A year ago tonight, nearly 240,000 Iowans spent a couple of hours in overcrowded rooms during the Democratic precinct caucuses.
Thousands of others came to freezing cold Iowa to knock on doors or make phone calls for their presidential candidate in late December and early January.
Share any memories you have about caucusing or volunteering in this thread.
After the jump I re-posted my account of what happened at my own caucus. I was a precinct captain for Edwards.
As if I weren’t already feeling enough pressure, Jerome Armstrong, his friend Trei the videographer, Ben Smith of Politico, and a college buddy of John Edwards were all observers at my precinct caucus. Jerome gave the short version of the evening’s events here, and posted the multi-media recap here. (You can’t see me in any of the photos, but Mr. desmoinesdem is in one—I won’t say which!)
I got to my precinct a little after 6 pm. Quite a few voters had already signed in. I walked in the room and immediately saw a woman who had never caucused before sitting in the Hillary corner. I had failed to turn her out to the 2004 caucus despite multiple contacts. At that moment I thought it might be a big night for Hillary.
I saw the Richardson precinct captain setting up chairs and asked him about the reported deal to send support to Obama. (We have known each other since we both volunteered for Kerry four years ago.) At first he smiled and said he couldn’t reveal internal communications from the campaign, but then he confirmed that he had been instructed to steer voters to Obama if Richardson was not viable.
I saw the Biden precinct captain and asked him if he had been told to send support to Obama. He denied getting any instructions like that from the campaign.
I started checking Edwards supporters off my list as they came in the room. I had a list of about 50 firm supporters, plus a few dozen people we thought might be leaning our way. I was supposed to start making calls to supporters who were not there yet, but it was hard to find time, because so many Edwards supporters, including many I’d never met or spoken with, were coming to our area of the room.
I decided on the spur of the moment to focus on talking with the Biden, Dodd and Richardson supporters I recognized. I figured it was a safe bet that most of them had not heard any reports about a deal with Obama. Many of them had told me before the caucuses that Edwards was their second choice, and I wanted to get them to confirm that to me before they heard any instructions from their precinct captains.
One elderly woman apologized to me, because she’d signed a supporter card for Edwards earlier in the fall, and I’d given her a ride to an Edwards town hall meeting in November. In the last two weeks she decided to caucus for Biden, and she told me she almost didn’t show up because she was worried I’d be angry with her. I told her that of course I wasn’t angry, everyone has the right to change her mind, and Biden was a strong candidate. I asked her to keep us in mind if she needed to make a second choice, and she promised that she would be there for us.
So I shuttled back and forth between different groups, greeting new arrivals to the Edwards area and trying to touch base with people who were undecided last time I heard from them. I also handed out the bottled water I brought along, because it was getting stuffy in the room.
In theory, the caucus was to be called to order at 6:30, but so many people were still arriving that our temporary precinct chair waited until almost 7:00 to call us to order. The first items on the agenda were the election of a precinct secretary and permament precinct chair (this is basically a formality—the temporary chair is almost never challenged for this position). The precinct chair was backing Clinton, but the secretary was a rock-solid Edwards supporter.
A few minutes after 7:00, the last voters had been signed in, and they announced the total turnout for our precinct. Four years ago, we had a pretty good turnout of 175. I scoffed at the Des Moines Register poll’s prediction that 60 percent of caucus-goers would be first-timers. In that comment, I calculated that we’d need more than 300 people attending our caucus in order to have 60 percent of them be first-timers. Well, the joke was on me, because the turnout at our caucus this year was 293.
We had people in the Edwards and Clinton groups who had never caucused before, but there’s no question that the Obama corner had the largest number of first-timers. It was stunning. The chart I got from my field organizer, showing how many supporters we’d need for 1, 2, 3 or more delegates depending on how many people attended the caucus, didn’t even go past the 260s.
After the first division into preference groups, the totals were: Obama 86, Edwards 83, Clinton 63, Richardson 28, Biden 24, Dodd 9, uncommitted 2, and Kucinich 1. To be viable, candidates needed 44 supporters.
I asked people in the Edwards group to help me by approaching their own friends in other groups. At first the Richardson and Biden groups were not budging. They were trying to get people to come over from Clinton, using the logic that Clinton was way below the level needed for two delegates but could spare some supporters while remaining viable. However, the Clinton volunteers kept everyone in their corner.
Realizing they had no chance to get to the 44 people needed for viability, Richardson’s precinct captain told his group about the campaign’s strategy to go to Obama, adding that they could make up their own minds. I didn’t get an exact count, but I’m pretty sure Edwards got at least as many of the Richardson supporters, if not more. We also got a large number of the Biden supporters (including his precinct captain), part of the Dodd group, and the Kucinich supporter, who was planning to come over to us all along.
After the second division into preference groups, Edwards had 115, Obama had 104, and Clinton had 72. At first we thought we would get 3 delegates, with 2 for Obama and 1 for Clinton. However, the delegates are apportioned according to the following formula: number of supporters in group times number of delegates assigned by precinct (6), divided by total number of caucus-goers (293). That worked out to 2.35 for Edwards, 2.13 for Obama, and 1.47 for Clinton. We all got rounded down: 2 Edwards, 2 Obama, 1 Clinton.
But our precinct has to assign 6 county delegates. The precinct chair consulted the Democratic Party’s rule book while I looked over her shoulder. The precinct secretary re-did the math on her calculator as I watched. The book said that in our situation, the last delegate goes to the candidate with the decimal point closest to 0.5. Clinton was that little bit closer to 2 delegates than we were to 3 delegates.
It’s similar to what happened in my precinct in 1988. The delegates split 2-2-2 despite a fairly large difference in size between the largest and the smallest preference groups. That’s the caucus system for you.
In retrospect, the Edwards and Obama groups would have been better off helping Richardson to be viable. Then the delegates would have been split 2 Edwards, 2 Obama, 1 Clinton and 1 Richardson. But there was no way to know that, and during the realignment of course the Edwards and Obama groups were focused on attracting enough supporters to win that third delegate.
I sat down with a calculator the next day. To change the math in our favor, we needed 4 people from the Clinton group, 7 people from the Obama group or 10 people who didn’t show up to turn out and stand in the Edwards corner. I am still frustrated that I could not get Edwards that third delegate we were seeking. We exceeded the campaign’s “vote goal” for the precinct, but because of the overwhelming turnout, it wasn’t enough to win the precinct.
Every day I walk the dog by the homes of people who failed to show up last Thursday, despite telling me at some point that they supported Edwards. Several of those people either signed supporter cards or put up yard signs. Would it have helped to knock on those doors one more time, or call them again at the last minute? I was concentrating on people I considered to be less reliable voters.
Although the results in my precinct and in Iowa as a whole disappointed me, I did enjoy the caucus experience. The energy in a room packed with committed Democrats is amazing, and the competition was friendly and fair in my precinct (which, sadly, was not the case in some precincts). I don’t expect Iowa to start the presidential nominating process in the future, but I will continue to appreciate the friends and neighbors I met during my work as a precinct captain.
[NOTE from desmoinesdem, January 3, 2009: Now that Obama won the presidential election, Iowa has a much better chance of staying first in the nominating process.]