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Iowa Caucuses Footnote

Now that the New Hampshire primary is history, we have another data point and might be able to get a little perspective on how bizarre Iowa's dominance of the primary phenomenon is. (See my entry for January 3, 2008.) This is due to the way the Iowa caucuses are conducted, at least on the Democratic side. (The Republicans caucus a whole different way.)

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa are a little like the platypus, in that people hearing how they work for the first time don't always believe it. Let me give you the short summary: At 7 PM on caucus night, Iowa's 1,784 precincts open their doors and the most motivated citizens stream in. There are no ballot boxes as we understand them. Instead, people literally go to the corner of the room under a sign with the name of the candidate they support. If you support Obama, you go stand in the Obama corner. If you support Hilary, you go to Hilary's corner. You can switch corners at any time, keeping in mind that after about 45 minutes, candidates without sufficient numbers of people under their signs are declared nonviable and tossed out, releasing their corner-standers to go stand somewhere else. (How this “viability factor” is calculated is complex and I'm not entirely sure I understand it myself, but it runs from 15% to 25%.)

Electioneering is allowed in the room, meaning that people can cajole others to move into their corner. Eventually, the party bosses declare that the caucus is over, and count heads in each of the viable corners. That isn't quite the end of it: What the numbers in each corner actually select are delegates to a state (not the national) Democratic nominating convention, but it's possible to know with some certainty on caucus night which candidates get how many delegates at the national convention.

There are multiple flaws in a system like this, including the fact that people who are not free at 7 PM on caucus night get no vote, nor do people like military personnel who are required by law to be elsewhere and cannot attend. (There is no absentee participation.) However, the worst of it is that everybody in your precinct gets to see whom you support—and that, in my view, is pure evil. I have tangled with party tribalists on occasion, and they are nasty, vituperative Right Men and Right Women who nourish grudges and hold them basically forever. If your neighborhood tribalists support one candidate and you support another, you'd better hope that they have nothing on you. (Zoning board members? Homeowners' association weasels? Such people are everywhere, and they have the power to make your life very difficult if they choose.) Even if there are no such tribalists in your precinct (and there are almost always a couple) people may feel pressured to vote with the rest of their families, or at least pressured against supporting an oddball dark horse candidate who appeals to them. Whatever cloud may hang over your personal decision as an Iowa Democrat, it is not a free election.

I'm amazed that this gets as little attention as it does. My readings and conversations indicate that the most committed Democrats supported Obama, and Big Media has all but handed him the nomination already. I can well imagine Obama's tribalists giving the “just you wait!” eyeball to people they know standing under Hilary's sign last Thursday night. (Yes, I'm sure there are Hilary tribalists as well, but Democratic tribalists tend to lean left.) It's impossible to know how different the results would have been had Iowa's Democrats allowed their people a true secret ballot. But would it have been different? Count on it.

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