How the Iowa caucuses work (part 1), w/poll
by desmoinesdem, Tue Feb 27, 2007 at 11:55:35 AM EST
This diary is not a defense of the Iowa caucuses. Frankly, I would much rather have a presidential primary, in which each person can cast one vote using a secret ballot. The caucuses are unfair to shift workers who can't get a Monday night off, elderly people who don't like to go out at night or head south for the winter, handicapped people who prefer to vote by absentee ballot, parents who can't leave young children for an hour or more at bedtime, people who do not want to declare a political preference in public, etc. Moreover, the caucus system does not count everyone's vote equally.
But here in Iowa, we're stuck with this system. All of you may as well learn how the caucuses work and why we say things like, "Iowa is notoriously hard to poll" and "Organization is really important in Iowa" and "Second choices matter in Iowa" and "Broad support across Iowa is crucial."
Political junkies, follow me after the jump for part one of this series, which explains how delegates are assigned on the Democratic side in the Iowa caucuses.
The first thing you need to know about the Iowa caucuses is that only 3,000 "votes" matter. Those are the 3,000 delegates assigned statewide. When Kerry won Iowa in 2004 with 38 percent of the "vote," this does not refer to raw numbers of people who showed up to caucus. It means that Kerry won 38 percent of the 3,000 delegates.
Iowa has 99 counties, but the largest nine contribute roughly half of the delegates.
The delegates are allocated among the counties according to a mathematical formula based on the number of votes a precinct cast for the Democratic candidates for president and governor during the last two general elections.
So, counties that cast large numbers of votes for John Kerry in 2004 and Chet Culver in 2006 will have more Democratic delegates to assign during next January's caucus than those that are less Democratic. Counties that are trending Democratic (cast more votes for Kerry and Culver than they did for Gore in 2000 and Vilsack in 2002) may get more delegates to assign than they had in the 2004 Iowa caucuses.
Last month the blog Iowa Progress posted a chart showing how many delegates will come from each county in the January 2008 caucus. As I mentioned above, the top nine counties will account for about half of all the 3,000 delegates. About a third of the counties assign ten or fewer delegates for the whole county. If you really want to delve into Iowa political geography, check out the chart here.
These are the eleven largest Democratic counties; collectively they will assign about 1,600 of the 3,000 delegates. I've put the main population center of each county in parentheses:
Polk (Des Moines) 428 delegates
Linn (Cedar Rapids) 243 delegates
Scott (Davenport and Bettendorf, the Iowa side of the Quad Cities) 170 delegates
Johnson (Iowa City, University of Iowa) 164 delegates
Black Hawk (Waterloo) 140 delegates
Dubuque (Dubuque) 107 delegates
Story (Ames, Iowa State University) 92 delegates
Woodbury (Sioux City) 81 delegates
Pottawattamie (Council Bluffs, across the river from Omaha, Nebraska) 66 delegates
Clinton (Clinton) 55 delegates
Cerro Gordo (Mason City) 55 delegates
Within counties, delegates are NOT awarded by a winner-take-all system. They are allocated among the precincts (there are just under 2,000 precincts statewide), based again on how many votes were cast in that precinct for Democrats at the top of the ticket in recent general elections.
By way of example, my precinct in the Des Moines suburbs has six delegates to assign in the caucus. That number will not change, whether 50 people or 500 people show up on caucus night. A neighboring precinct that is more Democratic has eight delegates to assign. Next January, even if we have 300 people in our precinct caucus and the neighboring one has 100 people in the room, we will still get to assign six delegates, and they will get to assign eight.
Yes, I know this is undemocratic. Didn't I say at the top that I would rather have a primary?
Within precincts, delegates are NOT awarded by a winner-take-all system. They are allocated according to a complicated mathematical formula. The most important part of this formula is that a candidate needs at least 15 percent of the people in the room to win any delegates from that precinct. Any candidate falling below 15 percent is not "viable," and that candidate's supporters can choose a different candidate, or they can try to persuade people from one of the other groups to come over and help them be viable, or they can caucus as "uncommitted."
Think about how unfair that is. My vote only gets to count toward the candidate of my choosing if at least 15 percent of my neighbors who show up on a cold night in January agree with me. In my white-collar suburb, that meant that you were out of luck if you wanted to caucus for Gephardt or Kucinich in 2004. They were well below the viability threshold. People living in a different part of Des Moines might get to join a group large enough to win delegates for Gephardt or Kucinich, but not in my neighborhood. In my precinct Dean was also just barely short of viability at the first count, but people in his group were able to persuade a couple of others to join them--hence Dean gained one delegate.
The 15 percent threshold for viability is one reason why the caucus results do not necessarily reflect the raw votes, as William Saletan and Matt Schiller wrote during the last election cycle. Like I said, I prefer primaries.
But the salient point is, pockets of heavy support in Iowa are less valuable than broad support spread across the state. The winner needs to be viable in as many precincts as possible. Thousands of people might turn out for you on a college campus, but if you are not viable in a lot of other areas, you probably won't win the caucuses.
If you are a real junkie, look at the caucus results from 2004 by county.
The chart is hard to read, but one thing that's easy to notice is that Kerry and Edwards were viable just about everywhere. There are huge differences in how the counties voted--in some areas Kerry crushed Edwards, and in some areas Edwards crushed Kerry. But you can tell that they were not shut out in many areas. Kerry did a lot better in some of the population-rich eastern counties, but Edwards was able to make up much of the difference by edging out Kerry in Polk County and dominating many of the small and medium-sized counties.
Later installments of this series will discuss how campaigns get supporters to the caucuses, why volunteer precinct captains are important, why Iowa polls don't necessarily predict caucus results, and which candidates benefit most from the caucus system.
Take the poll, and if you've lived in Iowa or worked on a campaign there, share your Iowa caucus stories in the comments.
(cross-posted at Daily Kos)