Archive for Sunday, January 18, 2004

Iowa caucus system a complex, beloved affair

January 18, 2004

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— To the outsider or the uninitiated, the Iowa caucuses may seem an arcane, even intimidating, form of democracy, with no secret ballots, shifting coalitions and a don't-be-late requirement for participants. Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer sees them differently. "It's really like sixth-grade gym," he explained.

What has taken place so far in Iowa is as transparent as anything in American politics. Candidates have campaigned in the state for the past month in living rooms, veterans' halls, farm sheds, public libraries and community centers, answering every imaginable question on the minds of voters. What comes next is more mysterious.

Not a primary

On Monday night, Iowa voters will meet at 1,993 locations around the state, beginning a process that eventually will produce a delegation to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July and have a significant influence on who wins that nomination.

This is not a presidential primary, in which voters can show up at any point over a 12-hour period to cast ballots and then leave. The caucuses require a commitment of time (two hours or more), knowledge of the rules and enthusiasm for political debate and even horse-trading.

Before 1972, Iowa party leaders did not even tabulate a statewide result on the night of the precinct caucuses. But the caucuses since have become a significant factor in the presidential nominating system.

Critics bemoan Iowa's role, saying the state is too homogenous and the turnout too small -- only 61,000 Democrats participated in 2000 -- to warrant the influence and attention they command. Through the years, the caucuses have proved to be a launching pad to little-known candidates such as Jimmy Carter, who rode his showing to the White House, or a burial ground to well-known candidates such as former senator and astronaut John Glenn, whose campaign collapsed in 1984.

Concerned about low turnout in 2000, the Democratic National Committee told Iowa officials they had to make the caucuses more accessible. That change, along with a crowded field of candidates, intensive organizing, a huge amount of media attention and what has turned out to be a competitive four-way race, may produce the Democratic caucuses' biggest turnout. Culver predicted Friday it could top 125,000.

The caucuses begin at 6:30 p.m. CST. Anyone arriving after 7 p.m. cannot participate. Only registered Democrats can participate, but the rules allow same-day registration and permit independents or Republicans to re-register on the site. Some campaigns have complained that some of Howard Dean's out-of-state volunteers may try to vote in the caucuses, but Democratic and state officials say they have taken steps to prevent fraud.

'Sixth-grade gym'

At 7 p.m., what Fischer calls "sixth-grade gym" begins. "You show up, you divide into teams -- one in this corner, one in that corner," he said.

Voters form groups on the basis of candidate preference, but that is not where the games end. Any candidate who does not meet a specified threshold -- 15 percent in most precincts but up to 25 percent in smaller precincts -- is not considered viable, and for the next half-hour his supporters can caucus with another candidate who is.

Caucuses are not like primaries in another way. Given the formulas for awarding delegates, breadth of support is critical. A candidate organized in as many of the precincts as possible has an advantage over one who has lots of support but in fewer places.

Once the second division takes place, the precinct leader tallies the candidates' numbers and punches the results, by telephone, into a computer database built by the state Democratic Party. From that comes a number party officials call a "state delegate equivalent," and on the basis of that number the order of finish will be determined.

What the state party will report is the percentage of delegates each candidate wins. Meanwhile, a news media consortium will be collecting data -- an entrance poll of caucus participants in about 50 of the 1,993 precincts to gather information on the issues that influenced them, and a later preference poll taken in 100 precincts at the time the first groups form.

That entrance poll is closer to the equivalent of a primary result.

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