If you think we're going to get a democracy up and running in Iraq by midsummer, maybe you should know that it takes two hours to teach Iowans how to vote in their own caucus. And these are Iowans who have been to caucuses before.
Admittedly, the Iowa caucus is the most painstaking, complicated form of democracy to exist outside a campus women's collective. Instead of walking into a voting booth, pulling the top lever for President and randomly yanking the rest of them like you're supposed to, the caucus is a three-hour Monday-night political dorkfest reserved for the kinds of people who get psyched about jury duty. In 2000, only 61,000 Iowans showed up to vote, and it's not as if there's a lot to do in Iowa in January.
To explain how it all works, Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver is going around the state holding practice caucuses. At his workshop last Tuesday at the library in Clive, a suburb seven miles west of Des Moines, about 50 people showed up, several of them young enough to be my parents. Most of these folks already knew how caucuses work and just wanted a refresher course. Clive needs to get itself a bowling alley.
As Culver, 37, a former history teacher, began with an hour-long PowerPoint presentation on the history of the caucus going back to 1846, a sign-language interpreter flashed signs--even though not a single person in the room was deaf. It hit me about 15 minutes into the speech that the sign-language guy must have realized no one there was deaf, but by that time it was too embarrassing to just stop. So he kept going, his bravery a further testimony to the lengths Iowans go through just to get David Broder to visit.
For the second hour, Culver had the audience stage a fake caucus. It turns out the Republican caucus is really simple. They pass around ballots, count them and go home to watch Everybody Loves Raymond while the Democrats are still reading their rules. I predict the state will eventually be 100% Republican.
When the caucus begins at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 19, the first thing everyone in both parties will do is vote on a committee chair. Then caucusgoers will debate and vote on issues they'd like to see on the party's platform at the convention. Finally, the people at the Democratic caucus make speeches for all the Democratic candidates, including Undecided. Undecided, by the way, has taken the Democratic Iowa caucus several times, as in 1972 and 1976. If Confused were a candidate, it would win even more often.
After the speeches, everyone then votes by walking to the section of the room designated for his or her candidate. Any group with less than 15% of the attendees is considered nonviable and has to disband. Then the realignment period begins, in which everyone walks around and tries to persuade the disbanded people, and anyone else, to join them. The classic way to do that is to bribe them by making them delegates to the convention. That's like a trip to Vegas to these people.
Once all the candidates have at least 15%, a formula Culver describes as "needing a Ph.D. in math to understand" is used to determine how many delegates each candidate gets. The percentage of delegates each candidate gets is the number reported in the media. Then the media, for reasons that are unclear, pretend that has something to do with whom the country wants to be President.