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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What's a Caucus?

This whole month of January the political landscape has inundated us with what are called caucuses. Each state enters into this arena of ideas in order to make their voices heard leading up to the primaries (usually June) and the general election (first Tuesday in November).

So, what are caucuses? We use the word in abundance every four years, but do we really know what we’re talking about? After last week’s article where I wrote about the Electoral College a friend wrote and asked me if I’d explain caucuses. Let’s see where this leads.

The dictionary definition of caucus is: “a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction usually to select candidates or to decide on policy.” The etymology of the word comes from the Greek word kaukos, referring to a drinking cup. In 18th Century England social and political clubs were called Caucus Clubs.

In our own political machinations we witness this coming together for debate, deliberation, and decision-making to discern who will be the most likely candidate to hold office. This is why you will see candidates pick and choose where they will spend their money and time in an attempt to garner support in hopes of gaining momentum which would carry them through not just one or two state caucuses, but to the top position. That would be the presidency of the United States.

Searching the Internet, I found this bit of interesting information about the history of caucuses in the United States on Wikipedia. “The Iowa caucuses are an electoral event in which residents of the state of Iowa meet in precinct caucuses in all of Iowa’s 1784 precincts and elect delegates to the corresponding county conventions. There are 99 counties in Iowa and thus 99 conventions. These county conventions then select delegates for both Iowa’s Congressional District Convention, which eventually choose the delegates for the presidential nominating conventions (also called the national conventions). The Iowa caucuses are noteworthy for the amount of media attention they receive during U.S. presidential election years. Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the first major electoral event of the nominating process for President of the United States. Although only about one percent of the nation’s delegates are chosen by the Iowa State Convention, the Iowa caucuses have served as an early indication of which candidates for president might win the nomination of their political party at that party’s national convention.”

Typically you will see candidates begin to assert themselves about mid-way through the year leading up to the caucuses. This election year has been a bit unusual. Instead of seeing candidates begin to announce their intent to run in the spring or summer (Fred Thompson, for instance), there was instead a glut of candidates from both major parties immediately following the mid-term elections in November of 2006 (Hillary, Obama, Edwards, Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani, McCain, to name the most notables). This is one of the reasons many of us have become weary of the whole process and we’re still ten months from the presidential election!

Each candidate is attempting to secure the promise of support from the delegates. It is a lot like mating. Each puts their best foot forward in hopes of appearing to be the most electable candidate. This is why endorsements are important. For instance, Hillary Clinton was able to gain the endorsement of the Des Moines Register. Because of the influence newspapers have with their readership, candidates will target major papers for their endorsement. It gives the impression of electability and may sway delegates who are not so sure. No one wants to bet on a loser. This is why when a candidate realizes they are not getting anywhere and drop from the race, they will often ask those delegates who have sided with them to throw there support behind one of the front runners. It’s all very political, don’t you know!

For most of us, we sit back and watch as all this scurrying around takes place, waiting for the dust to settle, seeing who will emerge as the party candidates. It looks a lot like when we were kids getting ready to play some sand-lot baseball. Two kids would be picked as opposing team captains. Then the candidating would begin. We’d stand all in a bunch, jostling each other trying to be seen by the two captains in hopes that we’d be picked ahead of everyone else. The best players wouldn’t worry about this because they knew they’d be picked. The rest of us would try and catch the captain’s eye, at which point we’d put on our most pathetic faces, pleading to be chosen. It was the depths of humiliation to be chosen last!

The caucuses are not much different from the way we were as kids. The difference is the outcome of our election system determines who will be the president of the United States for the next four years. It is especially critical because the president is the most powerful and influential person in the world.

Choose wisely.

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