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Friday, January 04, 2008

Iowa 2008: Reflections of a First-Time Caucuser

On Thursday, the nation's attention was on Iowa. There have been hundreds of reports about the results of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, but I want to let you in on some details that were not highlighted in the Associated Press.

The point of the caucus is to decisively choose a candidate. While this seems like a fairly obvious statement, the key word there is "decisively."

The caucus allows people to vote for any candidate they please and if that candidate is not viable, they can switch their support to a candidate who is. (Here's a little Cacucus 101: a viable candidate is one who receives at least 15% of the supporters in any given precinct.) When a candidate is not viable, caucus rules require voters to switch to a viable candidate. While this gives many voters the warm fuzzy feeling of voting their conscience while not wasting their vote, it also tends to eliminate those candidates. What support the second tier candidates may have had among voters in the first round of the caucus is not reflected in the final results.

So although the numbers reported Senators Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Rep. Dennis Kucinich all with less than 1% of support in the caucus, this is not because people didn't caucus for them or think they would be the best candidate. It is that they did not garner 15% of the vote in most precincts and were not allotted delegates. At my precinct, Biden had the highest amount of support outside the top three, with 7% of the voters in the first round, which is fairly close to recent polling results. However, he could not reach that 15% viability, so he did not receive any delegates. The final results reflect the number of delegates, not the level of support for each candidates. Gov. Bill Richardson left the caucus with 2% of the support. This is because he was viable (received 15% of the caucus-goers support) in enough districts to receive 2% of the delegates, not that he only received support from 2% of the voters. The fact that the caucus eliminates the second or third tier candidates is part of the design to be decisive. However, it tends to also eliminate these candidates from the national race since other states tend to follow Iowa's lead.

The delegate system distorts levels of support. In order to find the candidate whom the largest percentage of the state supports, each viable candidate is some of the delegates allocated to each precinct. However, just because a candidate is viable does not mean that they receive a proportional number of delegates. The number of delegates each precinct can allocate is based on turnout, and in Iowa this year this ranged from 1 to 17 delegates per precinct. Where the number of viable candidates was larger than the number of delegates, the delegates went to the candidates with the largest support. Where the number of viable candidates was smaller than the number of delegates, any viable candidate received at least one delegate.

In my precinct, we could allocate 4 delegates. Only three candidates (Obama, Edwards and Clinton) became viable by the end of the night. If the delegates were distributed evenly, each candidate would have needed a quarter of the support. Yet because of viability, all three were guaranteed at least one delegate, and the level of support needed to get that last delegate would have needed to reach 50% support. Obama had far more than 50% of the voters in the room, so he won that last delegate. This almost did not happen.

A group of supporters for the eliminated second-tier candidates attempted to band together in an undecided block, hoping to get an "undecided delegate," in which case they would have decided among themselves who the delegate would be and which candidate he or she would support. If they had succeeded in becoming viable, which they nearly did, they would have taken that last delegate, even though by the numbers Obama still had over 50% of the support. Had they each received one delegate, Obama's 50% + support would have appeared equal to Edwards, Clinton and the undecided's 15-19% support.

The caucus system intentionally creates an amplifier effect
. Most people think that the Iowa caucus finished on Thursday. This is incorrect. Once the delegates are determined by precinct, they meet on the county level to determine the levels of support for the candidates at the county level. Each county is allotted a certain number of delegates according to their population. Once the county support is redefined, the county delegates go on to the Congressional district level, redefine their support and from there go to the national convention.* This means that even though Richardson received 2% of the delegates across the state, it is essentially impossible for him to maintain any of that support all the way to the national convention. While the amplifier effect through the delegates generally produces a decisive winner, the allocation of delegates at the precinct level distorts the results.

The impact of the Iowa caucuses go far beyond numbers (and I apologize to all you math-phobes if this post was heavy on the numbers). They ignore the support small candidates receive, which resulted in both Dodd and Biden dropping out Thursday night. They reflect the level of engagement and interest of the general public as a preview of what is to come in November (higher turnout in the caucus will almost certainly result in higher turnout in the general election). And even though the numbers are distorted and the process is not perfect, the caucuses ultimately determine district-wide support and set the tone for the country.

In this display of participatory politics (I won't call it participatory democracy, since it is still governed by party affiliation and rules), the voting public interacts with each other, engages in debate and discussion and in general feels a greater sense of personal empowerment than checking a box on a piece of paper does. People enter into discussion about the candidates, their policies and political philosophies. Nowhere else have I seen this level of discourse throughout such a broad section of the population (though my personal travels have been somewhat limited). Sure the caucus system is flawed as is the first-in-the-nation status, and I'm not sure that I prefer it to primaries. Nonetheless it has made politics in Iowa an entirely unique and interesting process.

*If I got any of the details incorrect, please forgive me. I am not an expert on party rules, but I believe I captured the essence of the process.


Timothy B. Hurst said...

Nicely explained, Juliana. I'm looking forward to a little participatory politics in the upcoming February 5th Colorado caucus. The caucus captures an element of participation and deliberation which has all but disappeared from American-style democracy.

Jesse Jenkins said...

Wow! I had no idea how complicated the caucus system was. Thanks for walking us all through it Juliana. I'm envious that you got to be there in the thick of it. And thanks for all the hard work you've done there to engage young voters and to raise the profile of climate change in the Iowa caucus - and by extension, the national primary process.