Caucus Day: Day 8

By Caucus Day, I was not feeling 100%, but today was the day, and everyone was going for the final push.  The question I faced, though, was what to do on this Thursday.   Caucus Day (a Thursday) was a tough day for canvassing — few would be home on a weekday, and phone messages would probably not be picked up until after the caucus.  And the Obama staff told all of us that we shouldn’t attend the actual caucuses, since Iowans resent the intrusion of outsiders into their process.  So for a while, I thought I’d be fired up, ready to go, and sitting in my hotel room :-( .

Caucus Day

I decided to do a couple of things on Caucus Day.  I had the campaign run off a couple of hundred copies of Barack’s October, 2002, speech on the pending Iraq War.  This speech is profound, both in its eloquence and insight.  Then, at 8:00 a.m., I started walking around downtown, just looking for people, or spots with lots of people passing by.  I’d ask all passersby if they were planning to go to the caucus and, if yes, could take two minutes to read his speech.  I’d say something like, “A candidate’s 2002 view on Iraq was the single most important test of judgment that he or she has faced in the past decade.  Read what Barack Obama had to say about it, and ask yourself if that’s the judgment and leadership you want in the White House.” 

So how did this approach go?  Well, people would take a copy of the speech from me, and then later would come back and ask for more copies.  I ran through 200 copies, and made another 200 copies.  And another 200.  Wow!  The thoughtful people of Iowa take their responsibility seriously here, and welcomed interesting new material. 

I got more good news that day!  My boss Tony Rediger needed me to be the one Obama outsider volunteer in the Precinct 14 caucus.  So I would have a chance to observe live what a caucus is all about.  It’s always great to get an upside surprise!  

I admit that after my first few days in Iowa City, I was concerned about Barack’s prospects.  I talked to a lot of undecideds, but many were leaning toward another candidate.  As the week wore on, it seemed things were starting to really go our way.  On that last day, I talked to several hundred people.  A surprising number were planning to go to the caucus (about half), many committed to Barack.  So I went to the caucus that night optimistic about Barack’s chances, and expecting a blow-out crowd.

Caucus Night

Before going further, a word about the Iowa caucus procedure.  The caucuses are managed by the two political parties in Iowa (each with its own set of rules), not the state or Federal government.  Democrats come to their caucus, stand with their chosen candidate’s group, and an initial count is made.  If a candidate isn’t viable (supporters number less than 15% of total attendees), those supporters can either leave or align with another candidate.  Then, a final count is made, the pro ratas of each candidate are used to allocate the precinct’s delegates, and delegate counts (not votes) are reported to the Iowa Democratic party.  Also, in the past, apparently, people would comment on why they supported a candidate, and there was lots of informal interaction around the re-alignment process.  Sounds simple, right??

Iowa 074 This process would probably work well with a small group.  But the huge turn-out caused huge problems.  Our caucus location was the local elementary school gym, which had a few picnic tables inside for attendees.  The gym could hold maybe 200 comfortably, but  400+ came.  People were jammed in, many were out in the hall, and the indoor temperature started to climb. 

As people filed in, they would take stickers for their candidate of chioce.  I could tell from the takers that this was going to be a great night.  It was exciting to see so many people I had already met standing for Barack.  The Obama supporters alone could fill the gym, and the little picnic table assigned to us was woefully inadequate.

Imagine trying to count supporters for each candidate.  The precinct head had those in favor of each candidate raise their hand.  Well, when you get up to 200 hands raised, spread out over a big room and a spillover hall, with people shuffling around and raising/dropping their hands, it’s impossible to get an accurate count.  They spent time discussing alternatives, and finally opted to have each candidate’s supporters leave the gym and go to separate classrooms.  When our supporters filled up first one classroom, then a second, and then a third, it was electrifying.  But separating the groups eliminated the interaction aspect of a caucus, a real concern to long-time participants.

One thing I noted was the make-up of the different groups.  Both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards had union endorsements in Iowa, and many of their caucusers wore a union shirt.  Obama had no official union endorsement, but his supporters were wonderfully diverse.  We had older people, and teenagers.  We had an African-American woman in a wheelchair.  We had young families with children in tow.  We had multiple ethnicities.  The Obama group was America.

We got an initial count at about 7:45 p.m.  Remember, the participants arrived around 6:15 p.m., and had absolutely nothing to do while they were there.  Many came from work without eating dinner.  One of my tasks was to play hockey goalie and keep any of our supporters from leaving.  That job was a breeze, since no one — and I mean no one – wanted to leave (and if you leave a caucus early, even if you’ve been there 2 1/2 hours, your vote doesn’t count).    

We then went into the rather mysterious re-alignment process.  In our caucus, Barack was way above the 15% threshold, and Edwards and Clinton were also above 15%, although a few defectors would push Clinton below.  All other candidates (Richardson, Kucinich, Dodd, Biden, and Gravel) were short of 15%.  So the groups then went into a round of “horse trading” that lasted for about 45 minutes.  One candidates’ block, short of the viability level, wanted to recruit others to it, creating a bit of grid-lock.  Precinct captains were talking to precinct captains, influential participants approached others, and — finally — these below-threshold supporter groups decided to join one of the three leading candidates.  At around 8:30, we began the final count.  The way we ended up counting was to have all supporters in a class rooms, file out slowly and be counted, file back in, file out again slowly for a second count, and then return.  Sounds speedy, doesn’t it??

For our precinct, the final count was Obama 217, Edwards 101, and Clinton 88.  We got five delegates, and Edwards and Clinton each got two.  As people headed home at 9:00 p.m. after almost three hours sitting or standing around, they seemed to have enjoyed the meeting and excited about the turn-out.  By then the news had broken that Huckabee had won the Republican caucus and Barack had won the Democratic caucus by comfortable margins.

One thing I found remarkable was how good-natured everyone was (with one exception, more later).  The gym was stifling, and the organizers had to reinvent rules in light of the huge crowd.  “Efficiency” would not be the word springing to mind to describe the process.   Obama’s staff, though, had given me great advice about how best to approach this caucus — be helpful, observe, but respect Iowa’s process and don’t inject yourself into it.   An observer for one of the other campaigns was constantly objecting to things, interrupting the precinct head, and insisting that things be done his way.  That didn’t go over too well, and probably cost his candidate supporters in the re-alignment.

I was impressed with our Precinct Captain and several others who helped him.  A woman named Tina, whose young son (about 18 months old) is named Barack, was on top of everything.  While she was focused on the process, I spent time with little Barack, who seemed to be fascinated with going into the Boys’ Room and exploring — not a good idea!  So little Barack and I found an empty classroom, where he played with toys.  [By the way, the girls' name Madison went from never being used before the movie "Splash" to becoming third most popular girl's name in 2006. I suspect we'll see a growing number of little boys named Barack and Tina's "Barack" is almost certainly the first boy in America named after Barack Obama.]

Iowa 077 I went back to the campaign office after the caucus, where it was bedlam.  Obama won a whopping 52% of the delegates in Johnson County, the team’s territory.  After some celebrating in the office, we all went to a local bar, which was packed with Obama staff and volunteers.  The night had the joy of the night in Boston in October, 2004, when the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, but with an element of awe for the potential historical repercussions of the outcome. 

The room quieted when Barack Obama came on the televisions to deliver his speech about the result.  Everyone was moved by his remarks, some even in tears.  If you didn’t hear this speech, go listen it.  Barack Obama isn’t the typical politician.  

Further Thoughts

This campaign accomplished remarkable things in Iowa.  A year ago, Barack Obama had no name recognition here, no rolodex of contacts or donors, no long-term relationships, no organization, and no endoresements from influential Iowa officials or party veterans.  One leading candidate is married to a former U.S. President and they have long, deep ties to Iowa, translating into high name recognition, instant organization, and the the endorsement of many senior officials.  Another has spent a considerable portion of each year, for the past seven or eight years, in Iowa, developing personal relationships with a large number of Iowans.  The state is 95% white, with an older demographic — not exactly Barack’s sweet spot.  If Las Vegas had posted odds a year ago on Barack Obama winning the Iowa caucus, you could have gotten 100,000 to one odds against him. 

I came back to the hotel room after Barack’s speech, packed for my early morning departure, watched pundit commentary and candidate interviews.  There were two winners in this caucus (Barack and Huckabee), and the rest were hurt, many seriously.  Huckabee’s win merits an asterisk,  since Iowa’s Republican Party has a high concentration of evangelicals (remember Pat Buchanan?), and McCain and Giuliani didn’t compete here.  On the Democratic side, Obama’s win has depth to it, since the other candidates competed full stop with far stronger initial positions, and Iowans evaluated all candidates thoroughly.  The demographics Iowa’s Republican voting base gave a real lift to Huckabee, an evangelical, while the demographics of Iowa’s Democratic voting base (95% white, older) made an Obama win even more impressive.

One issue that loomed large in Iowa resulted from a gaping loophole in campaign finance law.  Today, there are very tight restrictions on how a candidate can raise money — only U.S. citizens can contribute to a candidate, the maximum you can contribute during the primary period is $2,300, and all donors are promptly disclosed.  In theory, these regulations ensure that special interest groups can’t exert undue influence over a candidate.   However, because we believe (appropriately) in the right to free speech, “independent” groups are free to broadcast their views on an election, and they can raise money from anyone, without caps, and without disclosure.  Even worse, their ads are often attributed to some official-sounding group, taking on the appearance of an important third-party endorsement.  Or they can be vicious and unsubstantiated attack ads (remember the Swift Boat ads), with little or no accountability.

In Iowa, I heard several ads for Hillary Clinton from a union, and many, many ads for John Edwards from an “independent” organization called The Alliance for a New America (see this Overlawyered blog for context on this group).  This Alliance was formed recently by Edwards’ former campaign manager.  This group can and does raise large amounts of undisclosed and uncapped money from special interest groups and spends it on behalf of Edwards.   After the caucus, reporters interviewed Edwards, who talked about how he’s the candidate taking on special interest groups and reforming campaign finance laws.  He went on to say that a major factor in his loss was being outspent by others.  These assertions went unchallenged by several reporters.  The press, I believe, has an obligation to do its homework and push back on a candidate, making sure that people know who just “talks the talk,” and who actually “walks the walk.” 

Barack Obama is the only leading candidate who refuses money from lobbyists or PACs and won’t condone “independent” organizations raising money and running ads on his behalf.  The distinct impression I get is that, while Obama is intent on winning, he won’t compromise his integrity, and he won’t sell his soul to special interests.  He’s serious about not saying negative things about other candidates, and won’t tolerate or prompt surrogates to do so.  He’s serious about not taking money from special interest groups and jeopardizing his objectivity.  And he’s serious about running a dignified, respectful, honorable campaign.

This week in Iowa was incredible.  While the caucus process has its flaws, and may need serious revamping if participation continues to grow, I have enormous respect for Iowans and their approach to this process.  They really study the candidates and their positions.  It’s intense face-to-face politics, and useful in our process of vetting the candidates.  At times, though, I was reminded of a very old Saturday Night Live skit, where seven of the candidates are all shown doing household chores for one family in Iowa.   This is pretty intense one-on-one campaigning. 

While it wasn’t always fun, it was satisfying to have made some personal sacrifice to participate.  I missed my wife and children for the week (longest time I’ve ever been away from them!), but truly believe that helping to get Barack Obama is the best possible thing I can do for my children’s future.  I’m sure my contributions were largely irrelevant.  But over sixty fellow National Finance Committee members came to Iowa for Obama, all braving the frigid conditions to try to advance Barack’s cause.  And at least one other senior venture capitalist (John Thornton of Austin Ventures) and two CEO’s of operating companies (Dave Alberga of Active.com and Steve Spinner of Sports Potential) also came to Iowa. 

After traveling this fall in places like Tibet, where people would do almost anything to have an open election, I have a new perspective on the importance of getting involved in our electoral process.   Over the past forty years, just 50% of eligible voters in the United States have voted in major elections.  On that metric, we rank 35th of industrialized nations — 35th!  Much of our future is determined by the officials elected to office, yet half of the eligible voters in the U.S. can’t be troubled to go to the polls. 

So if you’re reading this, think about how disastrous the current administration has been.  And think of how much, or little, you did in the 2000 and 2004 primary season and election to get a different outcome.  If you’re like me, the answer is “not much.”  I’m here to tell you, though, that you can do quite a bit.  Evaluate the candidates, donate some money, encourage friends and relatives to take this seriously, vote in primaries, walk door-to-door, and vote in the general election.  The world and this country can’t afford another mistake of the magnitude of the Bush Administration!

3 Responses to “Caucus Day: Day 8”

  1. Sam Liss Says:

    Thanks for an incredible up-close and personal view of retail politics at ground level. As I write this, Barack is appearing with John Kerry at your old stomping ground, The College of Charleston, announcing his endorsement. What were the odds a year ago of that happening? Heading from Iowa City to the Galapogos must have been quite a transition.

    All of us back home are looking forward to future posts!

    Sam

  2. Paula Byers Says:

    My favorite comment during the Obama talk at the College of Charleston came from an elderly African American women standing next to me – she said when i was growing up in the South never would i have thought the day would come when i would be standing in a group like this cheering for a Black man to become President.

    I feel into your blog after your Omana posting. I’m sorry that we never had a chance to met your family while in Charleston.

    Your adventure with your family sound wonderful.

    Paula (Special Olympics Marketing and Dev. Dir.)

  3. Jack Sabanosh Says:

    What an incredible journey. Ted, thanks for taking the time to help us understand the process.
    Interesting that Caroline Kennedy just announced her endorsement for Barack Obama.
    I look forward to hearing more posts.

    Jack

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