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View from the Hill Blog: The Hawkeye Caucus

By Grace Boatright, View from the Hill National Grange Legislative Blog (1/7/12)

  JANUARY 9, 2012 --

With Congress in recess, there really hasn’t been too much breaking news on the legislative front; not that Congress was overly productive before they recessed.  With legislative interests at a standstill, Washington has focused its political eye on the Presidential race. As most of you have seen, the presidential election is heating up quite rapidly, and 2012 began with one of the largest and most politically important events in every presidential cycle- the Iowa Caucus. I thought this might be an appropriate time to take a closer look into caucuses, what they are, and their importance in presidential elections.

Political caucuses are essentially a gathering of people who belong to the same political party. In today’s political realm there are thousands of theories about how each caucus outcome shapes the selection process for a party’s candidate.

Each caucus has different rules that can and do get changed periodically, but most operate on the rule that only registered members of the political party holding the caucus may vote. However, one has the option to change their registration right there at the door, should they wish to vote in a different party’s caucus. Caucuses can be held anywhere, but are usually held in schools, churches, community centers, and individual’s homes.

Once the caucus begins, there’s a traditional order of business that goes as follows. Upon arriving, people are asked to provide proof that they live in that particular precinct or district, and that they belong to the political party in question. Whatever precinct you reside in, that’s the caucus you have to attend. Once everybody is together, they elect somebody to monitor the time and keep things rolling. At the same time, they also elect somebody to tally the votes. Once that is over, they open the floor for “general business.” This is where it gets interesting.

General business is an open forum where anybody is allowed to stand up and talk about anything they wish- as long as it is political or legislative in nature. So the far right can get up and talk about abortion laws, gun nuts can talk second amendment, economists can speak on trade issues, etc. The KKK or NAACP could show up and they’d be allowed to speak- it’s open to anybody who met the aforementioned qualifications and was able to get through the door. This might sound wholesome and democratic but what usually happens is a certain sect of people use the occasion to rant and rave about their interest of choice and attempt to wear everybody else down so they’ll leave. For example (and this is an example so don’t shoot), the religious right might get up and start speaking out against abortion, which probably annoys the moderates just a bit, and occasionally it gets so heated that people do get up and leave. It’s sort of a filibuster if you will. It’s annoying, but it’s part of the caucus process. 

After debates have ended, a representative from each campaign, or if you’re lucky the candidates themselves, speak for just a few minutes; usually no more than five. Finding someone to do this is harder than it sounds. With 1,774 precincts, campaigns would have to find 1,774 people to do this, because the speaker must reside in the precinct in which they’re speaking. Hopefully, campaigns can find someone articulate and well respected within that community precinct to speak on their behalf. Once all the speakers present have made their peace, a poll is taken and everybody is asked what candidate they are voting for. This is where it gets extra, super interesting, and is definitely what separates caucuses from primary elections.

In primary elections, people show up to vote, they do so, leave, and everything is very anonymous. Caucuses are different, both in that they require more of a time commitment, 2-3 hours at least, and can get personal…VERY personal. Often times, in smaller districts and precincts, you could know most everybody in the room, and they know you. This wouldn’t be a problem if all the polls at caucuses were taken anonymously with paper ballots, but most often they’re taken with a show of hands, or they make people get up and divide into groups based on the candidate they’re voting for. For example, the person elected to take the votes can get up and say; “everybody voting for Newt Gingrich go to that side of the room, and everybody voting for Ron Paul get on the other side of the room,” etc. This is touchy for many people, and many people end up saying one thing and doing another for just this reason. Say the pastor of your church is there and you’re supporting a pro-choice candidate? Or a woman whose daughter was shot is there and your chosen candidate is heavy on second amendment rights? It’s upfront, personal, and because of this structure, everybody in your little hometown is going to know who you voted for. So that, in a nutshell, is how most American political caucuses are conducted.

Pretty crazy right?

So what’s so special about Iowa? The Iowa Caucus is undoubtedly the most important caucus of every cycle, primarily because it’s the first. It’s a big deal because it’s the first time anybody has to vote for anybody. It’s an indicator of how the rest of the election will pan out, and will reveal to candidates how effective their previous months of campaigning have been. In addition, because there are 1,774 precincts in Iowa, it’s very grassroots oriented and makes it hard for candidates to “buy” Iowa, although plenty of them try. For example, Rick Perry spent over $4 million dollars on campaign ads in the state of Iowa, only to come in 5th. The Iowa Caucus is a big deal to most presidential candidates, and a victory there is highly sought by each campaign. 

However, prior to the 70’s, the Iowa Caucus was hardly regarded at all. Jimmy Carter of all people is heavily responsible for the Iowa Caucus’ importance in modern day presidential elections. In 1976 Jimmy Carter was running for President but was getting little traction with the Democratic Party. When the Iowa Caucus came around, Carter came in second but was the only committed “official” candidate who received a significant amount of votes. Using the publicity from that victory, he somehow managed to win New Hampshire, the nomination, and eventually the presidency. Since then, every presidential candidate has devoted significant attention to winning Iowa. I think we can say with confidence that winning the Iowa Caucus is the only thing Jimmy Carter ever made fashionable. The real irony of the whole Iowa Caucus showdown however, is that it really doesn’t count for anything, not as it applies directly to the candidates anyway. All voters are doing is electing delegates to be sent to the county convention, then the district convention, the state convention after that, and eventually all the way to the national convention where everybody within the political party gathers to nominate a candidate for the ballot. Nonetheless, Iowa is still very much a big deal and will continue to be in future elections.

I know this blog has gotten a bit long, but I hope it helped you better understand what caucuses are, how they are conducted, and why the Iowa Caucus is considered such a big deal. Ask any Iowan, and they can probably tell you all of this off the top of their head, but it’s a bit more abstract to the rest of us. The New Hampshire primary is next week, and the 2012 presidential election will only get more contentious from here. It should be a very interesting year here in Washington. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year Grangers!

- Grace Boatright
National Grange Programs Assistant 

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