I wanted to share my experience with you, since frankly I believe there is a lot of confusion or misunderstanding about caucuses. I hope you’ll see my perspective and understand more about this process.
First, I apologize that I don’t have any pictures. In my haste to get all the materials together after work, plus my focus in preparing a five-minute stump speech for Rick Perry, I forgot to bring my camera. I know I like to see posts with pictures and I’m sorry I don’t have any to share. In fact I am most sorry because I was so proud of my 4-year-old son who was there with my wife and he was running back and forth a lot of the night (with his Rick Perry sticker displayed proudly) “helping dad with the meeting.” That was fantastic.
The town where my precinct caucus was held has a population of about 1700, and including a lot of rural area around it, it is just as large by GOP registrations as the county seat, which is its own precinct and has a population of 2700.
Each precinct generally holds its own caucus, although some (usually densely populated) counties do choose to hold county-wide forums in one spot where they break out at the end into their respective precincts to vote. I heard that one precinct was actually holding a dinner before the caucus and inviting candidates or proxies to speak then, and then have the caucus itself at 7pm, the normally scheduled time. The County Central Committee organizes and pays for any fees to reserve locations to hold the caucuses, and identifies the temporary chair and secretary who will actually run the event. Sometimes the caucus is not in the same location that people normally go to vote in elections. In my precinct, it was the same as our normal voting location.
Anyway my role for the night was caucus chairman, plus whatever I could do in parallel as a volunteer precinct chairman for Rick Perry. I showed up at about 5:45pm to start setting up, but thankfully our caucus secretary and her husband were there earlier and had set up chairs (about 100), the lectern and a registration table. To my pleasant surprise, a volunteer from the Perry campaign had already showed up and posted about eight Rick Perry yard signs out in front of the hall and set up a table inside full of promotional materials. He was a nice man from rural Texas who actually knew the Perry family. He was there with his ~10-year-old daughter. They had flown into Des Moines Sunday night separately with 2 other family members and had initially been told they would man a precinct in Winterset, IA. When the Perry organization realized they had 2 rental cars between them, they split them up and sent him to our small community instead – about a 2-hour drive from Des Moines. They did get some sight-seeing in around Winterset on Monday, even though it was super windy and cold! January in Iowa.
I heard afterward that at least the 3 largest precincts (out of 7 total in our county) had someone from the Perry campaign represented at their caucus. I know at least 2 more had volunteers slated to speak for Perry, so I was very proud of the Perry organization. The Perry Strike Force was fantastic.
One local volunteer showed up to put up a table for Rick Santorum. The county chair for Michele Bachmann had put out some stickers and leaflets for her campaign, but his caucus was in another precinct. No other presence was there for the other campaigns in my precinct.
From 6:30-7pm we had a steady line checking in, so we weren’t able to start the caucus until 7:10pm. The official scheduled start was 7pm. We had an official roll of all registered Republicans in our precinct, although that was as of roughly November 15th, 2011. If someone was not on the roll (either by mistake, voter at the wrong precinct, or a new voter) they were required to fill out a new registration form (the same form that is always used in Iowa) to register as a Republican in the State of Iowa. We had several new voter registrations, at least one mix-up, and a few that were left off the roll for some reason. Once a voter was checked in they received a ballot. Our ballots were pre-printed and had check boxes for Bachmann, Gingrich, Paul, Perry, Romney, Santorum, plus a write-in blank. A lot of people showed up early to talk in person to the campaign representatives.
The first order of business is for the temporary chair (myself) to elect the permanent chair and the permanent secretary for the caucus. We follow Robert’s Rules of Order for all procedures of the meeting. In the caucus training I attended, we were told to expect that unless the temp chair or secretary expressly says they do not want to be the permanent one, expect to be permanent! That certainly held true for our caucus.
Before we did that, we gave a quick slot for state legislators to speak, since for 2012 redistricting we have two existing legislators competing with each other – and they were trying to hit more than one precinct that night. So two representatives for one State Rep. got up and spoke for about 5 minutes – the young lady who spoke was a teenager, so that was wonderful. The other State Rep. showed up to our caucus just as we were adjourning (after visiting 2 other precincts) and personally worked the crowd that remained.
PRESIDENTIAL FORUM AND POLL
After formally getting elected permanent chair and electing the permanent secretary, I opened the floor to candidate representatives to speak. Each candidate could have one representative speak for up to 5 minutes. No disruptions are permitted. I ran down the ballot and the first person to draw interest was a young person for Ron Paul, who I am sure didn’t plan on speaking that night until that moment. He rambled a lot, but when he was finished everyone applauded respectfully. Next was Perry, and I fully intended to speak, but instead I deferred to the man who had flown in from Texas. He gave a very nice speech for AT LEAST five minutes talking about his experience with Rick Perry’s family, Perry’s background, and with Rick Perry as his Governor. Lastly a local person spoke for Rick Santorum. No other speeches were offered.
We gathered the secret ballots (by this time it was about 7:35pm) and began counting them. Each campaign is allowed to have one person observe the counting, but really it’s out in the open on a table so everyone can watch.
If memory serves we had 102 total votes, with Rick Santorum at 41, Rick Perry at 22, Mitt Romney 16, I believe Ron Paul had 12, Newt Gingrich 9, and Michele Bachmann 2. I read out the results from the lectern, and a smattering of attendees left after that. Several people had expressed they also had a youth basketball game to attend that night, so that was completely fine. Most of them stayed to the end so I was pleased with that.
ALL THE REST
The last orders of business: we elected 2 representatives to the County Central Committee, asked for volunteers to be delegates to the County Convention, and finally took proposals for resolutions to be part of the Platform for our county. Anyone can propose a resolution, and those in attendance discuss the resolution and then vote on whether to accept them. We had two proposals. One was presented for the Iowa Firearms Coalition on amending the state Constitution for “constitutional carry” and it passed without objection. The second was offered by a young man on behalf of the One campaign for diverting public resources to humanitarian purposes, particularly to fight AIDS. The attendees were not too excited about using public resources in that fashion, and it was voted down. I was sorry I didn’t get the chance to thank the young man afterward for at least coming to represent his cause in front of all these people.
And that was the end of the caucus. We were done with the proceedings before 8pm. I called in the results of the presidential poll to the recording center and spent quite some time (along with our caucus secretary) afterward signing up delegates to the County Convention, giving information about what the convention really is, and so forth.
A lot has been said about “why a caucus” and the one big benefit I observed is the opportunity to get into a room with a healthy number of Republicans in your community and participate in the political process.
Partially at the urging of ColdWarrior at RedState, and a pure desire to get involved and drive conservatism in the Republican Party, I’ve been attending our Central Committee meetings for the last 8 months and actively participating in their functions. As an aside, being active and interested at that level was all it took for me to be given the gavel as a caucus temporary chair, and now to be formally elected as a Precinct Committee representative.
But my point is that in all the Central Committee meetings I have attended we have about 8-10 people who show up at every meeting, and I think the most I have seen at a meeting is 15. We held a fundraiser in the fall for our whole county; we had Chuck Grassley, Steve King, all our local representatives plus representatives from any of the presidential campaigns that agreed to attend and give remarks – and I believe the turnout was around 60 people. We had decent success at fundraising, but I was really hoping for double that attendance. Our county has several thousand registered Republicans, and (thankfully) as a whole we vote roughly 60-65% GOP in statewide and national elections. I know my experience in the lack of active participation in the party is not unique across our country.
So in my view, having the opportunity to have over a hundred Republicans and interested observers gathered in one room (and have this repeated in precincts all over our state) to actively talk about the role of government in our lives and participating in that process is a welcome event. I don't believe this kind of forum is something you could ever get from a primary system, even though I suspect you might get more total votes in a primary.
On open registrations – frankly I see both sides of the issue here. While I’d prefer that “just Republicans” pick our nominees (or the delegates if you prefer), we had several new voters decide that night to come and participate in our caucus. Yesterday on the radio I heard the testimony of several people who previously identified as Independent or Democrat but finally decided that night to make the switch and come to a Republican caucus...not as Democrats, but to be Republicans. I guess I almost liken it to a spiritual awakening – sometimes it takes a person right up until an actual event to hear the calling and step over that line and “become a Republican.” Even though I appreciate the “purity” a closed registration system could afford, I see a lot of positive value in having an open-door process in our Republican Party. I suspect some people are bound to abuse the system no matter what your rules are, so I believe having an open system is the best compromise. I think, let's get them registered as Republicans, and then we can work on making them understand conservatism in government.
Our caucus forum was purely democratic and I really enjoyed the experience. However I do hope we won’t need to have another caucus with a true presidential poll for eight more years!
Cross-posted at BA Cyclone's blog.