Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Why Caucuses Are So Difficult - For Democrats

In five days the Iowa caucuses will be held and we will know for once who really has the energy and endorsement of voters  (not newspapers) in the 2016 presidential race. In the case of Bernie Sanders, winning Iowa would be a mighty first step in validating his campaign, as it was for Obama back in 2008. He definitely has the backing of most Iowans under 45, nearly 77%.. The challenge is to translate that energy into caucus outcomes in his favor.

The underlying problem is that caucusing is much more difficult for Democrats than Republicans, since it embodies genuine participatory democracy - not just stuffing ballots into boxes. In the latter (R) case,  the voter writes the name of his preferred candidate on a piece of paper, hands it in and then the various paper ballots are counted. The winner is announced and delegates are then awarded.

For Democrats it's not so simple, or isolated. Some pundits have described it as a "game of political musical chairs".  First, a campaign representative shows up for each candidate,  adjacent to their designated areas, and makes a pitch. The pitch person's job here is to briefly sound off on the great qualities of the candidate that should make him or her the preferred choice of caucus goers.

After that, caucus goers break into groups for their candidate, flocking to the areas designated. The undecided voters are shepherded to a separate area of the precinct floor.  The numbers are eventually counted for support of that candidate, A, B or C.  The percentages of support are then calculated and a candidate's support is deemed viable if (for the vast majority of caucus locations) they get 15 percent or more.

Caucus goers whose candidate doesn't make the cut can re-align to another campaign, or try to reach the 15 percent viability by recruiting additional supporters. For example, if O'Malley's supporters fail to get to the 15 percent mark on Monday night they can engage Sanders' or Hillary supporters to try to convince them to move their way - to increase the percentage to the magic number.

The other option is to go to the undecided area and be recruited from there, say by having excellent pitches made from the supporters of the two candidates who reached viability. This process repeats until all the remaining candidates are viable, i.e. at 15 percent or over. Then delegates are awarded according to the percentages.

The process, unlike the Republican one, can take hours - though in most cases a caucus finishes in under an hour. But it does require a commitment of time and patience and this is why the turnout for the Iowa caucus has historically been low (e.g. 16 percent back in 2012).

Barack Obama secured his victory  from his youthful supporters back in 2008, but it remains to be seen if Bernie Sanders can do the same. One thing that would help is getting young voters together for 'teaching moments' on the caucus process so they know what to expect and don't enter the precincts looking like they just stepped off a space ship onto an alien planet.

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