In politics, it is the small things that count. In Iowa politics, it is the tiny things that count.
For all the hoopla, media attention and money lavished on the Iowa caucuses, hardly anybody bothers to vote in them.
TV reporters know that the one question they don’t want to ask a voter in a live interview is: “Did you vote in the last caucus?”
The answer is usually an embarrassed no, quickly followed by a pledge to vote this time, which happens to be Monday.
The embarrassment is genuine; the pledge to vote Monday is not.
Unless you have been on submarine duty beneath the polar ice cap this past month, you know that caucuses are different from primaries. Caucus voters all have to gather together at 7 p.m. and then go through 90 minutes of palaver before choosing their candidate.
The process can be so arduous that in 2008, when Hillary Clinton’s national headquarters chose the slogan “Stand Up for Hillary,” the Iowa staff went crazy. “We had old ladies who couldn’t stand up for 20 minutes, let alone 90,” a Clinton aide told me. “They thought ‘Stand Up for Hillary’ meant they would really have to stand up that long!”
(The senior voters were assured that chairs would be found and that they could stand up while sitting down.)
But most people still won’t show up for the caucuses. In 2012, the turnout rate in the Republican caucus was 19.76 percent. In other words, 4 out of 5 people in Iowa who were eligible to vote in the caucuses didn’t bother to.
A study by Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School pointed out that in 2008, only a small percentage of voters determined the outcome of the caucus.
“The Democratic winner, Barack Obama, received the votes of just 4 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters. Mike Huckabee, the Republican victor, attracted the support of a mere 2 percent of Iowa adults,” Patterson wrote.
Dennis J. Goldford, a professor of political science at Drake University and the Harkin Institute Flansburg Fellow, wrote in July 2015: “For all the attention lavished upon Iowa by presidential candidates, political activists around the country, and national and foreign news organizations, does the precinct-caucus turnout deserve such attention?”
It does, Goldford concluded, merely because it goes first in the election process. “In any sequential nomination process, any state going first will carry special weight simply because it is first, whatever other factors may add in importance,” Goldford wrote.
Which is a very scholarly way of saying: “If you’re first, it matters. If you’re 25th, you’re Nebraska.”
And the national press does not flock to Nebraska the way it flocks to Iowa. (Just two national reporters in Nebraska at the same time would probably constitute a flock.)
Iowa has 99 counties divided into about 1,700 precincts, but it is a rural state in which a majority of cities and towns have fewer than 500 residents.
Turnout in some precincts is so low that a single family can determine the outcome. It is rare, but not unheard of, for only one voter to show up at caucus. (The parties try to eliminate so-called “ghost precincts,” in which nobody shows up.)
In more populous precincts, the campaigns often will hold potluck suppers before the caucus hour. This is not just to show friendliness, but to make sure potential voters are gathered in one spot, where they then can be corralled, stuffed into cars and vans and taken to their voting sites.
Identifying who is likely to vote for your candidate and getting those people to do so is the famous “ground game” that is organized by a campaign’s “field operation.”
In 2008, Barack Obama not only beat Hillary Clinton with a more compelling message (hope and change) but with a superior field operation. Is Bernie Sanders poised to pull off the same kind of upset over Clinton come Monday?
According to The New York Times, Sanders’ “campaign has quietly assembled an extensive ground game here, with 100 paid staff members and with trained volunteer leaders for each of the state’s 1,681 caucus precincts.
“The field team is meant to be the engine for a Sanders upset in the caucuses on Feb. 1 — the vehicle to turn out the tens of thousands of grass-roots supporters who show up for Mr. Sanders’s rallies, even if they no longer earn him headlines.”
But I talked to a senior Clinton aide Tuesday, who said: “It is unclear whether Sanders actually has a field operation in Iowa that can produce anything like what Obama did. I don’t believe so. Our people on the ground are not seeing evidence of it.”
What they are seeing is Sanders’ campaign telling its Iowa college volunteers to vote at home if they live in Iowa rather than at college, where their votes could be wasted due to Iowa’s complicated voting rules.
“You don’t want to be doing that in the last week, however,” the Clinton aide said. “To win this time, a campaign is going to need a meticulous field operation. And I’m not sure they have that.”
But how about if things go very, very wrong for Clinton and she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire, which follows eight days later? Can she still win the nomination?
“I believe so,” the aide said. “I’m never completely relaxed. But we are extremely well-organized. And I believe so.”
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