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​Process vs. Perception in the Iowa Caucuses

Last Word | February 22nd, 2016

“Here's a warning about watching the Iowa caucuses: There's not a lot to watch and the process is mostly incomprehensible.” - USA Today, 02/01/16

“Even as candidates fight from state to state, the real objective in their minds is the total number of delegates needed to secure the nomination. Achieving that number means ginning up enthusiasm, especially among base voters in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, because the more energy generated, the more likely they are to win the Big One.” - John Stoehr, National Memo, 02/05/16

“…but ya gotta know the territory.” - Meredith Willson

I once overheard someone in Madison, Wisconsin describe small towns there thusly: “Most towns in Wisconsin don’t look like much, but what you hear makes up for it.”

The same could be said for Iowa precinct caucuses, or at least the ones for the Democratic Party nomination I observed at a local High School, south of Sioux City on February 1, 2016. I was invited to attend by a close friend who has been active for years in the Democratic Party in Iowa. In years past she had been a Precinct Captain, but was pitching in this year on a less official, but certainly useful, basis, given the complexities of Iowa caucus procedures.

Complex? Yes. Confusing? Not necessarily. Not for those who understand that Iowa caucus procedures are not the same as primary or national elections. Their purpose is to begin the delegate selection process to their Party’s Convention in June. But as the first actual test of Presidential Candidates’ strength, Iowa Precinct Caucus results, though only the beginning of a four step process, receive top billing in the national drama of choosing our Executive-in-Chief.

The Iowa Caucus process was more open and less formal than anything I had experienced in politics. Since 1970, I have participated in primary and general elections in Cook County, Illinois and Morton County, North Dakota in a number of roles: poll watcher, election judge, precinct captain, District Chair, and candidate for the North Dakota State Legislature. In both States I have seen voter manipulation, intimidation, and suppression; by both Parties in Illinois, and by Republicans in North Dakota.

Not here in Iowa, however. What a pleasant surprise! It struck me like a neighborhood Town Hall meeting more than the gathering of a major Political Party. Not only was electioneering in the form of buttons, T-shirts, and stickers not banned at the Caucus site, it was encouraged. In Sioux City I was experiencing political culture shock.

The doors opened around 6pm, and voters had one hour to get there before they were closed at 7pm to begin the Caucus process. I was asked in a friendly way whether I needed help registering. If I were a registered Republican or Independent, I needed to register as a Democrat for this particular caucus, but I did not need a photo ID. So many people here knew each other, and the entire voter base was there at one time. “Ghost Voting” would not have been very cost effective. Also, if I wanted to switch to registering as a Republican for their Primary in June, 2016, or re-registering as an Independent, I could, though my friend assured me that such a practice was not common.

When I explained that I was just observing from out of State, I was welcomed even more, but asked to keep myself separate from the various pods for the candidates (Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley, and “Undecided”) when the real head counting started.

As my friendly questioner moved on, I spotted a list of “Visitor” stickers, as yet unused, and put one on. Later in the evening I noticed that only a total of three had been used. Neither the Site Manager nor my friend were alarmed that anything untoward was going on, and a complete canvas of the registrants later on in the caucus cycle would expose anyone who illegally participated in the head count, though too late to change the verdict for that evening. As a hardened opponent of big city shenanigans in Chicago, I couldn’t help being impressed by how little these Iowans worried about such things.

Small wonder in 2008 therefore, that when Hillary Clinton forces faced a record turnout of 240,000 caucus goers that put Barack Obama in first place, they briefly entertained the notion that some of the voters had been imported.

On a similar scale of rumors of irregularities, it is also small wonder in 2016 that Bernie Sanders supporters from outside of Iowa saw something strange happening with coin flips. In the Iowa Caucus process, these coin flips determine an extra delegate in Precincts with an odd number of allotted delegates. Twitter rumors had Hillary winning all six flips. Not so apparently. “Upon further review,” as they say in the National Football League, by the Des Moines Register two days later, sources in the Iowa Democratic Party claimed the lion’s share of coin flips for Sanders, not Clinton. But by then the political campaigns had moved on to New Hampshire. Another defeat for process vis-a-vis perception.

My friend had not seen coin flips in her precinct (which gave Hillary six, and Bernie four delegates), but she was not surprised to imagine its mathematical possibilities in such close races all over the State. Her District 28 split 77 for Hillary Clinton, 44 for Bernie Sanders, 4 for Martin O’Malley, and 3 Undecided. The latter two groups, as “unviable,” were then lobbied immediately by spokespersons from the Clinton and Sanders contingents until they joined one or the other to determine the number of delegates.

The next step was to chose delegates and alternates to the County Convention on March 12, to be followed by a (Congressional) District Convention, and, finally a State Convention, the entire process lasting through June. My friend will be a delegate from District 28 in March. She remembers that the Clinton ground game in 2008 had neglected to send enough alternate delegates (in case of illness or other absence) on to the County conventions. Vacancies were thus filled by other Democratic alternates, who happened to be committed to Obama rather than Clinton.

There was no such slip up in 2016. Clinton supporters loaded up in Polk County in Congressional District #3, the only one of four Districts with an odd number of delegates to the State Convention. That explains Clinton’s one delegate margin over Sanders, locally. No shenanigans, just a hard nosed and competent ground game. And this slim edge can only hold if that ground game continues to include sending enough delegates and alternates on to the County, District and State Conventions.

Hillary Clinton’s nationally quoted margin over Bernie Sanders of 23 to 21 delegates is harder to explain, however, in a race close enough to appear to be a tie. Only estimates were possible on February 1, since the final result will not be known until Summertime. Iowa has 52 delegates to the National Democratic Convention. Eight of them are Super Delegates, leaving 44 up for grabs. Fifteen of those caucus process delegates are statewide and awarded proportionately. Since Clinton edged Sanders statewide she gets the odd numbered delegate there, as well as in District #3. Thus the margin of two.

National media don’t have time to master the vagaries of the Iowa Caucus, and I shouldn’t wonder. I sympathize with problems their beat reporters face in providing instant analysis of a complex process. If you want more than pundits are willing or able to tell you, you need to consult Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford, The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event, 3rd Edition (U. of Iowa Press, 2010).

You also need to consult Herbert Gans, Deciding What’s News (New York: Vintage, 1979) to understand why we are served up news in a Presidential election as food for gossip columnists. In his study of NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, Time and Newsweek, Gans has delivered a textbook on how predictable media corporations of any political stripe can be. Many times, a reporter can only report what their corporate bosses see “fit to print,” or their hard efforts will end up “on the cutting room floor.”

Also, John Heinemann’s (New York Magazine) and Mark Halperin’s (Time Magazine), Game Change: Obama and the Clintons; McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (New York: Harper, 2010) features the Iowa Caucus, and shows what good journalists can do when they escape news cycle imperatives and seriously reflect. Their admission that: “The press always wants a race. The press always loves conflict,” is a telling one.

Drama is almost always more important than resolution for media corporations. Taking time to try to get a story straight is not often available to hard pressed reporters, obliged to get a story, any kind of story, “out there” for popular consumption. Even if rumors are wrong, or even vicious, that just adds to fodder for other journalists to comment on.

Let’s face it! We all love gossip when it’s about others, but if it turns on us personally, by gender, race or creed, it’s not so much fun. And in election years, we find that other people’s deep prejudices can seriously affect us, whether we choose to vote or not.

So hats off to the people of Woodbury County, Iowa’s 28th, 29th, 30th, 31st and 38th Precincts who showed up in the second largest turnout for Democrats in Iowa Precinct Caucus history (170,000)! Their civility, good nature, and cheerful, but conscientious, confrontation was a pleasure to behold.

In 1989 I participated in Starlight Theater’s production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man in Wilmette, IL. I carried a pitchfork in a hilarious sendup of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” in the choral number “Iowa Stubborn.” While Willson composed The Music Man as a valentine to his beloved home State, the lyrics of “Iowa Stubborn” also carry a message to those who bring their perceptions and preconceptions about national politics into this unique local variation of a process we dare to call “democracy:”

“Oh, there’s nothin’ half-way about the I-o-wa way to treat you, when we treat you, which we may not do at all; There’s an I-o-wa kind-a special chip on the shoulder attitude we’ve never been without that we recall;

We can be cold as our falling thermometer in December, if you ask about our weather in July; And we’re so by God stubborn, we can stand touching noses for a week at a time and never see eye to eye;

But what the heck! You’re welcome, join us at the picnic. You can have your fill of all the food you bring yourself. You really ought to give I-o-wa a try(provided you are contrary).”

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