I am astonished at how utterly ignorant journalists from national outlets are of the Iowa Caucus. If the Iowa Caucus going “wrong” can be the virtual end of the Democratic Party as we know it, and the end of all caucuses, you would think the press would know what they are. The press never notices that the total number of delegates awarded on precinct caucus night is less then the total number awarded by Iowa. You would think that if the caucus results being available a few hours after Chuck and Andrea’s bed time was an existential crisis for democracy, that they would also have noticed that half of the delegates that Iowa will send to the National Convention are not ever awarded on on this fateful evening to begin with. Until the TV talking heads can explain how that works, they should really tone down their rhetoric on what did and did not happen in Iowa.
Here is a piece of information that might be helpful. If the following is new to you, then you didn’t really know what the caucuses are. If it sounds familiar, you probably still don’t know, but at least you have a vague idea. If you read and absorb all of this, you still don’t know because this is a 20,000 foot look at parts of a large and important grassroots system.
There is no such thing as “a caucus.” On “caucus night” there are hundreds of individual caucuses, and although there are prevailing rules, they are independent conversations happening among voters during which several tings are decided, including electing a very large number (maybe thousands?) of delegates to go on to engage in other levels of activity, things like resolutions to shape the party platform, party business, party officers, and so on. Oh, and during the Iowa precinct caucus process, there is the first part of a multi-part process that involves deciding on some of the national delegates. So in that sense, what we think of as the Iowa Caucus is one piece of a multi-part part of a multi part thing. The day Chuck Todd can tell us how that works without screwing up the explanation is the day he gets to tell us what went wrong in any given year.
“The Iowa Caucus” is also not “A caucus” because it is the first of several stages of meetings. The first one is called a caucus, and the later ones are called conventions. But the conventions are still caucuses, and at them, delegates are elected, generally among the larger initial number. I believe (I’m a Minnesota caucus guy, not an Iowa caucus guy, so I many have this muddled a bit) that Iowa ultimately selects, during precinct caucuses, delegates who will ultimately be selected among to operate at the County level, Congressional District level, State level and National level. These are grassroots party activists who engage in several important party activities, basically running the party, thus ensuring that the Iowa Democratic Party remains a grassroots organization with lots of knowledgeable and engaged volunteers.
Here is a common conversation on social media I am having these days:
Other person: “Caucuses suck. They dont’ work. There should just be a primary. The system is broke. Bla bla bla.”
Me: “Which caucuses have you been involved in, I’d love to know specifically what is wrong.”
Other person: silence because they have never been to a caucus and have no clue
Make no mistake. There are people who are involved in caucuses who don’t like them. But, that doesn’t make them right. Most of the complaints they have are invalid for one of the following reasons:
1) There are things wrong with caucus, and things wrong with primaries. You can’t only complain about the one and not the other.
2) Things like “accessibility” and the like are often complained about. That is a factor, but it can be fixed, and good organizing units have fixed it. For instance, the caucus I help run is done at a huge facility that is among the most accessible in the region, and since the facility is capable of handling many thousands of people all day every day, our caucuses don’t stress things like handicapped parking, etc. (Other caucuses are not as good as us, but that is not the problem of the caucus, but a problem that can and should be fixed.”)
3) Complaining about the caucus but ignoring the entire party structure, with conventions, central committees, etc. is like saying you don’t like a person because of their hat. Maybe they have a stupid hat, but their hat is not as bad as your determination that they are a bad person because they have a bad hat.
4) It is said by haters that a caucus limits participation because it is held at a certain time at a certain place. That is true, for some potential participants. But it is also true that the caucus and convention system on balance enhances involvement, and that matters. In addition, as noted several times already, the caucus is part of a larger process. Anybody in Minnesota’s Senate District 44 want to get meaningfully involved in DFL politics but can’t do the caucus? Find me, I’ll fix you up. You can be very involved, influentially involved, meaningfully involved. But not if we have only a primary.
For every complaint about caucuses, I have one countervailing complaint about primaries: You can’t really buy a caucus (no, you can’t), but you can buy a primary. In a time when we should be eating the rich, do we really want to give up the last of our grassroots power?
I’ll just add this to complexity things. Tonight I’m going to caucus with some people over support of a particular candidate for a local race. Two night ago, Iowa had its precinct caucus, and on Feb 25th Minnesota does that as well (though there will be nothing about the presidential race at that caucus). I’m a member of the DFL Environmental caucus, which does not caucus. Recently, the Democrats in Minnesota, whose caucus is in the majority in the house but not in the Senate, formed the House Climate Change Action Caucus. And so on.
Not only is the thing that they call the “caucus” only one part of a larger, and good, thing, but the word “caucus” is a bit like the word “desktop” in that it means many things. Until Chuck and Andrea and the other national reporters can keep all of this straight, and not just some of it, it is irresponsible of them to force changes in our political system because they are annoyed at the scheduling of events.