Caucuses set for February 5, 2018

This post was originally published on this site

For me the big news out of Saturday’s Democratic state central committee meeting wasn’t the much-deserved election of Troy Price as the new party chair. It was the approval of the 2018 Caucus To Convention Calendar:

  • Caucus: Monday, February 5
  • County Conventions: Saturday, March 24
  • District Conventions: Saturday, April 28, sites to be set later by district committees
  • State Convention: Saturday, June 16, Des Moines

Good. Now I can get some work done.

There had been rumours of Saturday, February 3, but those didn’t materialize. I’ve always liked the Saturday idea but historically, there have been Jewish objections. (My Saturday night idea never caught on.) We tried it once, in 2010, and got our usual low off-year turnout.

Technical tangent: Officially, the governor year caucuses aren’t “off year caucuses,” they’re just “caucuses.” The same precinct-based process except no presidential stuff. The “off year caucus” is a county-wide event held in the spring of odd years that functionally is just a big central committee meeting where we pass resolutions. In my opinion, the off-year caucus is one of the less useful things we do. And it’s cost me this paragraph. From here on out, any references to “off-year” mean governor year, not odd year.

The reason for going back to the traditional Monday is probably because, as near as I can tell, Republicans have chosen the same night. That’s not as critical in an off-year, but it’s essential in a presidential year.

The caucuses are a party meeting, not an election, and the check and balance against people participating in both parties is holding them at the same time. All it would take would be one person in a presidential year bragging about attending both caucuses and “voting” twice, and there would be a likely fatal wound to our First in The Nation status.

Any discussion of caucuses, even off year, invariably leads into a discussion of process and First, and that’s what happened yesterday on my Twitter feed (that’s now my primary medium, though the ole blog stays around for long form stuff like this).

My sense is that most people who are willing to give up First and just vote in the June primary have no concept what that will mean. In January 2020 they’d be asking “where are the candidates? It’s only five months till the primary!” In May 2020, Presumptive Nominee will be in California and New York raising money.

See, people forget that most nomination contests don’t play out like 2008 and 2016, with a close campaign going through every primary state and every state having at least some significance. (Though `16 wasn’t really that close.) Most years are more like 2004, when one candidate gets a big lead and the others recognize reality and quit. The June state ballots look more like this:

However, in the last 18 months I’ve heard more and more Iowans saying yes, they would be happy to give up the hoopla and simply vote in a primary. I’m actually more agnostic on that existential question than people think. Part of me would rather get paid extra overtime in a presidential primary than burn vacation days doing stuff that is almost exactly like my job to set up caucuses. But I just want people to understand that it’s an either/or trade off.

Anyway, if you’re really interested in the presidential year stuff go back and look at my posts from that era; my thoughts haven’t changed much. But since I’m not good enough for the caucus review committee, what do I know.

 Let’s get back to the matter at hand: February 5, 2018.

These caucuses may draw a bit more attention than a typical off-year cycle because of the large field for governor. As anyone reading a political blog on a weekend knows, Iowa law requires a candidate to win 35% in a primary to be nominated, or else the party convention chooses a nominee. Republicans had an epic convention in the 3rd CD in 2014, and since then convention loser Brad Zaun has been trying to change the law and institute a runoff instead.

Democrats haven’t had a convention because of the 35% law in a long time. The last I know of was in a Waterloo legislative seat in 2002. There was some talk of it in 2006 when we initially had four serious candidates for governor plus a Some Dude. But not long before the caucuses Patty Judge dropped out of the governor’s race to become Chet Culver’s running mate.

Still, with three serious candidates, a primary stalemate could have happened if things had broken exactly even. It almost happened to Republicans in 2002 when nominee Doug Gross was at just 35.6%, and Culver only won with about 39.

This year the field is even bigger with six serious contenders and a couple more guys who are a notch or two above Some Dude. And the overall process awareness, activist interest, and internal contentiousness level is higher than it’s been in a long time. So we can expect very high attendance by the off-year standard, though certainly nothing approaching the Who Live In Cincinnati levels Johnson County saw in 2016.

In 2006, Johnson County saw preference groups in a handful of precincts. I’m not sure if rules have changed but at that time preference groups could happen if 15% of the room wants them.

That could be a training issue, as it was in the 2012 presidential year. Chairs went in expecting no preference groups and were startled when Uncommitted groups emerged. In some places in 2012 people were simply told, incorrectly, “there are no preference groups.”

My sense is that compared to a presidential race, even compared to an Obama vs. Uncommitted “race,” the governor nomination four months out is still very inside baseball, even to the core party activists who attend this stuff. My sense is also that by the time we get to February 5 the field for governor will shrink and the urgency of a caucus strategy will recede.

Still, the smart campaigns will have a strategy. Even without alignment, there may be contested races for the delegate seats that usually go begging in an off-year. And with alignment you may see some strange coalitions. Attendance will likely be low enough that the groups will default to Candidate Putting Most Emphasis On Convention vs. Everyone Else In Uncommitted.

So the work of scheduling the sites and recruiting and training the chairs begins. Once again, in Johnson County the Republicans and Democrats are planning to work together, and I highly recommend that approach to everyone else.

Typically in an off year we cluster our caucuses, hosting multiple precincts in different rooms of the same building and doing some of the explanation and presentation stuff in one large group. That also means that in the places where you can’t recruit a chair or where your chair is a rookie, there’s an experienced “cluster commander” on hand to help. I’ve run as many as three caucuses at once, with the caveat that one was just the one person who showed up and another was three people.

Clustering is tricky and you can overdo it depending on the geography of your county. In 2012 Chicago was telling us that they wanted five sites total in our county. The emphasis was on the live video link with the president (which one of the Uncommitteds called “the Obama Nuremburg rally”).  We pushed back to add a couple more in the outlying towns. We weren’t going to tell Solon they had to come in to the east side of Iowa City. On the other hand, some small counties may choose to have just one cluster, and then the same exact people will meet in the same exact place on March 24 for the county convention.

Anyway, friendly advice. Now is the time to get started on this stuff, and now is the time to talk to your county leaders about it. And if you want a better process, don’t complain, volunteer.

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