and national gatherings, and because each delegate is committed to a candidate (though some uncommitted delegates may also be elected) the media smells a horserace!

The long drawn-out campaign (in some cases as long as two years now) has given us ample opportunity to vet the candidates, and we've taken this responsibility very seriously. We've met many of the candidates face to face, many of them more than once. We've listened a lot, but we've also asked some very tough questions trying to get beyond the sound bites, challenging the candidates for specifics and letting them know when we don't like their answers. (You will never get that kind of insight into people in a state where the "campaign" is little more than a contest to see who can put the most ads on TV). We've learned to spot pandering and insincerity from a mile away. We don't like being told by the media pundits how we're going to "vote" or what we think before we've even stepped into the caucus room or opened our mouths. Now it's our turn to actually have our say, and we're going to savor the moment!

This is a caucus, not a primary. We don't vote directly for candidates, but we do indicate our preferences, which determines delegate selection. In order to determine a candidate's strength within a precinct, the caucus attendees are asked to gather together into preference groups. To be considered "viable," a candidate must attract at least 15 per cent of the people in attendance (this number is determined by a head count at 7 p.m., and this number remains constant from then on regardless of who may leave or come, though officially the doors are locked at 7). Each precinct has been allotted a share of delegates to elect and, at the end of the evening, there can be no more preference groups standing than the number of delegates to be chosen. My little precinct gets to elect two delegates this year. Once the head count is done at 7, I take the number of attendees and multiply by .25, rounding up the resulting number to determine the threshold for viability. So if I have 13 people in attendance and do the math, rounding up for 3.25 would take four people to establish viability. But, obviously, there may still be more preference groups than allotted delegates. Let's say after the first round, Edwards has seven supporters, Clinton three, and Obama, Richardson and Dodd, one apiece.

This is the point in the process where people supporting nonviable candidates are asked to realign in order to join or form a viable group (and, remember, in my precinct there can be only two preference groups at the end).

Party rules give the caucus 30 minutes for realignment. This may well be one of the most interesting aspects of the whole caucus experience; the strategic horse-trading, the wheeling and dealing. Just as in a well-played game of Monopoly, some of the more powerful preference groups may form alliances with other smaller groups in order to block other more-powerful candidates. If a preference group is especially powerful, it may even send some of its people over to another candidate's group! The theory behind this is that the weaker candidates will eventually drop out and free up their delegates, who may well go to "our guy," but in the short-run, you deny the potentially dangerous rival the delegates he/she needs to continue. This, by the way, is one reason all the precaucus polling is totally meaningless!

Admittedly, this system does give more weight to small rural precincts like mine than to large urban ones. Here in Cantril it might take only four (or fewer) attendees to get a committed delegate, whereas in a big precinct in Des Moines or Waterloo, a candidate might have to attract ten times that many caucus-goers to send one delegate (with no more voting power than the one from Cantril) on to the convention. As you can see, this is another reason the polls, so loved of the mainstream media, mean very little until people actually go out and caucus. I have to admit some shame also in that the system is definitely skewed against urban minorities. I sincerely hope that a better system can be devised for the 2012 election cycle, but such change depends on the eventual nominee; if the party ends up nominating a candidate who didn't do too well here, such change may well come sooner rather than later.

Here are a few other things to consider as you watch media coverage of the caucuses. While the Democrats and Republicans have separate caucuses (held at the same time in different locations) that operate under very different rules and attract very different kinds of voters, among those factors creating potential "wild cards" and surprises on caucus night, one of the least-reported is "cross-registration": the rules of both the Democratic and GOP caucuses allow people to come in and register as a Democrat or a Republican on the night of the caucus. So if there are some Democrats who want to go over and support Ron Paul in the GOP caucus, they can do that. This year I expect there may be a few disgruntled GOP moderates who will come over to the Democratic caucus, and this could be especially beneficial to Obama, Edwards and Biden. This is yet another reason the precaucus polls completely miss the point.

And a few final words about "the mood" of Iowa Democratic voters. As a rule we tend to be quite progressive on social issues and matters of economic justice (this is why Edwards and Obama have done so well here and why one of them may emerge as the "winner"). The GOP in Iowa may be owned lock, stock and barrel by the wing-nut religious right, but we Democrats would never select or elect an anti-choice candidate (even in my little rural precinct). Yes, there are a tiny handful of anti-choice Democrats here and there (mostly in heavily Catholic urban centers), but they are so scattered around the state as to have no meaningful influence.

We here in the Hawkeye State take our job very seriously. We know the system isn't perfect, and no one is more committed to improving it than those of us here on the ground. I volunteer my time and participate in the caucuses as a chairperson and a precinct captain, because I passionately believe in and love representative democracy, and I want a better future for all. I promise not to let you down on Jan. 3!
Jerry Hawhee is a precinct captain for John Edwards' campaign in Iowa.
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