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Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Iowa Caucus Curiosity: A Momentous Fraction or a Magesterial Faction?

"Knitting is hard, but caucusing is easy."

Regardless of what state you call home, as long as you haven't gone into winter hibernation, you've probably heard this sound clip more than once.

To be honest, I neither knit, nor do I caucus. So unconvinced, this comparison leaves me feeling blank with caucus curiosity.

Aside from being one of those words that are just fun to say (i.e. Zamboni), what exactly is a caucus and why is it so important?

As the first major electoral event in the process of nominating a presidential candidate, this demonstration in democracy began to steer the political landscape in the 70's. The beginnings of the Iowa Caucuses are truly aboriginal; the inception of the word came from the Algonquins and means "a gathering of the ruling tribal chiefs."

The Hawkeyes early start of casting "ayes" in January was put into motion in 1972 by the state co-chair of the McGovern campaign. Twenty-six years later, on January 3, Iowans will once again be providing the nation's indecisive with a possible answer to that burning question: "Whom shall we nominate?"

However, a nation-wide caucus catechism has risen from the powerful impact of a system that is loosely defined as a "gathering of neighbors."

On caucus night, Iowans flock to designated locations like churches, schools, and homes to take the first step on the path to the national convention. The selected candidates then go to a later caucus on the county level. This leads to more caucuses at the district and state level, which eventually culminates at the national convention.

From the media's perspective the winner, determined at the first caucus, is the candidate with the most number of delegate seats. This is allocated by the proportion of caucus goers votes and is not binding. Delegates can always change their vote with further developments in the race.

The voting system in place is considered unique and controversial. Other states use a primary process that can be summarized with two words: poll and ballot. Caucuses involve political calisthenics and lengthy persuasion. Participants form standing preference groups for each candidate. Representatives from each group may be sent around the room to persuade others, while non-decided voters may go from group to group to ask members about their candidate.

Is it really easy?

As much as I love to trust old ladies - especially the kind that knit - the Iowa Caucuses are a far cry from child's play. Granted, in my imagination, I visualize a grown-up version of musical chairs. The idea of it - the dialogue, the hands-on-public participation factor, the-in-your-face-ness of it, even sounds like it could be fun. It's "The Survivor" of political terrain with a much larger prize: the fiscal pot.

The estimated impact of the 2004 Democratic Caucus was $50 to $60 million, yet only 124,331 Iowans - or 6% of eligible votes - actually participated in the process.

Why aren't more Iowans reciprocating such a hefty investment?

Beneath the surface of it's grassroots appeal, is a far deeper democratic concern than the impact the caucus has on the presidential nomination. The Century Foundation points to an exclusionary nature that violates fundamental values of voting rights; broad participation is discouraged by time-consuming procedures and complex rules. Participants must devote a minimum of two hours to caucus night, which may not be an easy task for the average American. As TCF notes, this creates difficulty for parents who will need babysitters, blue collar workers, or those with nocturnal commitments - like night jobs or evening classes. Ultimately the caucuses uphold party elitism, as those involved tend to be older and more political engaged. In fact, 64% of 2004 caucus goers were over the age of 50.

The harm of the caucus system does not cease with the ills of voter disenfranchisement; the entire health of the party is in question. Supporters of the Iowa caucus system claim that it serves as a prediction of national voting behaviors. If the caucus goers are in-fact a small homogeneous group, does the opinion rendered actually represent nation-wide interests?

Could the dominance of the Iowa Caucus be resulting in premature group thinking?

With a growing number of undecided voters in America, it is time for public responsibility to lead the Democrats. We must cast old behaviors aside and take up a different kind of needle to measure what is truly effective.

Let the knit-picking begin!


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