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Chaos Rules at Laredo Caucus

Brantly Bright, 15, left, and her sister, Annie, 17, center, along with their friend Sydney Schauer, 17, all Sen. Barack Obama supporters, sit outside Parkway Presbyterian Church in Corpus Christi, Tex. (AP)

By Eli Saslow
10:30 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- Good news! The caucus process is finally running here. Actually, amend that: The caucus process is finally slogging, slipping, bumbling -- but making some slight progress.

The hearty voters who waited through a two-hour delay at United High School have now entered the once-impenetrable school cafeteria. About 120 voters are inside now, and officials are just beginning to take attendance. Meanwhile, about 20 toddlers are running wild around the room, careening into tables and railings in a scene that is sure to turn ugly soon. So the night's final complaint, courtesy of a voter inside? "Couldn't we at least start caucusing at McDonald's, or some place with a Play Land?"

From the looks of it, the Clinton camp outnumbers the Obama side by a ratio of about 5-to-1 here. Officials are telling voters to brace for another few hours here, which sounded like my cue to leave. It's another good night not to be a caucus voter.

10:03 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- The scene here at Precinct 345 continues to devolve, as our crowd of would-be caucusgoers still has not been allowed to enter the United High School cafeteria. One man, a volunteer organizer, has now brought a microphone and a portable Behringer speaker from home in an effort to address the crowd. He's been drowned out, though, by loud chants of "WE WANT TO VOTE!" and "WE'RE GETTING CHEATED!"

Hardly an endorsement here for the good ol' caucus process.

Really, though, you've got to feel sorry for the Clinton and Obama campaign organizers who spent hundreds of hours last week trying to convince voters to spend their evening at one of these things. Because right now, frustrated voters are leaving by the dozen. A crowd that once numbered about 200 has shrunk in half, and others are threatening to leave. The man over the loudspeaker is describing the problem as a paperwork delay, but it looks like simple disorganization.

Roberto Hereda, an Obama supporter who spent 90 minutes waiting outside the cafeteria while holding his 4-year-old daughter, put it like this: "It's too much incompetence. Nobody knows what they're doing. I came here to vote, and now I'm getting cheated. I can't stand here all night, so I'm going home."

9:08 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- We're beginning to see here in Laredo why it's not always wise to combine beer and politics. The happy tailgaters we met an hour ago in the parking lot of United High School have become a disgruntled bunch loudly cursing everything from Laredo politics to the caucus system in general.

Because of what polling officials here are calling an "unexpectedly high voter turnout" -- come on! are we still not expecting this? -- the 7:30 p.m. CST caucus has yet to begin. About 75 people are still waiting in line to cast their votes inside the United High School cafeteria, and our prospective caucusgoers aren't allowed inside until this process ends. For now, about 200 people are standing outside in the wind and leaning against the cafeteria windows, monitoring the slow progress inside.

This has led to another problem: a collection of beer cans dropped around the exterior of the cafeteria, which officially remains an "alcohol-and-tobacco-free zone."

8:20 p.m. LAREDO, Tex. -- In an attempt to lure voters into this city's biggest caucus, the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns have brought an all-out carnival to the main entrance of United High School on the north side of town tonight. An eight-piece mariachi band plays tributes to Clinton. An Obama supporter offers free tacos out of a cooler. Dozens of eager tailgaters sit in the back of pickup trucks and drink Coronas as they count down to the 7:30 p.m. CST caucus start.

They know how to turn every public event into a street festival here in South Texas. What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not they know how to caucus.

Both campaigns held intensive educational meetings during the last week in an attempt to demystify the caucus process, but here in Laredo that's a difficult task. Traditionally, fewer than 10 percent of the city's registered voters show up to cast a primary ballot in the first place. They're even less inclined to come back to their precincts a second time after dinner -- even if a mariachi band and free tacos await.

"I'm still not sure people know how to do this," said Sonia Melendez, a Clinton campaign spokeswoman in Laredo. "Like a week ago, nobody here knew what a caucus was. A few days ago, maybe they had heard of it. Tonight, we still can't be sure how well people understand."

Chances are comprehension will not be aided by the tailgate party here, where beers are being passed around and consumed liberally (this reporter, despite temptation, continues to refuse all liquid gifts from either campaign).

Joaquin Fernandez, a guitar player in the mariachi band, says he usually plays wedding and house parties, and this pre-caucus is as spirited as any gig he's played. He's wearing a blue suede suit and cowboy boots, sweating through an eight-song set.

Fernandez is hoping to be done with the gig by 7:30, though.

"I want to go try to go caucus," he said, "if I can figure out how."

By Web Politics Editor  |  March 4, 2008; 10:33 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Primaries , The Democrats  
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Hi from San Antonio. The caucus damn near whipped me! We arrived at 6:45 for a good parking space. Went into the school cafeteria and got good spots. Had to wait until the last person in line when the polls closed at 7PM had voted before we could begin the caucus.

The Texas Two Step turned into chaos! Lawsuits are hanging over a few heads. A historically massive turnout caused these "conventions" to go late into the night. Should have taken more meds. I started to feel pain in places I thought were long gone. I'm in a wheelchair.

The Clinton and Obama camps accused each other of circulating tally sheets in advance of the meetings. As of now ..11:15AM CDST..only 36% of the caucus votes have been counted!

Posted by: dadlito | March 5, 2008 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Texas has had this after the polls close caucus system for many years and they are usually only attended by party activists and political junkies because the race is usually over by the time Texas has its primary.

It must have seemed disorganized to the author because party precinct chairs were not sure on how many people were going to attend because again the race is usually over by now.

The author in a humorous gonzo journalist style points out some of the problems with the caucus system. But caucuses are cheaper for the parties and the states to conduct than primaries.

It is kind of a trade off between saving money and giving the activists more influence and letting everyone vote in what is often a meaningless primary.

A lot of problems could be solved by having the primaries and caucuses on one day. Then the novices and the activists could all have their political moment and then get back to their lives rather than following a political roadshow.

The election cycle could be compresssed and the vote could be taken before it becomes personal between the candidates and their supporters.

As it is, after the nominees are decided, are we really going to need six months to decide to vote for Obama/Clinton or McCain in the general election?

Posted by: danielhancock | March 5, 2008 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Give me a break Eli, here in Laredo, WE KNOW what a CAUCUS is! You carpet baggers (ANGLOS) always think we are from another world. You just don't get it! I think you have too much WASHINGTON going to your HEAD! You guys are INSULTING!

Posted by: rdz73 | March 5, 2008 7:21 AM | Report abuse

The Texas caucuses are such a bust and so totally disorganized that all Texas delegates should be apportioned based upon the primary election results. Btw, I see that Obama's high schoolers are commenting here with their ignorant and moronic stuff. Hey guys, give it up because you are the ones that are losing it for Obama and reinforcing why he should not be President.

Posted by: mo897 | March 5, 2008 12:06 AM | Report abuse

Texas should give the victory to Obama. They should. Other way this contest would never end, and so would the war in Iraq.

Posted by: aepelbaum | March 5, 2008 12:02 AM | Report abuse

Texas should give the victory to Obama. They should. Other way this contest would never end, and so would the war in Iraq.

Posted by: aepelbaum | March 5, 2008 12:02 AM | Report abuse


Most people forget, too, that Bill Clinton was also a drug user, and he also was plain dishonest about his drug use. ("I didn't inhale"? Come on, how many people believe that?) Clinton also was accused of being grossly under-experienced for the presidency when he first ran, and yet Hillary Clinton is now running in no small part on the "experience" of that same Clinton presidency.

Go figure. Yesterday's upstarts are today's old guard.

Posted by: blert | March 4, 2008 11:34 PM | Report abuse

Most people forget that a smooth speecher was a durg user, but not be ready for a nomination of Dem.

Hillary is ready for a nominee of Dem now!

A few famous women have been successful presidencies around European and Asian. The USA's women CAN DO NOW!!

Posted by: yellodragon | March 4, 2008 10:49 PM | Report abuse

"Chaos" seems a bit strong, don't you think?

Posted by: zukermand | March 4, 2008 10:30 PM | Report abuse

Bunch of morons. Oh wait, it's Texas? That makes sense.

Posted by: fake1 | March 4, 2008 9:38 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: JakeD | March 4, 2008 9:24 PM | Report abuse

I've just returned from our caucus in Austin: sandwiches, salads, cookies, health food, etc. Largest turnout in history for our precinct in the heart of the city. They had hoped for 200-250 and there were over 500. I did not stay for the election of delegates, but wanted my vote counted. They were very organized, waited for 7:15 to start the lines for sign in for candidate voting. Amazing. No matter who your candidate was, everyone was polite. There were probably about 160-200 there by 7:00 then wham.

Posted by: rksj | March 4, 2008 9:16 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: clare13k | March 4, 2008 9:06 PM | Report abuse

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