Iowa Caucus Lessons: First, Think Like a Penguin. . .


penguins twn.jpg
I went to my final caucus training session last night, and in just a few hours will be heading down to my precinct’s caucus site for the start of the caucuses. I’ll leave it to others to try to explain the mechanics of how the caucuses work — and I’ll grant that it is an interesting process, perhaps lacking in certain desirable features but, in the end, probably no worse than any other system we might devise.
But I thought that it might be interesting, both to order my own thoughts and for The Note‘s readers — if try to distill the essence of the guidance and wisdom and instructions passed on in the various caucus training, mock-caucus and other caucus 101 education I’ve gone thorough these past few weeks on how to caucus successfully and maximize the outcome for the candidate of your choice.
Think like a penguin.
Caucus “preference groups” (supporters of a particular candidate) identify themselves by literally standing (and being counted) together, with supporters for candidate X on one side of the room and those for candidate Y on the other. So when first time caucus-goers or new converts from other groups are added to our preference group we are instructed to make sure that they get passed from the outer edges of the group deep inside. On the outer edges they are vulnerable, standing where “raiders” from other campaigns might try to peel them off or, because of space constraints, our group may, literally, be bumping up against others. Like penguins huddling for warmth through a cold Antarctic night, we need to make sure that those that need protection get passed to the middle of the huddle.
Tag and Bag.
When people enter the caucus locations, as and after they register, we are to try to identify your supporters and tag them with a sticker. Beyond the effect of having as many people as possible milling about with the name and message of your candidate emblazoned on their chests, you also want to do whatever you can to psychologically invest people with supporting your candidate, and making sure that they stick with him or her for the night. If someone has to peel off a sticker before moving from one part of the room to the other you might just be able to keep them — or at least have an early tip-off that a “corral-er” needs to head their way to convince them to stick around. The stickering process also allows the campaign to identify and check off supporters as they show up — and to place frantic last minute calls to people pledged but not yet in attendance as 7 PM, when the doors close, nears.
Make sure your people show up — and on time.
A huge amount of the pre-caucus canvass effort is intended to identify your candidate’s supporters and find out if they will actually show up. On caucus night itself, generating turnout is key. Remember, delegates are allotted not on the basis of a precinct’s population or your support as a percentage of the registered voters in your precinct, but based on how many people show up at your precinct to caucus. So, in addition to calls, reminders, door-knocks and the like, rides need to be arranged and all the mechanics in pace to make sure your candidate’s supporters show up.
It’s a big operation. And they need to be there, on line, by 7 PM, too, or they can’t get in. Given the options for on-sire registration and the record numbers of people expected (and yes, its still going to be just a small percent of the total number of voters) the campaigns are encouraging people to show up as early as possible, both to cut down on the registration chaos and make sure that no one gets left out in the cold.
Be nice.
It’s a platitude of political journalism that Iowans are nice. But in fact they are. And its critical that in interacting with other caucus-goers, especially those from other preference groups that you might be trying to win over, that everyone is nice and pleasant. And that goes double for any dealings with the temporary caucus chairs or each precinct, who get to set the rules for which group stands where and the like. Remember, these are neighbors, people whose kids are in school with your kids, fellow church-goers, and so forth.
Making a caustic remark about another candidate is just not to be done. For example, we are told that in trying to win over converts from groups which are “not viable” after the first round of caucusing that the best way to start a pitch is by making the case for why the other candidate is probably in fact best before pivoting to why your candidate is also worthwhile of consideration. But being nice is not just an instrumental matter: it’s a recognition that everyone taking part in the caucuses are there for the right reasons, and deserving of respect and support because of the time and effort that they have put into participating in the political process.
A friend of mine earlier today went over to the local Clinton campaign office to help arrange a ride for a Clinton supporter he knew who was having some troubles balancing her schedule, even though he himself will be caucusing for another candidate. And you should be nice because come November 2008, after all, no matter who we stand for tonight, we are all (or almost all) on the same side.
Bring cookies.
Actually, in my caucus location this year you can’t bring food into the hall. But in many places food and drinks are allowed so if you can, do. And its not just because after a couple hours people might be hungry. At one training I tracked my daughter from one group to another during a mock caucus as she went in pursuit of a chocolate bar. One we were there the folks who lured us over engaged us in pleasant banter and conversation — that being nice thing — and when the second count was done we found that we had left our original group and joined another candidate, who won the mock-caucus by one vote.
Out of more than 200 people taking part in the exercise our 5-4 delegate split was decided by less than one-half-of one percent of the participants, me. And my vote was determined by a child seeking chocolate. Most people caucusing are far too conscientious to let something like a cookie drive their vote. On the other hand. . .
Location, Location, Location.
Like other real estate deals, where you can set up with your preference group in the hall, room, gym, or auditorium is key. Can you get a spot that makes it more difficult for another campaign to get access to a group expected to be non-viable? Can you use geography or other features (a wall, a stairwell) to protect your flanks from “raiders” from the other campaigns? Will your group have to be split up in two separate areas, making control and counting more difficult?
Be Social. One of the most fascinating aspects of the caucuses, at least for me, is just how social a process it is. And I find the social element, in fact, to be one of the great and refreshing aspects of the caucus, and why it in fact has merits as a way to kick-off the presidential selection process. On the Democratic side its not going into a voting booth, as it is for a primary, alone, to cast a secret ballot. It’s a the end of a big sprawling and open conversation, with your friends, neighbors, family members, colleagues, and so on, that has been going on for several months now. If you are supporting a candidate you are expected to be able to tell people why and engage them — nicely — in conversations about why they might be supporting someone else.
t’s a remarkable process — what civic life, at its best, ought to be — but also one that places a premium on social networks and the ability to play nice with others. And it also suggests strategies for effective outreach: For example, if you are standing for one candidate and your best friend since kindergarten is standing for another, you are probably in a much better position to convince them to join with your candidate then the guy who didn’t pay attention to your friend throughout High School might be.
Families might be split between candidates after the first round of counting, but if your spouse or cousin supported someone not viable after the first round? Try to reel them in. . .
Don’t Play Games.
In the final frantic hours there are all sorts of rumors floating about different campaigns cutting side-deals to throw their support behind a front-runner if they themselves don’t prove to be viable. And even among the viable groups there might be a logic to throwing a few of your supporters to someone else.
If you have bodies to spare — that is, enough to get you X number of delegates, but not enough to get you to X+1 — you might want to help game the outcome by artificially inflating someone else’s count, making a candidate that might have been in third place now second, or someone who might not have been viable viable.
On the other hand, its easy to see how such efforts to be cleaver can easily go off-track, how miscalculations can be made, and how an effort within one precinct might prove counter-productive once the other 1,700-odd precincts are added together. Not to mention that these sorts of games also fly in the face of the sort of open and transparent process that progressives, and progressivism, are supposed to be all about.
Math Counts.
At the end of the night the delegates selected — all the excitement, in the end, is about electing the delegates to the county convention to be held in March who, in turn, select the delegates to the distinct convention and then the state convention which picks the Iowa delegates who will go to the National Conventions this summer — are apportioned based on a formula that takes into account how many people are with each preference group, how many people showed up to caucus, and how many delegates that precinct has.
Given the general chaos of shifting groups of people inside a relatively — but not absolutely — confined space, making sure that you can get a good count of your supporters, that your count matches up with the count of the caucus chair, and so forth, is absolutely critical. A one person difference between groups — be it because of cookies or ideology — can be the difference.
And as it is the delegate count that the media report, a 100-99 person split in the precinct hall — less than one percent — gets reported as 5-4 (say), a spread of more than 10 percent.
It may not always be pretty, but this is your democracy in action. . .
— Michael Schiffer
Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)


4 comments on “Iowa Caucus Lessons: First, Think Like a Penguin. . .

  1. JohnH says:

    If I read the CNN entrance polls correctly, it looks like Hillary got only half the votes of those who thought that experience was the most important attribute. Sounds like a lot of other people were not convinced about Hillary’s claim to be the ‘experience’ candidate either.
    Zogby nailed it earlier today when he said that Hillary was running as the incumbent at a time when people want change. “When it became clear that voters in Iowa were looking for change, Clinton became the candidate who kept changing — not the one who symbolized change in Washington.” Now Hillary faces the daunting challenge of morphing into a change candidate and risking the appearance of being calculating at a time when people–at least in Iowa–are looking for authenticity.
    If Hillary wanted to win, she should have started listening to the base long ago. Instead she decided to make the stupid strategic decision of stiffing the base in favor of her consultants and corporate underwriters. Or maybe she didn’t realize that Democratic voters don’t always vote for the lesser of two evils. Sometimes they vote their values.


  2. Linda says:

    Congratulations as it looks as if Obama has won Iowa, and I hope it has the same outcome it did for Jimmy Carter. I am most intrigued about Steve’s blogging that a deal between Obama and Edwards may be in the works. Indeed I think Obama-Edwards would make an excellent ticket. Can you comment on this, Michael?


  3. Nancy Jean,Ca. says:

    Thanks Michael! Highly enjoyable and educational! Oh my,huddle like penguins? Had no idea! 🙂


  4. JohnH says:

    At least Jim Lobe still has his eye on the ball and hasn’t been totally distracted by the theatrics in Iowa.
    In a development potentially as big as the Iran NIE, “Gen. David Petraeus, has apparently concluded that Iran is indeed following through on its reported pledge earlier this fall to the Iraqi government to cut its alleged supply of weapons to Shi’a militias in Iraq,”
    Bye-bye war rationales. Hurray! Perhaps Bush has finally decided to quietly accept the fact that he is a lame duck. No if he would only quietly disappear…


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