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The Iowa Rules

Counting hands at the 2004 Iowa caucus. (AP).

DES MOINES -- Iowa not only has the distinction of holding the earliest contest in the presidential nominating calendar. It also enjoys the dubious reputation for holding what may can seem the most arcane of contests.

I was reminded of this on Saturday morning when Iowa Democratic Party officials staged a lengthy briefing for reporters to explain just how their caucus process works. For 90 minutes, Norm Sterzenbach, the party's political director, patiently walked reporters through the process. That included everything from rules for the media (remain quiet and do not get involved in caucus discussions) to mind-numbing formulas used to report results on the night of Jan. 3, 2008.

Sterzenbach related a wonderful anecdote to us on Saturday morning to explain just how personal these caucus fights can be. Without offering any names, he explained that there are two women in Ft. Dodge who were on opposite sides of one of the most bitter of intraparty presidential contests in 1980, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting President Jimmy Carter for the nomination. One woman was with the Kennedy forces, the other with the Carter operation. The two apparently have not spoken to one another since.

What's good about the caucus process is that it is very personal. Candidates talk directly to the voters, often more than once, as they campaign in the state. Campaign workers contact voters constantly with phone calls, direct mail, even personal visits from young and eager field organizers.

Because the ultimate universe of caucus attendees is relatively small (only about 125,000 people participated in the Democratic caucuses in 2004), the amount of information every campaign is gathering about likely caucus participants can be staggering. In a year like this, that could mean some undecided voters will be contacted hundreds of times by the various campaigns. It's enough to try the patience of even the most dedicated activists -- one Iowan said Monday morning he's ready for the whole thing to be over -- but many seem to take it in stride.

The most distinguishing feature of the caucuses, and what makes them far different from presidential primaries, is that when Iowans gather in schools and church basements and other places on caucus night, everything is out in the open. This can be intimidating for first-time participants, a fact that concerns every campaign this year that is looking to expand the traditional universe of caucus attendees. But it is the essence of Iowa's system.

In a primary, voters quietly fill out their ballots and leave. In the caucuses, they are required to come and stay for several hours, and there are no secret ballots. In the presence of friends, neighbors and occasionally strangers, Iowa Democrats vote with their feet, by raising their hands and moving to different parts of the room to signify their support for one candidate or another.

Few people outside Iowa understand the caucus process. As Sterzenbach acknowledged at one point during his briefing, for Democrats, it is not a one-person, one-vote system. The Democratic results you'll see reported on Jan. 3 may approximate the percentage of people who turned out for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards or any of the other Democrats, but it will not necessarily be a close approximation. (Republicans report what is essentially a straw poll of those who show up on caucus night.)

The gap between the number of people who show up ready to support one candidate or another and the percentages you'll see reported grows out of what happens once the caucus begins. In each precinct, a candidate must reach a threshold in order to qualify for any of the delegates being awarded there that night (known in the jargon of the Iowa Democratic Party as SDEs, or "state delegate equivalents.")

If a candidate falls short of that threshold, say 15 percent or 20 percent of the total number of people in the room, his or her supporters can redistribute themselves with another candidate. That's when persuasion, hard bargaining, deal-making between candidates' staffs or even chicanery comes in. Inducements are allowed; bribes are not.

Four years ago, Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards cut a deal, agreeing shortly before caucus day that if either of them failed to reach threshold in any precinct, their supporters would go and line up with the other. Other arrangements are less formal but no less effective in reallocating the people who have arrived intending to support some of the lesser candidates.

Another distinguishing feature from a primary is that it pays to have some support in all 99 counties and all 1,784 precincts in the state, rather than having concentrated pockets of support in a few areas. Because of the rules and formulas used to apportion delegates, a candidate gets no extra benefit from overwhelming support in a precinct. Bill Bradley, for example, had very strong support in college towns but that was not reflected in the overall percentage of delegates he won in 2000 against Al Gore.

One of the most interesting debates among Democrats in Iowa right now is the role college students may play in the caucuses. The early date for the caucuses means that college students will be at home and not on the campuses on caucus night in January. That appeared to be a blow for Obama, who is counting on significant help from college students.

But Sterzenbach said college students could play an even more significant role this time because they will be spread more evenly around the state, rather than being on campus. "Everybody talks about college students are going to be disenfranchised and they're not going to be allowed to participate," he said. "It's actually going to be the exact opposite. College students can have a significantly higher impact now--by voting at home rather than on campus."

Obama has strong support among younger Iowans, while Clinton's supporters tend to be older. Based on past history, Clinton is more likely to see those older voters show up on caucus night than Obama is to see his college students. But if Obama actually can turn out a sizeable percentage of these student voters, his campaign, his campaign may have caught a break by the timing of this year's caucuses.

The next seven weeks will be the equivalent of trench warfare for the campaigns, as they continue to identify rock-solid supporters and figure out every possible way to make sure those supporters turn out the night of Jan. 3, no matter what the weather. The rest of the country may not understand this exercise in democracy -- and many Iowans may not either. But for the campaigns who fight the fight and the activists who play the game, it's one of Iowa's most revered traditions. But it is still arcane.

--Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  November 12, 2007; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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The sad fact not reported or denounced is that 8.3% of Iowans are expected to 'caucus' tonight. That actually means that the majority will not speak at all. More special interest again!

Posted by: parnum | January 3, 2008 6:47 PM | Report abuse

I completely agree that forcing the candidates to spend time in small states like Iowa and New Hampshire is good for the candidates and good for the process. What other voters resent is the notion that Iowa and New Hampshire are the only states capable of serving this function.

The voters of Iowa and New Hampshire have far more influence over the election than other voters. The state governments have been so aggressive in enforcing their "right" to go first that they have blackmailed the campaigns into avoiding campaigning in states that infringe on that "right." That is not fair or democratic.

Posted by: psychodrew | November 13, 2007 7:08 PM | Report abuse

As someone who has been involved in the Iowa caucus system a couple misunderstanding seem to be evident in the posts.

First, you pick your president, Iowans don't. If you choose to follow Iowa's lead that your choice. All Iowans are doing is starting their delegate selection process. Of course we take that seriously and spend a lot of time trying to get it right.

Second, a caucus is not and election. It is a party organizational meeting. In that respect you could say that it is particularly democratic in that the rank-and-file have a direct say on who runs the party for the next two years. Of course that take time and only a small subset of the population really care who runs the county central committee.

Third, The only reason that the presidential preference dominates the press coverage of caucus is because you what so badly to know what Iowans' think of your candidates. Those that don't care don't come unless they want to influence what you think.

Fourth, you get better candidates when small out-of-the-way states lead the process because all candidates (even rock stars)need some off-Broadway time to hone their presentation and think through their
positions. The usual suspects (IA, NH etc.) are real good at challenging the candidates because they've seen fluff before.

Fifth, the small state process does give the person with ideas that resonate but without big bucks a chance to get noticed.
Absent small states that can be covered in a bus, your left with the dueling TV adds that can be a no more than a adman's fabrication.

Posted by: george.welch | November 13, 2007 12:23 PM | Report abuse

egc, I would agree that politics here tends to be overly influenced by the east coast cities, and that Iowa itself may not be the biggest state on election day, but the electoral college is set up to over-represent rural states. Citizens in Montana get more influence per-capita than those in New York or California.

(By the way, I'm posting from Wisconsin, so I'm in this, too...)

Posted by: rpy1 | November 13, 2007 10:45 AM | Report abuse

tsicby - I'm a computer programmer. I've lived in Iowa for 11 years, lived and worked in/around Washington DC for 6 years, was born, raised, and educated in Pittsburgh during it's rust belt days and it's high tech rebirth. Frankly, I'm more like "the rest of America" than most.

But the real issue is that for one day every four years we so-called small-farmer-state inhabitants are listened to. That's all we get. All the rest of the time America's politics are dominated by urbanites living in 4-5 cities. And on general-election day the candidate who prevails won't need to win Iowa.

"Iowa -- we tell you who you can vote for"

Posted by: egc52556 | November 12, 2007 10:26 PM | Report abuse

Iowa premier leech on the national economy, after New Orleans.

Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | November 12, 2007 10:04 PM | Report abuse

Iowa premier leach on the national economy.

Posted by: Tupac_Goldstein | November 12, 2007 10:03 PM | Report abuse

Yo tsicby, reread this portion of my comment:
"Contrary to the image many non-Iowans have of the state, most Iowans are not farmers. They work in commercial or industrial jobs in cities and towns."

Now, allow me to add that I am not a farmer, nor is or was anyone in my family, past or present. Additionally, an attitude like yours gives credence to bringing back the literacy test for voters.

Posted by: dubhlaoich | November 12, 2007 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Wouldn't it be wonderful (for those couch potatoes too) to have the top four Dems and Repubs after Iowa and NH, seperately have 120 minutes of Free Time on TV (LISTEN UP FCC DON'T WE THE PEOPLE OWN THOSE AIRWAVES?) on revolving channels on single subjects like: Iraq,Health Care Reform,Financial Security and the Dollar, Education, and Energy Independence? Each respective candidate would have 15 minutes to develope their policy specifics and details (one hour of show), and then 15 minutes for each candidate to be questioned by experts. Just an idea that would inform the electorate in depth and make it hard to hid behind "canned" speeches and too brief sound bites answers.

Posted by: parsrelee | November 12, 2007 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Like many in the western United States, I feel my vote does not count for much by the time we get to vote in May or June. By that time, the party leaders have pretty much been determined. The Iowa caucus process may be arcane, but the big flaw is that the whole presidential election process is beyond arcane. It is undemocratic and just plain stupid.

While the Iowa caucus process is far from idea in selecting the best candidates, it certainly seems better then the primaries held in most states. Participants in Iowa get face time with candidates and can ask them questions before they caucus to make their choices. By the time the candidates come west, you generally only get to see them at big rallies and in TV ads to hear their canned speeches. You can say the caucus participants represents a small portion of the state, but I will venture a guess that 125,000+ caucus participants are a lot better informed then 1,000,000 couch potatoes voting in primary elections!

Posted by: brrouth | November 12, 2007 6:13 PM | Report abuse

I am SICK and TIRED of these farmers picking my president. This is one tradition that belongs on History's dust heap. Iowans have as much in common with the rest of America as the inhabitants of the Land of OZ, and our country is going head first off a cliff because of it.

Posted by: tsicby | November 12, 2007 5:55 PM | Report abuse


Please Ron Paul spammers, get it through your head that you represent only 5% of your party and just because you're loud and proud doesn't mean that there's very many of you.

Posted by: thegribbler1 | November 12, 2007 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Folks, If I may make a suggestion.

Considering the Dimocrat Stand on Invasorios,

Maybe they should consider the Aspect of Jumping a Wall, or Swimming to get to their Sides!

Then crowd about 20 where 4 should be!

LOL! Dim's For La Invasora! Viva Aztlan!

Don't forget your Libbie Judges of the event!

BTW-No ID's Required!

ID's? ID's?

Weeee don neeeed no Stinkin ID's!

Posted by: rat-the | November 12, 2007 5:02 PM | Report abuse

The Iowa caucus may be a challenge but Congressman Ron Paul stands the best chance to win the GOP node. His views strike a cord to the most voters. He's not middle of the road, right wing or left wing or any of that nonsense.

Voters can relate to reduced taxes, smaller government and less involvement and political meddling overseas.

Dr. Paul has a clear message~ hold our government accountable, stop the free spending habits of both parties and bring our troops home & out of harms way as quick as we possibly can. Makes sense to me.

Four year under President Paul's stewardship and this country will be back on course.

Posted by: oneman | November 12, 2007 2:49 PM | Report abuse

I don't like the caucus process at all. It benefits political insiders at the expense of ordinary voters. Not only are caucus participants denied a private vote, but they have to show up at an appointed time instead of simply being allowed to cast a ballot as in a primary. Nobody truly knows how many people actually supported a specific candidate. And the point is usually moot by the time of the state or national convention because all the candidates but the winner have dropped out by then.

The worst thing about the Iowa Caucuses is the total number of participants will be around 100,000; a small fraction of registered voters. And of course, if you are registered as an independent or as a member of a 3rd party, you are not allowed to participate at all.

The Iowa caucuses are most UNDEMOCRATIC in my view.

Posted by: hooliganr | November 12, 2007 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Good work, Dan. When mentioning the rather low number of participants you may want to point out that the day and time work against many people. A weekday evening prohibits people who work second shift jobs or have children to manage. Contrary to the image many non-Iowans have of the state, most Iowans are not farmers. They work in commercial or industrial jobs in cities and towns. There is no requirement for employers to allow them time off as on election day. Elderly people are less inclined to go out on a cold, dark night especially of they need assistance, or if no assistance is available. To increase participation the caucuses should be held on a weekend afternoon. I'm surprised that the candidates aren't encouraging such a change. I proposed a change at my precinct caucus in 2004. It went nowhere. Maybe you can give it a nudge. Or, at least, the state party officials should explain why weekends are OK for county, district and state conventions but not for precinct caucuses.

Posted by: dubhlaoich | November 12, 2007 2:05 PM | Report abuse

That's great info that really adds insight into the process. Of course, it creates new questions...

When is the process complete - when no candidate has less than the 15 - 20% threshold? What is a candidate's best strategy - to get wide support & have a lot of people show up, or target the more eloquent and/or persuasive locals who are more likely to persuade others to join the group? Seems like that's the real risk in going after the youngsters - they might be more malleable in the hands of more experienced caucus-goers.

Posted by: bsimon | November 12, 2007 1:33 PM | Report abuse

"Bill Bradley, for example, had very strong support in college towns in 1980 but that was not reflected in the overall percentage of delegates he won that year against Al Gore."

Don't you mean 2000, Dan?

Hopefully Edwards & Obama will pull the same sort of deal as Edwards did in 2004. If one of them dropped out and supported the other they'd easily beat Hillary.

Posted by: thegribbler1 | November 12, 2007 12:10 PM | Report abuse

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