Vote for Me! I Got the Best Snickerdoodles in Iowa: Read My Lips

If a candidate fails to achieve "viability," which might be called "O'Malleying" this year, his or her supporters have choices to make.

Think of caucus-goers as human corn.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Guess the movie:

Vanessa, a voter, picks a candidate she likes, then shifts to another before being swayed by the baked goods offered by a third. "They baited me with cookies," she explains with a nervous laugh.

Was that from:

a) "Napoleon Dynamite"
b) "Wag the Dog"
c) "Election"
d) "The Candidate"

If only. It's from a news report, on YouTube, that offers a glimpse inside those curious Iowa caucuses that few of us (except Iowans) fully understand, trust or respect.

Later today, the selection of the next leader of the free world gets under way in Linn-Mar High School in Marion, in the town library in Meservey and in thousands -- literally, thousands -- of other small-town Iowa locales that don't otherwise carry the aura of a center of power. By tomorrow, the voting in all these quiet corners of America's 30th-most-populous state will make some candidates more likely to be the next president, and others somewhere between depressed and doomed.

By now there's a familiar litany of complaints about Iowa as first-in-the-nation presidential proving ground: It's too rural, too conservative, too evangelical, and about as racially diverse as the Oscars. Turnout is no less bleak than in less politically pampered states. Iowa didn't so much earn its prime status as stumble into it due to a calendar quirk. It effectively disenfranchises people who'd like to vote but can't spare an hour or more out of their house on a weeknight -- a single parent, say, or somebody whose DVR is on the fritz. It only matters so much because we all think it does.

A good look at the inner workings of the caucuses doesn't do much to instill confidence.

For Republicans, the process is straightforward, if uncomfortably reminiscent of high school. Short speeches on behalf of the candidates precede a vote, either by a show of hands or on strips of paper. There's room for individual quirks: The McNutt family of Silver City, Iowa, who host a Republican caucus in their living room, like using a wicker Frosty the Snowman hat to collect the paper ballots. (CBS News uncovered that confidence-inspiring nugget in 2012.)

Democrats, being Democrats, have ladled on an additional layer of complexity.

First they vote with their feet, grouping themselves by the candidate they support. As to what factors might influence their choice, well, here's how honest-to-goodness political scientists describe it:

Candidate precinct leaders attempt to corral as many people into their corner as possible, using such enticements as food -- cookies, cake, or even sandwiches, as the Hillary Clinton campaign provided in many precincts in 2008 -- and good old-fashioned efforts at debate and persuasion.

Each candidate-specific gaggle is then counted to see if any fails to reach "viability," a level defined in most caucus locales as 15 percent of those who showed up. If a candidate fails to achieve viability, which might be called "O'Malleying" this time around, his or her supporters have choices to make. This phase is known as realignment. Cue the academics again:

They can move to some other viable preference group and add to that group's numbers; attempt to get people to come over to their group to make them viable; combine with another nonviable group to become viable either for one of the candidates or declare themselves "uncommitted"; or they can simply pack up and go home.

At large caucuses, there may be "hundreds of people milling about as candidate precinct captains try hard to keep things under control and to the benefit of their candidate," the authors write. All sorts of mischief is possible. A crafty supporter of Candidate X might go align with Candidate Y to keep him or her viable because Candidate Y is a rival of Candidate Z.

Plus, there's always peer pressure from neighbors, or other enticements. Which brings us back to Vanessa, the star of an eight-minute video shot by a visiting reporter from New York during the last Iowa Democratic caucuses that mattered, in 2008.

She's already wearing stickers for Edwards and Obama when the camera finds her. Clearly uncomfortable, she's cajoled into walking over to the Hillary Clinton section, with its table of goodies. When she says she was "baited" by cookies, she's kinda joking. Or is she?

Iowa's weirdness doesn't stop there. Democrats for some reason don't release the initial breakdown of votes, only the breakdown of delegates awarded after realignment and after rounding. And these are just delegates to the county convention, which is another step on the way to the presidential convention.

The Republicans aren't much better. Until this year, its caucuses were "strictly a beauty contest" with "no connection between the vote … and the national convention delegates won." Only this year will delegates be bound to vote for their assigned candidate on the first ballot at the presidential convention.

And let's not forget the small matter of the wrong Republican winner being crowned in 2012.

Last year, in what could best be called an act of mercy, Iowa Republicans put an end to the quadrennial embarrassment known as the Ames Straw Poll, an unscientific, cynical spectacle that rewarded candidates who bused in the most people, served the best food and landed the coolest musicians. In its short life, the straw poll boosted the candidacies of such surefire presidents-to-be as Pat Robertson, Michele Bachmann and Tracy Flick. (Oops, wrong election.) The real winner was the party, which sold the tickets that campaigns gobbled up by the thousands.

Are Iowa's caucuses really any better? Only the rabid show up, they're plied with baked goods, and their track record includes anointing Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee and Richard Gephardt.

Fans of Iowa's caucus system tend to praise its hyperlocal focus, how it promotes face-to-face campaigning and debate among neighbors. Which, it's true, sounds like a lovely way to choose the president of a local swim club.

(This version corrects the spelling of O'Malley.)

 

(Read My Lips is a column dedicated to the proposition that men and women in a position of power, or the pursuit of it, will say or do things for which they will be sorry.)

 

 

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