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How Raucous Is the Caucus?

By Lea Terhune | Staff Writer | 09 November 2011
Close-up of hand carrying coffee and campaign stickers (AP Images)

On January 3, 2008, a Hillary Clinton supporter carries coffee and campaign stickers at the Democratic Precinct 2 caucus in St. Donatus, Iowa.

Washington — When British writer Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1885, he satirized a homegrown American political process in “The Caucus-Race.” Organized by the Dodo, it had no logical rules. At a signal, a motley group of animals ran in different directions. When the Dodo declared the race finished, contestants asked “But who has won?” After long thought, the Dodo answered, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

To an outsider, the caucus may seem as nonsensical as Carroll’s Caucus-Race: “The best way to explain it is to do it,” the Dodo tells Alice. In fact, caucuses are all about doing: giving up personal time, talking, deciding and realigning loyalties when a favored candidate fails to win enough support to be “viable.”

Essentially a neighborhood meeting, the name “caucus” derives from an American Indian word for a conference of tribal leaders. In U.S. electoral politics, the tribes are political parties; the leaders are party activists and concerned citizens. Iowa, on January 3, 2012, will be the first of 21 jurisdictions (states and territories) that will hold caucuses to select the candidate their states will support at the 2012 national political conventions.

Most states use the more straightforward primary election: Citizens vote and the candidate with the most votes wins.

The caucus is a potentially confusing ritual that vies with the Electoral College as the quirkiest American political practice. Both date back to the nation’s early days, before primaries emerged in the early 20th century. Caucus procedures differ from state to state and party to party.

The common element of caucuses is talk. Supporters gather to back their candidate and convince others to do the same. In Iowa, “Democrats caucus publicly, while Republicans have a secret ballot — and Democrats must be willing to state publicly their preference, unusual in American politics,” says political science professor and director of Iowa University’s Hawkeye Poll David Redlawsk. The poll tracks presidential candidates’ progress ahead of the caucuses.

Today, a working mother can caucus beside a party activist, but it was not always this way. Originally, only party operatives decided who to nominate, according to Cary Covington, another Iowa University elections expert. “When the parties became established political actors in the 1820s and ‘30s, they [saw] themselves as acting on behalf of the people rather than having the people do the acting themselves,” he says; parties viewed nominations as “a private organizational affair and the voters really don’t have any business being involved until the general election.”

That all changed in 1972 when the Democratic Party required state delegations to be demographically representative of voters. “The representation of previously excluded groups made it a more open and public process,” Covington says. The Republican Party soon followed suit, and state caucuses were democratized.

It is one example of how American political institutions evolve to reflect the voice of the people, a process that was not built into the Constitution. The Founders were protective of the fledgling democracy. “Our nation’s leaders had a mistrust of the average citizen,” Covington says, “They were afraid they would be too prone to act on rash emotion rather than by rational calculation.”

Democrats trump the Republicans in caucus complexity. Simply explained, the Democratic caucus employs proportional representation. Only candidates who clear the high threshold of 15 percent support are considered viable. Backers of losers “realign” — a stage that Redlawsk, who has served as a Democratic caucus chair, calls “lively.”

“A lot of discussion goes on, a lot of lobbying each other; nonviable groups can try to bring people in to become viable, other groups will go after nonviable people.” Supporters physically assemble for the count in different corners of the room designated for their candidates.

Caucuses demand a significant time commitment. “Those who do participate in caucus are probably the most politically aware and knowledgeable voters anywhere in the country,” Redlawsk says. Most Democratic caucuses use proportional representation; Republican caucuses tend to use the ballot.

The Iowa caucus began in 1846 but it did not become an election bellwether until the 1970s, after its date was moved up to make it “first in the nation.” Jimmy Carter, the future 39th president, campaigned hard there, using Iowa as a springboard to success. Despite current media and party publicity, the caucus is not a true indicator of voter preference. Caucus turnout is routinely low and participants are often the most motivated party members. “They aren’t general elections for everybody. They are a process for the party to determine who’s going to represent it,” Redlawsk explains.

The Iowa caucus winnows the field, he says, “What it doesn’t necessarily do is predict who’s going to actually win in the end. It may weed out losers, but for those who continue from Iowa, the contest continues to be up in the air.”

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Newt Gingrich with Iowa man (AP Images)

Republican hopefuls like former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, shown at the Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit on January 25, 2011, often visit Iowa in advance of the caucuses.