Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2007 / 27 Kislev 5768
Welcome to the most daunting political process in America
By Roger Simon
And because it is so difficult, it is a true test of the ground game: the ability of campaigns to identify, win over and deliver voters under conditions that are borderline bizarre.
"First-time caucus-goers get the shock of their lives," says Michael Mauro, Iowa's secretary of state. "They don't know they have to stand in a corner, and there is no secret ballot."
The process can take more than two hours. It is done only at night. People get to make speeches, argue and twist arms. And, afterward, neighbors sometimes stop speaking to each other for years.
"We are asking for genuine sacrifice," says Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer and power broker who is working for Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"We are asking people to overcome the hassle factor. When I look at the faces in the crowds, I look for determination. I look for an expression on a voter's face that says: 'I will get there!'"
Most will not get there.
Turnout is very low for the caucus, less than 10 percent of the voting-age population.
But the winners are still the winners and the losers are still the losers, no matter how many people made them so. With both parties' top candidates locked in tight races and with a public eager for results based on actual votes, not just polling and punditry, Iowa has become more important this cycle than at any time in recent memory.
The ground game in Iowa is a game of inches.
Even a few thousand voters the veterans that John F. Kerry's campaign sought out in 2004, for instance can be the margin of victory.
The trick is finding those voters who might be especially receptive to your message.
"There is not a campaign worth anything that is not counting on its data director," says Patrick Dillon, the chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D) and a former John Edwards staffer.
"He is a 19-year-old Berkeley computer science dropout who is linking his laptop to an Excel spreadsheet and going through the voter files. That is what he does every day: culling lists, matching lists, slicing and dicing lists."
In the end, a campaign could know how many evangelical Christians with school-age children, Ford Explorers, fishing licenses and an interest in the environment are out there and what their phone numbers are. Especially what their phone numbers are.
More than a million phone calls will be made to Iowans before the caucuses.
Not that it is all high-tech number-crunching. There is still the old school.
There is still Ned Chiodo, a Des Moines golf course manager and lobbyist who has lived all his life on the Italian South Side of Des Moines and who organizes today as he has for decades: neighbor to neighbor.
"It takes local people with local knowledge," says Chiodo, who is backing Clinton. "Everybody has caller ID these days. They don't pick up the phone unless they know you. So you make your list and you check it twice to see who is naughty and who is nice. And you better do it before Christmas."
That's the other thing. Though the caucus will not take place until Jan. 3, effective campaigning may be over well before then because of the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
John Norris, who was Kerry's Iowa director in 2004 and is now an Obama volunteer, thinks any campaigning that matters will end about Dec. 20, which is why the ground game is reaching a fever pitch right now.
Norris talks about a woman who supported Edwards in 2004 but who is now supporting Obama. Why?
"Because an Edwards volunteer only knocked on her door once and we knocked on her door several times," Norris says.
But which doors do you knock on?
The doors of people who have voted in the caucus before, or the many more doors of voters who have never caucused?
It would be nice to knock on every door, but an effective ground game must concentrate its resources.
Several campaigns are trying to "expand the universe" and reach new voters.
Perhaps half of the voters in 2004 were new to the process (the exact figure is in dispute).
But that may drop dramatically, says Norris, who expects only about 15 percent to 20 percent of caucus-goers to be newbies this time.
So a smart campaign will concentrate on those who have voted before, right?
Especially since those voters understand the complicated voting process and have proven they are willing to come out on a winter's night?
Not so fast.
"While it is true that past caucus-goers are more valuable, it also takes much more effort to get them," one experienced Iowa organizer said. "Some of these people want to meet with the candidate 16 times in person before they vote."
The process is meant to be hard.
The caucus (actually 1,781 separate precinct caucuses for each party) was originally conceived as an insiders' game designed for party regulars, party activists and people who devoted time and money to the party.
True, they wanted the party to grow and always said the caucus was a "party-building" exercise, but they didn't want it to be too easy, they didn't want outsiders waltzing in, sticking a ballot in a ballot box and dominating the results.
The Democratic caucus is more difficult because it is not a one-person, one-vote system.
" The race is actually for delegates, not raw numbers, and there is a rural "tilt" to delegate allocation to make sure that the presidential candidates visit the farming communities that dot the state.
But it is not even as easy as that: While it takes fewer votes to get a delegate in a rural precinct than an urban one, there are more delegates at stake in urban precincts.
In fact, just 27 percent of the precincts will select 50 percent of all the delegates.
Still, the rural vote is a tantalizing target.
The turnout in some precincts is so small that a single family let's say four people can determine the winner.
In other precincts, only one person will show up and win for his candidate simply by being the only person in the room.
And the turnout in some precincts is even smaller than that.
"In 2004, we had four precincts where nobody showed up," said Norm Sterzenbach, the Iowa Democratic Party political director.
No delegates were awarded in those precincts and they have since been eliminated, but Sterzenbach expects a couple of precincts to have zero attendees this time also.
More common than no-show precincts, however, are tie votes within the precincts.
In those cases, a coin is tossed or lots drawn. (At the Nevada caucus on Jan. 19, dice will be thrown.)
Best strategy for victory in Iowa on the Democratic side? Run solidly everywhere, rather than spectacularly in a few places.
A candidate who gets a lowly 20 percent in every precinct is likely to do better than a candidate who racks up large totals in a patchwork of places.
This becomes especially important when it comes to college students.
College voters are clumped, not surprisingly, in college towns, and excess support in a precinct can be wasted.
(If 500 votes can win you all four delegates in a precinct, it does you no good to get 5,000 votes in that precinct; you still can get only four delegates.)
But if those college students go home and vote and many colleges will be on break on Jan. 3 those votes may have a broader distribution and a greater impact.
(While it is true you have to be a resident of the precinct in which you vote, there is no criterion for "residency" in the Iowa caucus. It really doesn't matter if you have lived in the precinct for 10 years or 10 days. If you are willing to swear that you live in the precinct, you can vote in the precinct.)
In the past, however, older voters have been more valuable than younger ones.
In 2004, younger voters constituted just 17 percent of the vote, while seniors made up 27 percent.
Then there is the matter of viability. In most Democratic precincts, if a candidate does not receive the votes of at least 15 percent of the people in the room, that candidate is declared nonviable and that candidate's voters are free to go over to another candidate.
Being viable in every precinct is every candidate's goal, but it is very hard to achieve.
Kerry won the caucus in 2004 with 38 percent of the delegates, but he was not viable in 222 precincts.
The math can be difficult some precincts have a different percentage for viability and having a knowledgeable precinct captain in the room is very helpful not just to work out the numbers but also to bargain for the votes of the nonviable candidates.
Let's say you are a Joe Biden voter and Biden turns out to be nonviable in your precinct.
The Edwards precinct captain, to use just one example, has to figure out how to get your vote.
He could tell you that Edwards will be ready from day one to be president of the United States.
Or he could promise to shovel your walk.
The ideal scenario is to get more than 85 percent of the votes in a precinct, thereby forcing all the other candidates into nonviability and gaining 100 percent of the delegates for your candidate.
It is complicated, it takes planning, and the race is often not to the swift but to the well-prepared.
There are those who argue that the Iowa ground game is a dinosaur and that we now live in an era of celebrity candidates who don't need massive organizations to reach voters.
One candidate with a magnetic personality, a compelling message and a savvy use of the Internet, they argue, can beat the biggest and best organization.
Maybe. And maybe not.
If Mike Huckabee, currently roaring in the polls, beats Mitt Romney in Iowa, it will certainly lend credence to the argument that organization isn't everything.
But the Republican caucus is also much more straightforward than the Democratic one and requires less of an organization.
On the Republican side, there is no rural vs. urban tilt, no delegates to worry about and no viability.
Whoever gets the most votes wins.
Though, because it is Iowa, they didn't want to make it too simple: In most precincts, there are also no ballots, just blank pieces of paper.
The voter writes down a name.
(Those who caucus in schools get the benefit of a desk for this; those meeting in living rooms, gymnasiums or church basements may have to use the back of another voter.)
Any name can be written down.
Spelling doesn't have to be accurate a relief for Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani and you don't have to remember a candidate's entire name.
"If somebody writes down Mitt or Rudy, that would be counted," said Mary Tiffany, spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party.
Fortunately, all the major Republican candidates have different first names.
Still the voting process is not as easy as a primary: The voters must gather at 7 p.m. on a winter's night the night of the Orange Bowl, no less there are speeches, and getting voters to show up is not easy.
Organization may not be as important as on the Democratic side, but it still helps.
Culver, who is staying neutral, compares the caucus to a fire in a fireplace.
The organizations lay the fire, and the candidates light it with their message.
"And then it can go 'whoosh,'" he says.
He also thinks the outcome is yet to be determined.
"It's going to be who is the best closer," Culver says.
"Who is training their people at the right level? Who is in the best shape?
Who is going to be able to pull away down the final leg of this race? I think it could be a night of surprises."
There are other questions: which candidates are holding potluck suppers before the caucus to help ensure that voters show up, which are providing baby sitters and which has the most tire chains.
And then there is the matter of the temporary chairmen.
In each precinct, Republican and Democratic, somebody has to show up with all the stuff: paper, pencils, rule books, etc.
That person is the temporary chair. The temporary chair is selected by the party, and on caucus night, the temporary chair is almost always elected as permanent chair and runs the caucus.
The smart campaigns try to get as many of their people as possible selected as temporary chairmen.
"A temporary chair controls the flow of the meeting," says Ned Chiodo, who just happens to be a temporary chairman.
"You have influence. You may be able to pick up a vote or two here and there for your candidate."
And in the Iowa ground game, a game of inches, a vote or two here and there can make all the difference.
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© 2007, Creators Syndicate