Political Animal


December 28, 2011 4:30 PM Iowa Nuts-and-Bolts

By Ed Kilgore

For all the anticipation of the January 3 Iowa caucuses, there’s not a whole lot of general understanding about how the deal will go down. Politico’s Zachary Abrahamson has a decent brief explanation of the mechanics: At 7:00 p.m., registered Republicans (a fairly minor requirement, since anyone can re-register at the caucus site) gather at 1,774 sites around the state, with some precincts sharing space. They vote for a presidential candidate—traditionally by a show of hands, but this year, for ill-defined security reasons, some will use paper ballots—the vote is tallied and percentages reported to state HQ. Everyone’s then free to go, and many participants do exactly that, while others stick around for elections of delegates to county conventions and platform discussions. The quality of potluck offerings, and interest in that night’s televised bowl games, could have a larger impact on the duration of attendance by most caucusgoers than any actual obligations.

This matters because “delivering” caucus-goers for Republican candidates is a much easier task than for their Democratic counterparts. Iowa’s Democrats utilize a complex “preference group” structure with “viability thresholds” and then regroupings of participants backing non-viable candidates. It involves all sorts of complicated vote-swapping at the precinct and even the state level (i.e., deals between candidates to back each other in cases where one is not viable in a given precinct). At the Democratic caucus I observed in 2008, it took quite a bit of time, strategy and organization.

Yet Democratic turnout in 2008 broke all records and exceeded everyone’s expectations—other than those of the Obama campaign, which successfully expanded participation by first-time caucus-goers—including a lot of people self-identifying as independents (20% of the total) and a lot of young people (the caucuses for both parties are usually a very geriatric affair). Edwards and Clinton actually hit their “marks” in mobilizing their supporters, but they were aiming at a lower total turnout model.

Estimates of GOP Caucus attendence this year are all over the place, above and below the 120,000 who caucused in 2008 (about half the Democratic totals). And as with Obama in 2008, the biggest unknown variable is whether Ron Paul’s minions will be able to expand participation to overwhelm the field, particularly among college students who normally don’t caucus, and who will not have returned to class by January 3.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of the Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.


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  • zeitgeist on December 28, 2011 4:49 PM:

    which is to say this is typical Republican doublespeak: there is in fact no caucusing at the Republican caucuses in Iowa. they are only called caucuses to avoid fights with New Hampshire's "first" primary, despite the fact that the Republican version in Iowa sure looks a lot like a primary.

    we Iowa Democrats, on the other hand, when we caucus we really caucus!

  • anandine on December 28, 2011 5:27 PM:

    anyone can re-register at the caucus site.

    Then why aren't Democrats bussing Dems to the caucus sites to register Republican and vote for, oh, Santorum, or Bachmann, or even Cain? Can it be that Democrats are less devious than Republicans? Or maybe more naive?

  • zeitgeist on December 28, 2011 5:34 PM:

    anandine - because Dems have more respect for the process and don't treat it as a game (for better or worse).

    no busing would be necessary: while you can change parties on caucus night, you still have to live in that precinct, which is a pretty small geography.

    in any event, Team Obama is working very hard to get Dems to actually go to their own caucus both to try and generate numbers that are headline grabbing for an uncontested race and so his organizers can get precinct captains and do list building, volunteer sign up, etc. Obama is doing video conferences in to the caucuses as a perk.

  • c u n d gulag on December 28, 2011 6:04 PM:

    Turnout here may be the "tell."

    Low R turnout could mean good things for Obama, because the base is either divided, or unenthusiastic.

    Big R turnout, could spell trouble.

    Time, will tell.

    But what I care about are the turnout numbers.

  • markg8 on December 28, 2011 6:11 PM:

    I live in IL and we'll be calling Dems in IA the night before to encourage them to go to the Democratic caucuses. Nothing will discourage Republicans more than having a good turnout at the Democratic caucuses. People are itching to put the GOP in their place.

  • Kathryn on December 28, 2011 8:05 PM:

    Haven't heard a word about Democratic caucuses in Iowa, would love to see that turnout surpass the GOP after the nonstop coverage of the clown car candidates. Now that would send a message, would the media notice?

  • jsjiowa on December 28, 2011 8:53 PM:

    I'm betting on lower turnout than 2008 for the Republicans. Each candidate of course has some diehard supporters, but mostly what I hear is dissatisfaction with the choices. No real reason to venture out, especially for a non-binding vote. Just a hunch of course, based on local chatter. We'll have to see if a more enthusiastic bunch shows up on Caucus night.

  • Greentaxman on December 29, 2011 2:49 AM:

    So if there is no regrouping or a 15% threshold at the Republican gatherings, this will dilute the evangelical impact by splitting the vote among several candidates. With the Democratic rules, a candidate like Santorum would benefit the most because the Perry and Bachmann supporters would be more inclined to switch to Santorum if they failed to meet a minimum threshold.