Iowa caucuses: In defense of "arcane rules"

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Clear Lake, Iowa, 2008, IMG_0685

BatesLine photo of a front porch with bunting in Clear Lake, Iowa, September, 2008

Smitty at The Other McCain links to a Buzzfeed story about Ron Paul's strategy to dominate caucus states:

Paul is following the roadmap set by Barack Obama's 2008 strategy: Start early, learn the rules, and use superior organization and devoted young supporters to dominate the arcane but crucial party procedures in states your rivals are ignoring -- states where caucuses and conventions that elect the delegates who will ultimately choose the Republican candidate. The plan begins in places like Minnetonka, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb where Paul has based his state headquarters, and where staffers have already begun running "mock-auses" -- practice runs for Minnesota's February 7 caucuses....

Paul has, says his campaign chairman Jesse Benton, "offices, staff and strong organization" in ten caucus states besides Iowa: Colorado, Washington, Maine, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and North Dakota. (Alaska and Hawaii are also a caucus states and prime Paul territory.)

Those states together will award 419 of the 2,286 delegates who will choose a nominee in Tampa in August. They operate under complex, individual rules that favor the prepared....

In Iowa, Paul's devoted cadres are up against activists supporting other Republicans. In the next ten caucuses, they're virtually all alone.

The article goes on to note that Paul backers have been working within the local party organizations in many of these states, volunteering to work at headquarters, working for candidates in local races, and forming alliances with non-Paul backers. Being personally liked and being viewed as a valuable volunteer, not a monomaniacal Paulbot, would help a Paul backer advance through the levels in a caucus/convention state with the support of non-Paul activists.

Smitty's reaction to the linked Buzzfeed story:

This is really an argument against "Arcane Rules". We all love to hate on professional politicians, but it is truly a full-time job just to understand the basics of how the sausage is made. Complexity favors the insiders....The two things we have to do, going down the road, are: involve more people, and stamp out complexity. Systems need to be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

My response to Smitty is that the rules are only arcane to those who don't bother to read them. Iowa's rules are simple: precinct caucuses elect county convention delegates, county conventions elect state convention delegates, state conventions elect national convention delegates and alternates (three each by the delegates from each congressional district, the remainder by the full convention).

When the mainstream media oversimplifies the process or tries to fit caucus rules into their primary-oriented framework, they make it all look much more confusing than it is.

What confuses the ninnies in the mainstream media -- the guys who trot out words like "arcane" and "complex" -- is that Tuesday night's "vote" is a non-binding straw poll, so there's no correlation between straw poll percentage and the presidential preference of Iowa's delegation to Tampa, which won't be chosen until June. As I explained recently, Ron Paul could easily "win" Iowa but wind up with zero Iowa delegates.

Different rules in each state is a reflection of federalism and the freedom each state Republican Party retains to decide how to apportion its allotted number of delegates. On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic National Committee imposes certain rules on all state parties, requiring proportional representation for caucuses as well as primaries.

Every Republican presidential campaign should have at least one supporter in each state with enough state party experience to understand how the system works and what the rules are. If a candidate can't muster a single savvy activist in a state, probably best to skip it.

It should be pointed out that every state has complicated aspects to the process of selecting delegates and binding them (or not) to presidential candidates. Oklahoma awards delegates by congressional district and statewide results in the presidential preference primary, but the people who will serve as delegates are selected by a separate sequence of precinct caucuses and county, district, and state conventions. I won't explain open delegation vs. closed delegation and fractional voting, but they're in our rules for a reason.

Idaho was cited in the Buzzfeed story as an example of arcane rules, but from the participant's point of view, it's simple -- you show up and vote for your favorite presidential candidate, and if he's eliminated for lack of support, you vote for your next favorite. What's complex is the counting method, which seems to be designed to help grassroots conservative candidates against the establishment default and well-organized fringe candidates.

Here are the Idaho Republican Party rules for their caucus process, and here are answers to frequently asked questions about the Idaho caucus process.

What's different about Idaho is that the delegates are bound by the caucus presidential preference vote, and the voting process is designed to ensure that the winner of the delegates is acceptable to a majority of caucus participants, not just a bare plurality. Idaho GOP leaders apparently want to avoid giving all the delegates to someone who barely finishes first in a divided field -- the sort of thing that happened in many states in 2008, when "stop McCain" forces were split between Romney, Huckabee, and a few other candidates, and McCain won winner-take-all states with two-thirds of voters preferring some other candidate, and thus quickly rolled up an insurmountable lead in delegates.

At the Idaho county caucus, you'd be free to vote for your favorite in the first round, knowing that if your favorite doesn't have much support, you'll still be able, in the subsequent runoffs, to help one of the candidates you find acceptable get your county's delegates and block the candidates you find unacceptable from winning anything. The system enables mainstream fiscal, social, and foreign policy conservatives to coalesce around one candidate and thwarts hurts the Bob Dole / John McCain / Mitt Romney "It's my turn"-type candidate, and the Ron Paul-small-but-dedicated-following type from using divide-and-conquer to win with a small plurality. I like the approach. It looks like a good plan. It will be interesting to see how it works in practice.

MORE about tonight's Iowa caucuses:

Iowa Caucus Characters

Flickr montage of caricatures of Republican presidential candidates by DonkeyHotey (CreativeCommons attribution)

Stacy McCain talks to 13-year-old Sarah Santorum, who says, "Our prayers are paying off," and remembers her as an 8-year-old in tears at her dad's 2006 concession speech. (Stacy also gives a valuable reporting tip -- "You get the best quotes when you just talk to people, instead of interrogating them in a confrontational manner. Be informal and friendly, put people at ease and listen to what they say.")

For The American Spectator, McCain has a piece on the Santorum surge in terms of voters, donors, and media interest, and Jeffrey Lord looks back at Santorum's defeat for reelection to the U. S. Senate in 2006.

Don Surber looks at the electability argument and says Santorum would bring more electoral votes to the GOP than any other candidate.

Pete Ingemi, DaTechGuy, looks to U. S. Naval History to note that nothing succeeds like success. A surprising finish by Santorum in Iowa will raise the money and volunteer support he needs in later states.

Jeff Dunetz has more from former Ron Paul aide Eric Dondero about Ron Paul's reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

John G. Geer says don't blame attack ads; Newt's history is the reason for Gingrich's slide.

Todd Seavey ponders just plain libertarians, paleo-libertarians and paleo-conservatives, thickness, Catholicism, and political changes that have made a fusionist libertarian like himself, less willing to compromise with conservatives this time around. Also, he posts a photo of Ron Paul in a 1970s Houston Astros uniform (the one with the red and orange color bands and the groovy font).

Shane Vander Hart speculates about attacks launched by groups with untraceable names or misappropriating the names of genuine organizations. These groups tend to go after which ever conservative is rising in the polls

Vander Hart predicts that tonight's winner in Iowa will have under 25% of the vote and thinks Santorum will win narrowly. With a high number of undecideds, Vander Hart says to watch for the effect of neighborly persuasion at caucus meetings:

In the last Des Moines Register poll it indicated that 41% of voters could still change their minds. That's pretty significant. Which leads me to one of the things to watch for tonight - don't underestimate the significance of a neighbor or friend speaking on behalf of their candidate of choice. At each caucus site every candidate will will have the opportunity to have somebody speak on their behalf. You literally have people who are undecided, and you also have those whose support is soft. Hearing a neighbor or a friend speak may be a tipping point for some voters. Who speaks could make a difference - a respected member of the community or a college student who is a first-time caucus goer? It matters.

That leads me to this MRC video posted by Pat Dollard -- a radio discussion of how leaders in the Iowa Republican party could block a Ron Paul victory. The discussion makes it sound sinister, but it's natural to think that grassroots conventional conservatives will do their best to prevent dividing their vote among four different candidates so that neither Ron Paul nor Mitt Romney will finish first and claim a win with a tiny minority of the vote. At a conventional election, a voter deciding among similar candidates has to guess about his fellow voters and decided which of the acceptable choices has the best shot at winning. At tonight's caucuses, it will be apparent from signs and stickers which candidate among Bachmann, Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry is closest to the front of the pack. I could imagine county chairmen comparing notes by text message to see if these four candidates each have areas of strength or if one is much stronger than the other three across the state. In the latter case, the smart thing for party leaders to do would be to push the leaners and undecideds to support the potential breakout non-Romney, non-Paul candidate.

RESULTS tonight:

Des Moines Register has an interactive map with a county-by-county break down, raw vote totals, and precincts reporting by county.

The Gazette (Cedar Rapids) has a Google map overlay for Iowa caucuses results, so you can see counties with respect to major highways and cities.

WaPo's Chris Cilizza has a scorecard of Romney targets by county, based on the 2008 results, assuming Romney needs a 10% improvement to win.

Here's The Fix's list of six counties to watch tonight.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on January 3, 2012 12:06 PM.

Iowa caucuses: On-the-ground coverage was the previous entry in this blog.

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