New York Times
January 13, 2004
Dark Art of Caucusing is Turning a Bit More Public
By Carl Hulse
January 13, 2004
DES MOINES, Jan. 12 ’Äî As Paulee Lipsman conducted a lunchtime primer on the
Iowa caucuses for 100 workers at the Pioneer seed company headquarters near
here, she sketched out a problem in caucus math, the intricate formula for
allotting delegates to presidential candidates at the 1,993 precinct meetings to
be held around the state next Monday evening.
By the time Ms. Lipsman had finished, her poster-size work sheet looked like
an exercise in higher algebra. Her audience looked dazed. "It sounds more
complicated than it is," Ms. Lipsman, a local Democratic expert in the
intricacies of the system Iowa employs to rate the presidential primary field,
To the uninitiated, the inner workings of the Iowa caucuses can be as
mysterious as the rites of a secret society. No ballots are punched, all voting
is public, politicking on-site is at the heart of the process and delegates can
be won with a coin toss.
Though the caucuses have an aura of days gone by, some of the home-style
charm of the meetings is disappearing this year. The organizers, hoping high
interest and anti-Bush sentiment spur a record turnout that shows Iowa deserves
its place at the head of the presidential election line, have moved most of the
gatherings out of parlors into public buildings that can hold more people. Fewer
than 75 will be held in private residences.
Party officials say the emphasis on public facilities should raise
participation, which they want to exceed 100,000 on the Democratic side, while
increasing accessibility and adding to the transparency of the meetings.
"Iowa has changed," said Chester J. Culver, the secretary of state.
"As people have moved to the metropolitan areas, it makes a little more
sense to use more schools, churches and public buildings. We want people to feel
welcome and comfortable."
Veteran caucus watchers said the switch should also make the sites more
neutral, decreasing chances that a determined host can use a home field
advantage to steer a caucus toward a favorite. Wooing with fresh-baked cookies,
for example, is not unheard of.
The Democratic Party is also using more technology, instituting an automated
call-in system intended to deliver results more smoothly and quickly. And in a
bow to the media, the parties agreed to start them at 6:30 p.m. Central Standard
Time to better meet deadlines for East Coast newspapers and late-night
television news broadcasts.
In a year when Howard Dean in particular is trying to bring out political
newcomers, Democrats say they are prepared for overflow crowds, if necessary.
They also say they expect that the campaigns responsible for turning out new
voters will have taught them how the caucuses work, minimizing the confusion.
Still, for all the changes this year, the caucus system hardly seems the wave
of the future. "It is a throwback system," said Peverill Squire, a
political scientist at the University of Iowa. "It is unlike anything else
we will see in the presidential process."
Calculators are a must for caucus-goers. The process even has its own
lexicon. Caucus cognoscenti casually toss around terms like
"viability," "preference groups" and
And, although the party officials made changes designed to enhance the
credibility of the caucuses, there has been a whiff of suspicion here that there
could be efforts at cheating by packing some caucuses with eager out-of-town
activists. Participants are supposed to be registered voters but can sign up
caucus night if they choose.
In particular, rivals of Dr. Dean, the former Vermont governor, said that
they feared his zealous supporters might engage in some mischief. Steve Murphy,
campaign manager for Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, last week
wrote to Dr. Dean's campaign manager, Joe Trippi, saying that a Dean worker had
"confessed" that there were plans to send out-of-state supporters to
the caucuses. Mr. Murphy urged the campaign to repudiate such efforts.
"We want it confined to Iowans," he said of the caucuses.
The Dean campaign dismissed the allegations and said the criticism was part
of a strategy to plant doubts about Dr. Dean's strength in the state.
Caucus experts say there have been some shenanigans in the past.
But they scoff at the notion that there could be widespread dishonesty that
could distort the results. They tick off several reasons why, not least of which
is that many of the caucuses are relatively small, neighborhood events where a
throng of newcomers would stand out. Suspect attempts to participate can be
challenged by other caucusgoers.
"I think it would be very hard to pull off," Diane Hoffman,
precinct captain for Senator John Edwards of North Carolina in Warren County,
said about cheating.
People who register to participate without the intention of establishing
residency in Iowa also run the risk of being charged with perjury. "It is a
crime to break the voter registration law," Mr. Culver said.
Caucus experts and organizers also say Iowans have a tradition of fair
elections and that any attempted manipulation would not be tolerated because it
could imperil an event that means so much for the state's finances and image.
"Iowa is not Cook County," said Dennis Goldford, a political
scientist at Drake University.
And the nature of the caucuses makes cheating problematic. The meetings are
not one person, one vote. They use a complicated formula to parcel out 13,490
precinct delegates by the presidential preference of groups of participants. To
skew the results, a campaign would have to pack precincts across the state.
Republicans will also be holding caucuses, but they do a more typical straw
"It gets almost impossible," said Gordon Fischer, chairman of the
state Democratic Party. "If you have 300 people showing up or cheating at
one precinct, it does not make any difference. It would be different if it was a
Iowa is decidedly not a primary state.
The caucuses will convene at 6:30 p.m. as participants arrive and sign in.
Some could have a dozen or so people show up, others in the hundreds. After
candidate letters are read and nominating papers circulated, the hat is passed
for money to help pay for the caucuses. They get down to presidential business
at 7 p.m.
The chairman of the caucus determines the "viability" threshold for
groups backing each presidential candidates, which in most cases will be 15
percent of the number of people attending. Caucusgoers then have 30 minutes to
divide into preference groups for the candidates. If some groups supporting
candidates do not reach the 15 percent level, those people then have up to half
an hour to realign with other campaigns.
At this stage, the pressure will be on the newly liberated caucusgoers to
enlist with another candidate. In a deeper layer of strategy, some participants
might even align with a candidate they are not that wild about to cut into the
count of those who most threaten their first choice.
At the end of 30 minutes, the preference groups are counted again and the
delegates are apportioned by multiplying the number in the preference group by
the number of delegates up for grabs in a precinct, then dividing by the total
attending the caucus. In cases of ties, delegates can be awarded by flipping a
coin or drawing straws.
Caucus chairs phone in the attendance numbers and delegate totals to the
party, which translates the precinct delegates into a proportion of 3,000
statewide delegates. The percentages that will shape the next stage of the
presidential race will be the proportion of state delegates that each candidate
The process can be daunting even to natives. So the state voter office, the
party and private groups have staged dozens of workshops and training sessions
around Iowa, complete with mock caucuses.
"I have chaired my precinct since 1980 and I still have to sit down and
read through it and refresh myself," said Ms. Lipsman, the Democratic