An Iowan explains how the caucuses work.

By Art Cullen

Storm Lake, Iowa

Come Jan. 3, I will walk two blocks from home to the Chautauqua Park Shelterhouse on the shores of Storm Lake, Iowa, and help engineer the big shakeout of the Democratic presidential field. That predictably cold night will result in probably three candidates getting their tickets punched for the ride to New Hampshire five days later.

The results are often unpredictable, as they were four years ago. Few people saw John Kerry’s steam building, or John Edwards lying in the corn stubble. It was supposed to have been a Howard Dean-Dick Gephardt cliffhanger — Dean the new candidate with the young constituency, and Gephardt as Iowa’s sixth congressman from Missouri with strong union support and a well-built ground machine.

Brother John and I sat down among a small Gephardt gathering at the shelterhouse four years ago. Within about five minutes we realized the Gephardt candidacy was done, and we were happy supporters of Edwards. We had no idea going in that we would come out that way.

That’s how the caucuses work. They’re full of surprises, starting with Jimmy Carter some 30 years ago.

The national polls show Hillary Clinton with a handy lead over Barack Obama. But the Iowa polls of “likely caucus-goers,” whoever they may be, shows a dead heat among Clinton, Obama and Edwards, all around the 25% range (give or take) and Bill Richardson heard stomping not far behind.

Edwards was the presumptive favorite coming in. He has practically lived in Iowa for the past four years, thumping on a populist theme aimed at attracting blue-collar and lower middle-class Democrats in The Tall Corn State’s manufacturing centers of Dubuque, Waterloo, Davenport, Sioux City and Council Bluffs. In recent weeks Edwards has been sliding in the polls, but we know that polls aren’t worth a hill of soybeans on caucus night.

That’s because of the unique dynamics of the caucus.

First, you have to show up to count. You can’t mail it in. Jan. 3 is the night of the Orange Bowl. Normally half the state would be in San Antonio, Texas, for the Alamo Bowl as the Iowa Hawkeyes would take on Texas. But the Hawks went 6-6 and appear headed for the toilet bowl. You think I joke about the impact of football and TV on the caucuses. Hillary has to get those lower-income and elderly women to the polls that night. Obama has to get those college kids who may or may not be home on break. (My daughter, a high school senior, supports Obama, as does my son, a college freshman. Both say their pals could care less about the caucuses.) And those people have to hang around while surrogates give speeches and precinct chairs beg for donations. Leakage is a fact. Edwards just might have the most dedicated core of supporters who know how a caucus works. Richardson’s ground machine is not as well built as any of the preceding three. But you can’t count him out, because:

A candidate must garner at least 15% of the votes at a precinct caucus to be “viable.” Hence, our Gephardt experience. Brother John and I, and our spouses, will show up to support Joe Biden on Jan. 3. We expect Biden will not have 15% support, since he has consistently polled around 5%. Our second choice is Obama. In the caucuses, second choices can be as important as first choices. Obama leads the polls as the second-choice candidate in Iowa. But let’s say the Kucinich, Dodd and Biden people group with Richardson when the Richardson people promise each of them a delegate to the county convention, which in turn makes them eligible for the district and state — and then national — conventions and their attendant schmoozing parties. That’s where it gets interesting. The Edwards people should know how to work the so-called second-tier, unviable delegations. The Clinton campaign has never worked Iowa before, but it has some old hands from Sen. Tom Harkin’s campaigns to help them out and also has the vestiges of former Gov. Tom Vilsack’s organization on its side. Obama has to hope that energy will carry his day.

A few things to know about Iowa: Liberal columnist Mark Shields likes to point out that the state has the highest literacy rate and the lowest abortion rate in the nation. Not a bad place to pick a leader. It also has the highest rate of elderly population — even higher than Florida (score one Clinton?). Of course, it is the number-one state in corn and soybean production, always tops in pork production, and depends most heavily on exports and manufacturing (score one Edwards or not?).

So we love our ethanol and biodiesel, we are deeply suspicious of huge corporations in a state that until the 1980s had a farm every quarter mile, we have watched our manufacturing wages drop by half since 1975, we just witnessed the closing down of Iowa-bred Maytag washers and dryers thanks to “free trade” that expanded during the Bill Clinton administration, we are overwhelmingly white with a burgeoning population of Latinos over the past decade, and our education system is regarded to be just about as sacred as our Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic churches. There is a strong pacifist (rooted in Methodism) undercurrent in the Democratic Party here that favors Obama. Democrats here absolutely revere Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and deeply respect Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican. We elect trial lawyer Bruce Braley to Congress and immigrant basher Steve King. So this is not a predictable crowd, as Al Gore might have thought when he declared Iowa “too liberal” in 1988 and ignored us. We also have memories here.

Despite being white, Iowa historically has been proud of its racial tolerance going back to the Underground Railroad and harboring John Brown at Council Bluffs. We have never elected a woman governor or a woman to Congress. The strongest union to endorse, AFSCME, has not been able to deliver in recent elections. The party in no way is dominated by labor, which doesn’t help Edwards.

I can see Obama winning by his strong No. 2 support and his Midwestern ken. That means Clinton loses a lot, even if she is a close second. But you simply cannot count out Edwards (who may be yesterday’s news), Richardson or even Biden — widely considered the most knowledgeable candidate internationally. I might be surprised on Jan. 3. President Dean certainly was.

On the Republican side, I leave it to Grassley, the best Iowa handicapper around: Romney first, Huckabee second, Giuliani third and McCain a moribund fourth.

Art Cullen is editor of The Storm Lake Times in Northwest Iowa. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2007

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