Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

How, exactly, Iowa controls the world

Posted by Evan Herrnstadt on December 31, 2007

Although this is first and foremost an environmental economics blog, I’ve decided that it is my duty as a native Iowan to address the upcoming Caucuses. The need for such a post became evident to me when several discussions with highly politically literate friends revealed a widespread ignorance of the mechanism by which approximately 250,000 Midwesterners will significantly alter the course of U.S. politics. Preview: it’s completely crazy.

I spent the last week or so back in my beloved heartland which was something like immersing myself in the peak of a political bender. My parents’ phone was ringing relentlessly — one day, they got five campaign calls before noon (the canvassers did relent on Christmas Eve and Day, lest they be painted as unholy). I saw a “Firefighters for Dodd bus” with an 8-foot likeness of the good Senator’s face painted on the side. The front page of the local newspaper, the Ames Tribune, sported a half-page color picture of Mike Huckabee wearing a hunting vest holding a shotgun in the air. Yep.

So anyway, regarding the Caucuses themselves. I have no experience with the Republican Caucus, which I gather is essentially a glorified straw poll. However, I did participate in the Democratic Caucus in 2004. My precinct, centered as it was on a neighborhood of college students and elderly progressives, sent four of its five delegates to Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, so interpret my experiences with that in mind.

The Democratic Caucuses are lauded as a last bastion of direct community democracy; to some extent, I agree. There is something inspiring about voters congregating and really hashing out what they want from their party’s nominee and platform. However, the whole scene is also reminiscent of a fourth-grade election — only here, you don’t have to put your head down on your desk to vote.

Since the whole caucus process is somewhat heated, and I haven’t been through it for four years, I’m going to draw heavily on this outstanding explanation of the delegate-apportionment process (why reinvent the wheel when desmoinesdem has built a perfectly good one for me?).

First off, when I mentioned my precinct sending “four of five its delegates”, this illustrates the way that the Caucuses must be interpreted. So enters the first reason that polls coming out of Iowa should by and large be ignored, except to identify trends: a caucus is NOT A PRIMARY. From desmoinesdem:

The first thing you need to know about the Iowa caucuses is that only 3,000 “votes” matter. Those are the 3,000 delegates assigned statewide. When Kerry won Iowa in 2004 with 38 percent of the “vote,” this does not refer to raw numbers of people who showed up to caucus. It means that Kerry won 38 percent of the 3,000 delegates. Iowa has 99 counties, but the largest nine contribute roughly half of the delegates. The delegates are allocated among the counties according to a mathematical formula based on the number of votes a precinct cast for the Democratic candidates for president and governor during the last two general elections.

So delegates are appropriated roughly based on Democratic population. However, this is a rigid appropriation. It doesn’t matter if 1000 people show up, or if all but 100 of them decide to watch the Orange Bowl instead.

On to the main event, as it occurred in January 2004. After months of having my desire to caucus crushed via constant harassment by true believers, I arrived at the caucus site. Which in my case, was the gymnasium of Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City. After passing through the lax entrance requirements, I found myself simultaneously preparing to decide the world’s fate and reliving hundreds of sack lunches.

Once all of us caucus-goers were herded into the glorious stockyard of democracy, we were given 30 minutes in which to align ourselves. By which I mean I went and stood by an unflinchingly crazy person designated as my candidate’s precinct captain. His role was to shout slogans and make me embarrassed to be affiliated with him. Undecided voters were allowed to either organize as such, or go from group to group gathering information about candidates (procrastination at its worst). Each candidate had designated recruiters that sought out undecided voters as well.

After this first 30 minutes, there was an initial headcount. Any candidate whose support was below a threshold determined by the number of delegates to be elected (15% in my case) was declared “unviable”. Those supporting unviable candidates were now free to throw themselves to another group. Remember when I said it was like 4th grade, but without having your head down? This is when the recruiters and precinct captains became unbearable, and the horse-trading began. Oh, and the screaming and chanting also continued unabated as each camp tried to out-yell the others.

Anyway, since delegates are assigned by rounding up or down to the nearest discrete unit, a candidate might have extra support that they can lend to an opponent whose victory would be least strategically damaging. The recruiters were deployed like a swarm of locusts, and each group had protection squads to repel their efforts. I hadn’t experienced this kind of peer pressure since the first time I got drunk. Which, of course, was a year later when I turned 21…

Side note: apparently, the media loves anecdotes in which we Iowa rubes trade farm favors for support (if ya come over to Obama, I’ll birth that calf for ya). As the The Onion so eloquently put it, stereotypes are a great timesaver.

So finally, 30 minutes later, the contest ended with a final headcount. The results were sent to the state party and most people headed home. After that, cool people like myself stuck around as the actual delegates were elected and the precinct’s suggestions for the county platform was written. As an indication of the level of politicking that occurs at this point, note that I was nearly elected to the county convention on this brilliant platform: I think health care is good. Johnson County should support good stuff. Vote for me. The end.

Start to finish elapsed time: 4 hours. The Caucuses tend to weed out all but the most dedicated lovers of politics, especially those without night jobs or exams. This somewhat undemocratic aspect aside, I think I’ve generally made it clear how chaotic and unpredictable the Caucuses can be. Thus, as we look at the polls showing a 3-way tie in the Democratic race, recall that this does not adjust for:

1. Turnout

2. Second-choice support

3. Peer pressure

4. Geographic density of support (it’s better to have widespread viability than to win a few precincts by a wide margin).

Pollsters are essentially polling for a primary, not a caucus. Recall once again, a caucus is NOT A PRIMARY.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think it’s cool that there is still a place where candidates actually have to run around shaking hands and meeting in people’s living rooms. But I bet that’s mostly because those living rooms are a couple blocks away from my parents’ house. The caucuses are surely a unique institution in American politics, and my sarcasm stems equally from valid reservations and a general bitterness toward the political process at large. Like it or not, it’s gonna be a wild, folksy time in Iowa on Thursday.

2 Responses to “How, exactly, Iowa controls the world”

  1. [...] First of all everyone should read a native Iowan’s post on the process. [...]

  2. mammaren said

    Thanks.. very much.

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