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Casing the caucuses in Corn Country

On Monday, the 2004 presidential campaign gets down to serious business with the Iowa caucuses. Now that I am a Californian, I can understand the frustration of folks from a state of 35 million people seeing Democratic candidates spending a year wooing a state of 3 million. By the time we get to weigh in with our choice in six weeks, nomination may be a done deal.

What the heck are the Iowa caucuses anyway, and why do they get such attention? Well, it’s your lucky day, dear reader, because I grew up in the Corn State and can offer an inside look at this strange institution.

The Iowa caucuses go back to the early 1800s, when the area was still a territory, and for most of the time since, few people – including Iowans – gave a hoot about them.



The origin of the word “caucus” is said to be Algonquin, referring to a gathering of chiefs. But in American politics it describes party members meeting to decide policies or make nominations. (In Congress, like-minded members, such as the Black Caucus, often hold caucuses to plan legislative strategy.)

The Iowa form is a real throwback, akin to New England town meetings. When I was a college student – before I took the working-journalists’ pledge to forswear political activism – I attended a precinct caucus at a neighbor’s home. At the time, I thought it was the most boring three hours of my life. Today, I probably would be fascinated – like being invited to an archeological dig.




Any registered Democrat can attend their precinct caucus, where pronouncements and endorsements are read, somebody passes the hat to pay for the meeting space if necessary, then attendees break into groups around the room, one for each candidate.

For your candidate to be “viable” at that caucus, your group must contain at least 15 percent of those attending. If it doesn’t, other groups try to get you to join them, like some weird reality show – “Survivor: Grundy Center.”

Wait, it gets more arcane. One delegate and one alternate is chosen from every 174 voters registered in that precinct, using a mathematical formula that may result in fractions of delegates pledged to a particular candidate at the next level, one of 99 county conventions.

From there, the process goes on to the district and state conventions, but by then the show has moved on and nobody cares about Iowa delegates any more. Out of the 4,322 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, only 56 will be from “the buckle on the Corn Belt.”

The Republican caucuses are simpler. They have a secret straw poll, rather than having to declare their preference before their neighbors. Also, it costs you $25 to vote – those Republicans, always fund-raising … .

The caucuses got little attention until 1972, when – after a nasty nomination battle in 1968 – the Democrats decided to spur more participation by requiring 30 days between the caucuses and the various conventions. With the state convention in May that year, the precinct caucuses were moved up to Jan. 24 – the first statewide presidential contest in the nation.

That year, South Dakota’s George McGovern finished a strong second, boosting him to the nomination. Jimmy Carter broke out of the pack in Iowa in 1976 and ended up in the White House. That prompted the Republicans to move their caucuses to the same date as the Democrats, and every four years since, Iowa has been the center of the political universe – for a while, anyway.

Of course, now it’s become an industry. The state earns millions from hordes of campaigners and teams. Iowans compete to see how many presidential contenders they can invite to coffee in their kitchen. Campaign commercials in the winter are as ubiquitous as Roundup ads in the spring. It is now state law: Iowa’s caucuses must take place eight days before a delegate selection contest in any other state.

Actually, as it happens, the caucuses this year are interesting. It’s neck-and-neck, with John Kerry showing some life in a tight race with Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards as they seek what the New York Times on Friday called “the Holy Grail of momentum.”

Carol Mosely Braun threw her support to Dean this week, and she may not be alone after Monday. Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, and many pundits said it was a smart strategy. We’ll see … .

Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.


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