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Brian Peters

Standing for Obama in Iowa

I find that I don't often get "what's it all about" questions about Iowa. No offense taken -- being known as the place that might have something to do with buckeyes or potatoes and is indeterminately located somewhere in that great blurry middle of the continental U.S. troubles me very little indeed. Short of having lived here (Iowa exports a lot of folks), or having a relative here, the most common close personal experience with Iowa is traveling through on Interstate 80, eyes glued to the radar detector, on the way to "somewhere." Again, no offense taken, it's a long road.

Then, every four years, Iowa holds one of the most complicated straw polls ever conceived, and the folks from Washington dust off their GPS devices and find us. You might ask why that's important, and the answer is that it's partly by design -- since 1972 Iowa has worked hard to be the first spot with an official straw poll -- but mostly it's by political reporting habit, much the way that Zza Zza Gabor and Paris Hilton are famous for being famous.

Winning here generally requires that you actually show up and campaign. The news folks call that retail politics, and that's slightly true, but any candidate who tried to shake the hand of 2.9 million inhabitants would end the campaign with a bloody stump at the end of their arm, and not just a hoarse voice. So the reality is that the candidates are traveling through ice and snow to (slightly) manufactured rallies, for the most part. And monopolizing local television with political ads. And robo-calling at the dinner hour -- incessantly. After 5 calls per night becomes standard, no peace is quite like the peace of eating carryout without a single interruption.

The Iowa caucuses are actually held every two years, but as you can imagine, they're attended only by the most dedicated of the party faithful in non-presidential years. They are a slightly intimidating party-building exercise, and are run (separately) entirely by the Republicans and the Democrats, each by their own rules. Some of the rules are similar -- both parties hold caucuses on the same date and time, both require your physical presence at the caucus site to vote, and both require that you be registered with their party, or change your registration at the door, to participate.

The Republican caucuses are the more straightforward -- they meet at a small number of sites in each county, and they vote by secret ballot. Party business is discussed, and supporters of candidates can openly lobby, but your vote on the ballot is tallied, there is only one vote, and the actual numbers are reported.

The Democrats vote by precinct, without secret ballots, and by more complicated rules. Supporters of each candidate gather in groups in the building used for each precinct, and a first count of supporters is taken. Then the numbers are tallied and announced. A candidate group must have at least 15% of the number present to be "viable," and nearly always, some will not. Then 15 minutes or so are given for supporters to change groups. A supporter of a non-viable candidate can try to convert enough others present to join them to become viable, join the group of another candidate, or stand with their arms folded (or leave) and effectively not be counted. Then a second count is taken, and the delegates to the county convention are allocated to the viable candidate groups. That number (which the Democrats call a "delegate equivalent") is what is officially reported and used on all the national news figures.

So if you were curious about why the Republican candidates had a long curve of results percentages, while the Democrats had more sharply defined winners, it's because of the way they vote -- the Republicans effectively report a state-wide referendum, while the Democrats have something closer to an electoral college (the concept that can make a national election a "landslide" for a candidate receiving 50.53% of the actual vote).

You may also wonder about why the word "charming" or "homey" appears so often in the reporting from individual caucus sites (that is, from those reporters who actually braved the cold to attend a caucus, as opposed to those who spent the night sending poison pen letters to their editors about the lousy room service menu at their hotel in Des Moines). I think it's because it's big politics writ very small. For both parties, but particularly for the Democrats, these are very local gatherings. The caucuses are run by voters and party figures actually able to vote where they're held, and that gives them a homespun quality mostly absent from politics almost everywhere. And there's the charm of inconvenience -- actually being present with the other voters for an hour or two means that you see them and interact with them in a way that a much more conveniently earned "I voted" sticker in a primary election just can't duplicate.

As to the results, people smarter than me have already weighed in, and probably have more pithy things to say. Certainly appealing to all voters, and not just to the narrowest core of the party faithful, worked well this year. That's an odd result from a nominally closed party caucus, but it seems to fit. For Mike Huckabee, who probably has had his last clear opportunity to bask in the sunlight of victory (albeit a chilly winter sun in this case), it was probably a combination of actually campaigning here, having a good measure of personal charm, and not being Mitt Romney. For Barack Obama it may well have been an almost unique push from high voter turnout; the conventional wisdom (and Hillary's campaign) would not have predicted the number of switching-to-caucus and very young voters who were counted as his supporters. But my prejudice could be showing -- I stood (quite literally, in a middle school cafeteria) for Obama.

©2008 by Brian Peters

Brian Peters lives and votes in Iowa -- sometimes even in straw polls.

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