Iowa Nuts-and-Bolts

For all the anticipation of the January 3 Iowa caucuses, there’s not a whole lot of general understanding about how the deal will go down. Politico‘s Zachary Abrahamson has a decent brief explanation of the mechanics: At 7:00 p.m., registered Republicans (a fairly minor requirement, since anyone can re-register at the caucus site) gather at 1,774 sites around the state, with some precincts sharing space. They vote for a presidential candidate–traditionally by a show of hands, but this year, for ill-defined security reasons, some will use paper ballots–the vote is tallied and percentages reported to state HQ. Everyone’s then free to go, and many participants do exactly that, while others stick around for elections of delegates to county conventions and platform discussions. The quality of potluck offerings, and interest in that night’s televised bowl games, could have a larger impact on the duration of attendance by most caucusgoers than any actual obligations.

This matters because “delivering” caucus-goers for Republican candidates is a much easier task than for their Democratic counterparts. Iowa’s Democrats utilize a complex “preference group” structure with “viability thresholds” and then regroupings of participants backing non-viable candidates. It involves all sorts of complicated vote-swapping at the precinct and even the state level (i.e., deals between candidates to back each other in cases where one is not viable in a given precinct). At the Democratic caucus I observed in 2008, it took quite a bit of time, strategy and organization.

Yet Democratic turnout in 2008 broke all records and exceeded everyone’s expectations–other than those of the Obama campaign, which successfully expanded participation by first-time caucus-goers–including a lot of people self-identifying as independents (20% of the total) and a lot of young people (the caucuses for both parties are usually a very geriatric affair). Edwards and Clinton actually hit their “marks” in mobilizing their supporters, but they were aiming at a lower total turnout model.

Estimates of GOP Caucus attendence this year are all over the place, above and below the 120,000 who caucused in 2008 (about half the Democratic totals). And as with Obama in 2008, the biggest unknown variable is whether Ron Paul’s minions will be able to expand participation to overwhelm the field, particularly among college students who normally don’t caucus, and who will not have returned to class by January 3.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.