Weather Impacts Iowa Caucusing


snow car.jpg
It’s snowing quite a bit here in eastern Iowa today, a not all that unremarkable fact this time of year, except. . .imagine that you are an operative for a presidential campaign in its final days with the race neck and neck, and your job for the day is to make sure that your candidate, the entourage, and the press scrum manage to hit 5 or 6 or 7 events spread out over half the state between dawn and dusk. . .
Are the roads plowed? Can the bus make it up (or down) that hill? Is there an accident on the highway, cutting into the precious time between events? If the candidate is running late, how do you manage to keep the crowd in the room and fired up, ready to go?
Maybe a celebrity to work the room?
And now imagine that you are an Iowan, still undecided, and thinking about going to hear candidate x give a speech, or candidate y work the coffee shop at lunchtime. Digging out is a pain. You can take a snow day off from work, so why not just settle in on the couch with a cup of coffee and a good book for the balance of the day?
And the slippery roads. . .well, is hearing a possible presidential candidate speak really worth risking your life? And what happens when the candidate, because of the weather, runs late, and the 3 o’clock event you haul yourself to becomes 4, and someone has to pick the kids up from their friends where you dropped them for the afternoon? Or the do-able after dinner meet and greet at 8 PM is canceled because by the time the candidate will get there, at 10 PM, everyone simply wants to go home
and get to bed. . .
Everyone talks about how weather impacts turnout on caucus night itself; but weather is also playing a key role in the run up, too. Last week Senator Obama had to cancel an Iowa City event (and a number of other Iowa stops, too) because the heavy fogs prevented his plane landing.
Senator Clinton’s Hill-a-Copter was grounded for a bit during the “Hillary I know” tour, cancelling a couple events.
And I can tell you that at least a few people wandered out of the Edwards event I wrote about last week because the candidate’s bus, fog bound, was running late.
In a big state, or a state with a different system than the caucuses these factors might not matter so much. But Iowa is not a big state, and not that many people actually participate in the caucuses. The Iowa Democratic Party reported 124,000 participants in 2004, although a number of other observers estimate the attendance to have been lower.
And with the Des Moines Register poll estimates that about 10-12 percent of Iowans will participate in the caucuses this year the difference between the winners and the losers can likely be measured in a handful of votes. Its this small size, combined with the social nature of the caucus system itself that makes impact so When Obama gave what by all accounts was a boffo speech at the Jefferson Jackson Day earlier this year something close to 8-10 percent of all likely Democratic caucus goers — and the most active ones in the party at that — were in the room.
Now imagine his campaign if the weather — “weather in O’Hare”, the nemesis of every midwest traveller….– had prevented him from getting to the event. And for better or for worse what sort of role the weather plays is clearly different for different campaigns. If you are in the second tier struggling to get attention and recognition, not being able to make events could be fatal.
If you are a new face, asking caucus goers to take a chance, not having the opportunity to look people in the eye, meet, make the pitch and seal the deal, face to face, might be a problem. On the other hand, if you have been out here working the state for years and have a solid core of committed supporters who are with you regardless, maybe not so much — although it may make it harder to move beyond your base.
Or lets say you drew a lucky hand, and by chance are working the western half of the state today, able to make all your events while your rivals”out east” struggle through the snow.
Its a complex and unpredictable web of interactions, to say the least.
So now imagine that you are that campaign worker, again, and try to calculate the difference for your candidate come January 3 if he or she manages to speak with 100 people today or 1,000. . .And all because of the snow. . .
Here in Iowa City the snow is supposed to keep going all day today. With luck I’ll get to see both Obama and Romney today. But really, who knows.
— 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)


5 comments on “Weather Impacts Iowa Caucusing

  1. Wendell says:

    This point is mooted:
    The day before is colder; the two days before that show flurries only.


  2. Steve Clemons says:

    Susan — thanks for that great outline.
    steve clemons


  3. Robert Morrow says:

    I agree. Caucuses are the PITS. Primaries are much better for the average person. I wish they would end ALL caucuses. It is purely an insider game.


  4. susan says:

    Iowa is not representative of the rest of the country in terms of demographics or policy concerns. It has a disproportionate influence on which candidates win the nomination. Because of their exclusionary nature, they go against some of the core values we express when we talk about voting rights, such as the fundamental nature of the right, equality of opportunity to participate in the process, and fair access to the ballot.
    24 October ’07, New York City—The debate over the influence and timing of the Iowa caucus obscures the most problematic issue, which is that Iowa has a caucus at all, according to a new report from The Century Foundation “Has America Outgrown the Caucus? Some Thoughts on Reshaping the Nomination Contest” Tova Andrea Wang, Democracy Fellow at The Century Foundation and nationally recognized expert on election reform, explains why caucuses violate the fundamental principles of voting rights, such as equality of opportunity to participate in the process and fair access to the ballot. “While it is absolutely good for democracy for citizens to engage in group deliberation about elections, this no longer makes sense as a mechanism for actually picking the two presidential candidates,” writes Wang. “The fact that legitimate, eligible, and indeed interested members of the community get left out of the caucuses, with some voters effectively barred from participating in them, outweighs any cultural attachment some may have to the caucus system.” Nominating candidates was at one time the province of party bosses, but they are now chosen through public nominating contests, Wang says. To continue to make the primary process more democratic, political parties, state legislators and the federal government must approach the system with the same commitment to voting rights as they do with general elections.
    The report shows that the principal problem with the caucus system is the extraordinarily low participation rates. Wang points out that while primary turnout is generally poor, in states with caucuses turnout is even worse. In the 2004 presidential primary in New Hampshire, which has always been the first primary of the election, the turnout was 29.9 percent; the participation in Iowa’s Democratic caucus that year was about 6 percent of eligible voters in the state. Data show that Iowa was the high-water mark, with Wyoming bottoming out with 0.2 percent participation of eligible voters. Participation in Democratic state caucuses in 2004 were was follows:
    Iowa (January 19): 5.7 percent
    North Dakota (February 3): 2.3 percent
    Washington (February 7): 2.5 percent
    Michigan (February 7): 2.3 percent
    Maine (February 8): 1.8 percent
    Nevada (February 14): 0.6 percent
    Idaho (February 24): 0.5 percent
    Minnesota (March 2): 1.5 percent
    Kansas (March 13): 0.1 percent
    Wyoming (March 20): 0.2 percent
    Other problems with the caucus system include:
    Discourages participation, even from motivated voters, because caucuses are held in one specific place for each district (school, restaurant, place of worship, private home), at a specific time, and participation usually requires at least a two-hour commitment.
    Discourages voters who do not want to speak or vote publicly
    Discourages campaigns from trying to attract new voters to the system because campaign workers know that only the most avid partisans and consistent voters will go through the tribulations of a caucus, so there is little motivation to identify and reach out to new voters
    Places burden particularly on eligible voters who are not in the state on caucus day, including members of the armed services serving overseas or away from home, workers for government agencies or nonprofits who are on assignment out of the country, and students who are attending out-of-state schools, and voters with disabilities; also places burden on voters with limited English proficiency
    Caucus voters are not representative of general election voters; they tend to be older and closer to the political extremes
    Wang believes that the post expedient solution to problems with caucuses is to eliminate them entirely, replacing them with primaries. If states are opting for caucuses because they are generally paid for by the parties while states usually pay for primaries, federal funding should be made available for those states that can demonstrate true financial need.
    However, since it would be politically difficult to do away with caucuses altogether, she makes two suggestions to increase the fairness and accessibility of the process:
    States with caucuses should allow voters for whom it is impossible to participate in the caucuses to vote by absentee ballot. This would include military and overseas voters and students.
    Some states, such as Iowa, have a strong historical, cultural, and social attachment to the ritual of caucuses. Wang proposes creating a two-stage nominating system in which citizens caucus to deliberate collectively about the candidates and then vote in a primary the following day. This would preserve the valuable exercise of public deliberation while still upholding voting rights.


  5. Robert Morrow says:

    One thing is for sure, any inclement weather favors the Ron Paul people. Actually, before people vote, I think they should run a 200 yard obstacle course, set up American Gladiator style, ending with crawling over 20 yards of broken beer bottle glass and rigged mousetraps … then we will really see who likes their guy.
    Ron Paul 2008!


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