Five Points to Remember About the Iowa Caucuses

Tonight, finally, Iowans cast the first meaningful votes of the 2012 election cycle.  Here are five aspects of the process to keep in mind.

A.  Logistics. There are 1,774 caucus precincts located mostly in public buildings (churches, schools, etc.) but often private homes.  Caucusing starts promptly at 8 p.m. eastern time.  Expect about 100,000 people to participate.  Who participates and in what numbers, of course, is crucial to the outcome.  Deliberations tend to be short – each candidate has the right under Republican Party rules to have one surrogate at each precinct to give a brief speech on the candidate’s behalf. These don’t usually last more than a couple of minutes, which means results start trickling in very quickly – usually within a half hour.  Note that after the speeches, Republicans vote by secret ballot – the ballots are counted on location and the results announced there, and phoned in to party headquarters (which this year has been moved to an undisclosed location).  I expect that the networks will be able to make a call by 9:30 eastern time at the latest.

B. Note that there is no 15% threshold requirement in order to stay in the delegate hunt. This is in contrast to the Democrat caucus where, because of the 15% threshold, and because voting takes place openly, there tends to be more on-site movement;  if your candidate doesn’t reach that threshold in the initial go around, a caucus participant can relocate in the meeting room and throw support to another candidate.  The Republican process of voting by secret ballot, in contrast, will make it less likely that supporters for second-tier candidates will switch support at the last moment.

C. No actual delegates will be chosen today.  Instead what Iowans are doing in the caucuses (see a description of the process here) is choosing representatives to the county caucuses to be held in March.  Final state-wide delegate selection doesn’t occur until June, after a multi-step process involving two more stages, and which typically ends after the overall nomination race is essentially decided.  The media, of course, will try to estimate how many delegates each candidate will receive in June based on today’s initial vote, but it is only an estimate, and the totals will likely change as the process moves along. Ultimately, Iowa will send 28 delegates to the national convention, with ten chosen statewide, three each from each of the four congressional districts, three uncommitted party members, and three “bonus” delegates.  So, Iowa will eventually contribute about 1% of the 2,286 delegates attending the Republican convention in August.

D. Yes, the Democrats are caucusing too.  Since Obama is running unopposed, the most interesting part of that process is whether the Occupy Iowa movement will succeed in packing enough precincts to clear the 15% threshold, putting them in line to advance to the next round of the process under the “uncommitted” banner.

E. This is a media event.  By that I mean the reason we pay attention to the outcome is because the media, dating back to 1972, has decided that the results are important.  That means there are really two stories unfolding today: how the candidates actually do, and – more importantly – how the media and the candidates then spin those results.  Remember – we don’t enter today with a blank slate. Instead, the media has been crafting an on-going narrative to explain the results. Part of that process involves the expectations game – determining what constitutes success or failure in terms of that on-going narrative.  Candidates will either buy into or push back against that narrative depending on how it is perceived to affect their chances down the road, beginning with New Hampshire and South Carolina.  I’ll devote a separate post to that expectations game later today (grading willing).  But the general rule of thumb for candidates is as follows:

1. If you are leading or are close to the lead, play down expectations while simultaneously trying to telegraph to supporters and the undecideds that momentum is on your side.  This is not always easy to do.  So yesterday Newt Gingrich first said he wasn’t going to win, and then an hour later back tracked to say he still could, given the large number of undecideds.

2.  If you are polling badly, never acknowledge the validity of the polls. Instead, point to the undecideds, draw on a useful historical analogy – Bachmann’s choice seems to be biblical events (“My support will multiply like loaves of bread!”) – and play up the possibility of a “miracle”.

3. Remember, the media will try to trap each candidate into specifying how they think they will do today. Never give an honest answer, lest it come back to bite you!   When asked what would constitute a good finish, respond with platitudes and generalizations.  “Well, we expect to do well here. “  “I like our chances”.  “No matter what happens we are moving on to New Hampshire”.

Questions anyone?  No?  Ok, back to grading.  I’ll be back on later this afternoon with a last minute assessment of what’s likely to happen.

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