Wednesday, January 4, 2012

White Men Can Count

First of all, I'd like to commend C-SPAN for its coverage of Iowa Caucus events. If you watched last night, you saw regular Iowa citizens getting together to try to pick a president. They gave unpolished speeches, they voted, they counted the votes, they called in the results, then a few stuck around to talk about platform positions and to decide who would represent the candidates at the county conventions. People often compare caucusing with primary voting, describing the former as involving more conversation and taking more time. But it some ways it's closer to jury duty, only a lot less depressing. It's regular people coming together to perform an important civic duty. It was great to watch. Okay, maybe watching Iowans count green sheets of paper isn't your idea of a good time on a Tuesday night, but if so, you're probably not reading this blog.

Second, I want to address this article about Ron Paul's post-caucus strategy. The gist is that the Paul people are very organized and made sure that their supporters stuck around after the initial counts to run for delegates to the county conventions. This is how you ultimately end up with a greater share of national convention delegates than your caucus-night showing would predict. The naive campaign treats a caucus like a primary and leaves as soon as the voting is done. The smart campaign realizes that the caucus is just the first step in the selection of delegates and sticks around to try to control the post-caucus selections. (I wrote about this with regards to Obama and Clinton back in 2008). Anyway, I think Josh Putnam is right that Paul could end up with significantly more delegates than expected thanks to this level of organization, although I agree with Jon Bernstein that this won't make a difference for the nomination.

One point I'd like to add: In the Business Insider article linked to above, the author writes:
Iowa's Republican caucuses are non-binding — they are technically just a straw poll, so once selected, delegates are free to vote for whichever presidential candidate they choose.
I think the whole binding/non-binding thing is a bit of a red herring with regards to caucuses. I hope Josh or Jon will correct me here if I'm wrong, but the way that caucuses get to choose their delegates to the next levels (county, district, state, national) all but ensures that those delegates will be extremely loyal to their preferred candidate. After the Iowa caucuses last night, Romney supporters in each precinct gathered together to pick the people among them who would best support Romney at the county conventions. Now, there'd be no official sanction if one of them defected to Paul or Santorum, but that person would be a fool to do it. She'd be immediately distrusted and despised among local Iowa Republicans, and if she cared enough about her reputation in local politics to get involved in the county convention in the first place, that's an outcome she'd like to avoid. Now, if Romney somehow dropped out of the race and encouraged his supporters to back Santorum (this won't happen, but stick with me), that delegate would be happy to follow his request. But short of that, he can expect a great deal of loyalty from his "non-binding" delegates.


Josh Putnam said...

A couple of things:
1. I've said for a while now that it is naive to think that there is no transferrence of presidential preference from one step of the caucus process to the next.

2. That said, what we witnessed on C-SPAN last night in Urbandale was not necessarily representative of what happened in the other 1773 precincts. The decision by the chair there to allocate the delegates proportionally was his. They put it to a vote and moved on without comment. But that was misleading. There is nothing in the rule of the Iowa Republican Party that requires that. That fact alone leads me to believe that the Paul folks may have been able to hang around in some precincts and dominate the allocation process.

One final note: None of the 28 delegates from Iowa go to the convention in Tampa bound to anyone candidate.

Seth Masket said...

The decision by the chair there to allocate the delegates proportionally was his. They put it to a vote and moved on without comment. But that was misleading. There is nothing in the rule of the Iowa Republican Party that requires that.

Thanks, Josh. This is an important point. I wonder how typical Urbandale was.

Josh Putnam said...

That is a great unknown.

I would guess that Urbandale was typical for Romney precincts. But Paul precincts may have been different. Relatedly,, it would be nice to have one other piece of information: preference of precinct chairs. Again, this is a guess, but I suspect the underlying method of county convention allocation would correlate pretty highly with that. said...

You are correct about the non-binding nature of the County Convention delegates.

In 1984, at the County Caucus I was elected to the District Caucus as a McGovern delegate. But McGovern dropped out prior to the District caucus, and so I became "uncommitted". Eventually, I supported Mondale - although I still cannot remember why!

Seth Masket said...

Wow, a McGovern delegate in '84? How many of there were you?

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Another important distinction pertinent to a caucus like Iowa's is that it involves the maximum stakes, in a highly stable, high political capital state, and even then is only interesting in states with open seats. Yet, with all of that at stake, it still produced just 120,000 votes cast - a single digit percentage of eligible participants. The stakes are lower, the information shortage is less acute, and the conditions are less favorable to a caucus system in most other states, at least at the Presidential level.

The best reason for a caucus is that it allows voters to get information which is scarce about low profile candidates and low profile races. Presidential races are never low profile, and there are no low profile candidates left after the first two or three rounds of the Presidential nomination process. So, beyond that, the Presidential nomination race is a horrible place to use a caucus system because it disenfranchises 90% of people who might have participated by other means, and provides little in the way of countervening benefits.

Also, there are far more ways to complain about a causus process and far more room for error in one, than in a highly stylized and scriped primary voting process. Machines are better at counting than people of any demographic description.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Given recent events that show that the vote count was screwed up the first time in Iowa, I really think that you ought to retract your title or at least make a counterpart posting entitled "White Men Can't Count."

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