Suppose I should put in my two cents on the Iowa caucuses, even though, unlike in 2008, I have not been covering them up close and personal. Indeed it is a palsied finger tapping at the computer since I have just returned from a fraught week in Chicago, where my family gathered for a nephew’s New Year’s Eve wedding. The ceremony was glorious, but my husband, older daughter and I all came down with stomach flu and are still recovering. First thing husband lost our house key. First thing husband, who had not been out-of-communication for more than a four-hour plane ride, had to deal with the worst Apple crisis of his career. (Wish I could tell you all–quite a story, with far-reaching consequences.) All this–not to mention the usual family tensions and meltdowns that accompany nuptials and later embroider wedding lore. Coda: lost baggage.
Enough of that. On to Iowa. Here is the one thing you need to know about tonight.
The candidate who wins the caucuses is the one with the cleverest, nimblest field team. The caucuses are not a “one-man-one-vote” democratic process carried out in an agreed-upon, deliberative way. In Iowa, the first Tuesday in January is a mid-winter political bacchanal organized like a sheep-herding competition. This was not the original intention–years ago–when only die-hard politcos came out in the dark and bitter cold, when media was not omnipresent. Then lovers of national politics could sit and talk and sip and munch while listening to stemwinders about the candidates before deciding for whom to caucus. It was a local occasion. Like a meeting of the chess club or the Order of Masons.
But now? Greater turn-out (a consequence of grassroots campaigning) has changed everything. The school cafeterias and gyms (venues of choice) are crowded, hot, noisy. Consequence? It takes longer to go through the simplest order of business. Therefore, less time for speeches. Much less time to deliberate. Likely less than a handful of those present know the math–rather complicated–that ends caucusing and sets the results.
Four years ago, I watched young precinct captains for Edwards and Obama in Iowa City take a second-place win away from Hillary Clinton. Even though the young man and young woman did not know one another, they had come to the caucus precinct armed with a mutual plan that they executed flawlessly and quickly. Their aim (hatched between the two local Edwards and Obama teams) was to give Obama as big a win as possible while making sure Edwards came in second. How and why had they come together to create such a plan? Mutual hatred of Hillary Clinton. And so they culled and herded the Richardson, Dodd and Biden supporters–and then the Clinton supporters, even though they were legion–before they knew what had happened to them. The very minute–almost the second–the Obama and Edwards captains had the mathematical balance they needed–as many caucusers for Obama as possible while still keeping Edwards in second place–they had the caucus leader call the results. Suddenly, despite the seeming mayhem, it was over.
There were few Edwards supporters that night. Between them, Obama and Clinton had the lion’s share. And then Richardson.
Hillary Clinton, who really came in second in Iowa, placed third in the state. And so the Machiavellian scheme of a few University of Iowa students may have changed history. If Hillary Clinton had taken seconds in Iowa City, she would have come in second in the Iowa caucuses at-large.
This is a cautionary tale for all those pundits already predicting tonight.
If the Ron Paul young are well-organized, they can shape the outcome.
If the Romney team has the kind of smarts the Clinton team did not have in 2008, Romney can sweep to a victory that does not really reflect the hearts and minds of Iowans and therefore will be very misleading about Romney’s chances in a general election.
Such is the deviousness of that friendly, salt-of-the-earth, butter cow heartland state Iowa.
January 3, 2012