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In Caucuses, Size Does Matter…

Friday, January 4th, 2008


WEST DES MOINES, IA – Born in New York and having never witnessed an actual caucus I was more than surprised at what I saw. Republican caucuses are tame in comparison to the fervor and mayhem that ensues in Democratic caucuses. With all precincts reported there were 120,000 Republican attendees and over 227,000 Democrat attendees this caucus cycle (in 2000, 87,000 Republicans attended and in 2004, 124,000 Democrats attended). Undoubtedly energy levels in Iowa were heightened by this increase in turnout and the amount of dollars spent pokies List. (projected to be more than $60 Million) – by the way that equals $171.43 per vote!!!

Iowa Caucus Precinct 314 was typical of this year’s caucuses, but as an observer I was shocked at what I found – and I was not alone in that sentiment. Bob Behrens, the Chair of Precinct 314’s Democratic caucus, said, “Last year we were lucky if 100 people showed up. When I started doing this [serving as caucus Chair] 4 caucuses ago barely 5 people showed.” While the Republican caucus next door was “packed,” 236 of 490 Democrats at the Democratic caucus were new registrants. In a precinct that is affluent and “heavily Republican” these numbers become important foreshadows of swing-vote trends in the general election. It means that Independents and Republicans re-registered on-site as Democrats in order to participate.

At Precinct 314, Barack Obama was the clear victor from the get-go, and in the end he received 6 0f 9 delegates (the other 3 went to Hillary Clinton). But the stats do not tell the whole story.

As a process, the Democratic caucus is like a good mate that you already know is not ‘the one.’ For Iowans (or anybody that witnesses a Democratic caucus for that matter), caucuses are town meetings where residents voice their opinion and are politically active; yet, like with an emotionally detached lover, the logistical barriers of entry are too high. Be it poor weather, jobs or family responsibility the fact remains that an overwhelming majority of Iowans do not show up – many of whom would like to. Even the people who do partake find that they must make large sacrifices, and at Precinct 314, 48 people left in the middle because the sacrifice of time and preference were too great.

Last night’s result is a litmus test, but there is a disconnect between the amount of people that partake in caucuses and Iowa’s influence on nationwide voter opinion, political coverage, and campaign spending. On the surface caucuses are exciting media driven events to be around. Underneath they are personal, neighborhood events for Iowans, and they are fundraisers for Iowa’s GOP and Democratic State Parties. Howling hoots. Roaring laments. Screeching squawks. Exhausted energy. The caucus I went to was a perfect night cap of organized chaos and community resolve.

Stayed tuned to Why Tuesday? for footage inside Precinct 314 and more caucus analysis.

One Response to “In Caucuses, Size Does Matter…”

  1. Cody Cooper Says:

    Barnett, This captures the essence of the Iowa Democratic Caucus better than anything I have read, and makes clear in the writing that the experience is very human in nature, and therefore perhaps the most valuable part of the current democratic process in this country. Thank you for the insight. Your Why Tuesday? efforts have proven to be enlightening to the rest of us.

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