Caucus-Goers Prepare for Early Iowa Caucus

Despite the confusion surrounding when the early voting state of Iowa will have its caucuses, many veteran caucus-goers in Iowa have begun preparation for a likely Jan. 3 or Jan. 5 date.

Bob Dodder, 78, of Iowa, a retired Methodist minister and veteran Democratic Party caucus chair in Council Bluffs, Iowa, has been scouting out locations to recommend to the party for the caucus.

"We're proud of the fact that we're first in the nation and we're proud of the fact that we get to meet our candidates," Dodder said.

Iowa has enjoyed political clout and publicity since 1972, when Democratic caucuses in Iowa surprised the nation with their support of George McGovern and boosted his campaign's momentum.

The only state that doesn't envy Iowa's position is New Hampshire, the site of the nation's first primary.

Arguing Iowa's mostly white population doesn't adequately represent the mosaic of the nation, other states like Florida and Michigan have tried to leapfrog the presidential calendar to bask in some of that early balloting glow.

But Iowa state law mandates it'll be first, even if that means a caucus just days after the Christmas holidays.

Iowans Weigh Candidates 'Eyeball to Eyeball'

Dodder said the Iowa caucus-goers he knows will show up regardless of the date and take their roles as caucus-goers seriously, carefully weighing each candidate who comes through his town of about 60,000 people.

"I've seen all of the candidates two or three times," Dodder said. "Lots of times I'll just go to homes and we'll be sitting around a kitchen table. … You meet them eyeball to eyeball and you get to ask them questions."

Unlike primaries, where machines count the votes, the Iowa caucuses are intimate and dynamic, with caucus-goers clustering in public schools, town halls, church basements and private homes.

Norm Sterzenbach, political director of the Iowa Democratic Party, said because Iowa's complex caucus system dictates that every Democratic candidate reach a viability threshold, Iowans have a great deal of power to persuade their neighbors to support their chosen candidate.

Democratic Party rules state a candidate must have the support of at least 15 percent of the meeting's participants at most of the state's almost 2,000 precincts for a candidate to be considered viable.

Those supporting unpopular candidates are often lobbied to join with neighbors supporting more popular candidates.

"They take their responsibility very seriously because if they're going to go out and spend an hour, two hours or three hours at a caucus supporting their candidate, they want to make sure they've got the right candidate and they know how to convince others to support them," Sterzenbach said.

After everything is hashed out, the percentages are reported to Democratic Party headquarters and winners and losers are declared.

'More Meaningful Role for the Voter'

Rachel Caufield, professor of politics at Drake University, argues the Iowa caucus is the most hands-on democratic process in the nation.

"So many people are disillusioned by money, by media, by meaningless political campaigns where their only role is to spend two minutes in a voting booth pushing a button or pulling a lever," Caufield said.

"A caucus instead really is a community-based process and it's discussion-based so you're part of a bigger political community and in that sense there's a much more meaningful role for the voter," she said.

Iowa Caucus Win Not a Surefire Kingmaker

After McGovern used the caucus system to his advantage in 1972, former President Carter, an unknown peanut farmer from Georgia, ran a low-budget caucus campaign in Iowa in 1976. Carter used his second-place finish to go on to win the Democratic nomination.

The Iowa caucus isn't a surefire presidential campaign kingmaker. Iowa caucus winners who failed to win the nomination: Republicans George H.W. Bush in 1980 and Bob Dole in 1988; Democrats include Dick Gephardt in 1988 and Tom Harkin in 1992.

'It's the Ultimate in Grass-Roots Politics'

Peter Rogers, 48, of Marshalltown, Iowa, a veteran GOP caucus chair, said he expects some of his neighbors to rigorously debate the merits of the Republican candidates.

"For some people, that's the only thing they come for," said Rogers, who has been involved in the Iowa GOP caucuses for more than a decade.

"It is the ultimate in grass-roots politics," Rogers said. "It's really a neighborhood kitchen-table type of thing."

At the Marshall County caucus meeting, Rogers and his co-chair will lead caucus-goers to elect local representatives for a county convention and central committee and will decide on the party platform and poll on the GOP presidential candidates.

"In Iowa with the caucus process, you're actually sitting down and laying the groundwork for what your party stands for," Rogers said.

"It begins in nearly 2,000 precincts throughout the state of Iowa by people coming together and thinking, deciding what they think needs to be a part of the platform that speaks to what it is to be a Republican in the state of Iowa for the year 2008," he said.

But unlike the Democratic caucuses, there is no viability threshold.

"If you've got 15 people there, and you have 15 candidates, you could have 15 different outcomes for the same precinct," Rogers said.

GOP Worries Early Date Could Affect Caucus Turnout

Mary Tiffany of the Republican Party of Iowa argued the GOP caucuses' "one head, one vote" system is more democratic than the Democratic caucuses.

"To us, ours is a 100 percent democracy where every single vote counts even if you're in the minority," she said.

Tiffany said she is worried the earlier-than-ever caucus date could affect caucus turnout.

"It's kind of at an odd time since New Year's is that Monday and so people have Tuesday off and so you may have people that take the whole week off," Tiffany said.

"But I think that the caucus-goers that are planning to caucus right now will, regardless of the date," she said.

Dodder predicted his caucus-goers will show up because of the high interest in the 2008 presidential race, and the expectation, he said, that Democrats have a chance to win back the White House.

"There is a commitment to this in Iowa. We take pride that we can do this for the nation."