Thursday, January 3, 2008

Why Iowa? And what's a caucus, anyway?

Question: Why does Iowa go first?

Answer: Because for years no one much cared. Iowa has been holding some form of caucuses since the early 1800s. (The word caucus is American Indian in origin, referring to a gathering of tribal chiefs). After McGovern's surprise showing, another long-shot candidate, Jimmy Carter, used the 1976 Iowa caucuses as a springboard to the White House. Other candidates began coming to Iowa seeking a similar breakthrough. A tradition was established and once that happened, few wanted to alienate Iowa voters by challenging the state's privileged status. Eventually, Iowa and New Hampshire, which holds the first primary, reached an accord that cemented their one-two placement on the nominating calendar, which has been recognized by the national political parties and, more importantly, those seeking the White House.

Q: What is a caucus?

A: It's a gathering of voters at the precinct level. There are 1,781 precincts in Iowa's 99 counties. A caucus can be held in a community center, at a fire station, a library conference room, or somebody's living room.

Q: Who gets to participate?

Anyone who will be 18 years old by Nov. 4, the date of the general election. The two major parties are fairly flexible in their rules. Basically, if you are willing to register with the party on caucus night, you can participate. There is no entry fee.

Q: How does a caucus work?

A: The two parties conduct their caucuses differently. Republicans operate in a fairly straightforward fashion. Participants vote by writing their candidate's name on a blank sheet of paper, or sometimes by a show of hands. Shorthand or nicknames ``Huck'' for ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, or ``Rudy'' for former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani will be counted. Democrats have a much more complicated system. Participants break into groups based on their preference. If a candidate fails to reach the ``viability'' threshold at least 15 percent of the vote he or she is eliminated. Supporters of eliminated candidates can fall in with another candidate or go home (though leaving is considered poor caucus form). The voting is done in the open, and debate and persuasion are very much a part of the process.

Q: So that's how Iowa awards its delegates to the presidential nominating conventions?

A: Actually, no. The caucuses elect delegates to county conventions in March, the first step in a process that will end with the selection of Iowa's national delegates in June. By then, no one is paying much attention.

Q: How are the caucus results used in picking delegates to the county conventions?

A: For Democrats, delegates are allocated through a mathematical formula involving how the than one candidate to walk away with a share of delegates. On the Republican side, the caucuses are simply a presidential preference vote. Delegates are awarded in a separate process.

Q: It sounds very complicated and confusing.

A: It is.

Q: Why the fixation on Iowa?

A: Because it votes first and the political news corps, the candidates, donors and others who follow politics are desperate after years of campaigning for some measure, however abstract, of popular sentiment.

Q: Given all the attention, an Iowa victory must pretty much ensure a candidate will win the nomination, doesn't it?

A: Not necessarily. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both finished third in Iowa en route to winning the White House. Republican Robert Dole and Democrat Richard A. Gephardt won their respective caucuses in 1988 and failed to win their party's nominations.

On the other hand, in the last two presidential elections Iowa proved decisive for the Democrats, paving the path for Al Gore and John F. Kerry to win the nomination.

Q: So whoever gets the most votes wins?

A: Not necessarily. In 1976, Carter actually finished behind "undecided.'' But since he came from seemingly nowhere, it was seen as a huge accomplishment. Walter Mondale beat Gary Hart 49 percent to 17 percent in 1984, but because Hart did better than anticipated he was showered with favorable news coverage that helped propel him to an upset win in New Hampshire.

By Mark Z. Barabak

Los Angeles Times

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