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Home > World

It's a caucus, stupid

Despite what TFT - and the rest of the press - might have reported, Howard Dean did not get "just 18% of the vote" in the Iowa caucuses. Likewise John Kerry did not get "37.6% of the vote" nor did John Edwards get " 31.8%" of the vote. Robert Mackey in New York explains.

23 January 2004

Due to the impossibly silly and complex nature of the Iowa system, which uses caucuses instead of a direct election, no one knows who got the most votes in Iowa. Nor do they know how many votes any candidate would have got in a straight-forward election like the one that will take place in New Hampshire next week.

In each of Iowa's 99 precincts, everyone who wants to take part in the selection of the state's delegates goes to a meeting place. Then, after talking things over for a while, the assembled group goes (literally) and stands in one corner or another depending on who they want to support. Imagine a cross between Runaround and God's Gift with Davina McCall and you're on the right track.

And then comes the key part that blows away all the talk over the past few days about what the Iowa "vote" means...

After all the people in each little precinct has expressed their preference and stood in their group, any group that has selected a candidate with less than 15% of the total in that room, is forced to disband and choose another group.

In other words, it is quite possible that many people who wanted to vote for Dean, or Gephardt, or any of the other candidates, were unable to do so because they lived in a place that gave him less than 15% of that area's vote.

So, after a night of 'caucusing', we get no real result; the percentages thrown about are the percentage of the total delegates each candidate got at the end of the Runaround gameshow. The whole system seems designed to frustrate the will of the people being clearly expressed which puts in a new light the announcement that we will oversee the selection of a new Iraqi government through a process of "caucus-style" meetings.

It also shows that Dean's failure to win the most delegates in Iowa has been massively overplayed in the American media - partly because no one on this side of the Atlantic really understands the system either - and in part because the Washington insider media here hates Dean as much as the rest of us hate Bush. The only sad thing is that no one seems to see how big a part the Republicans have played in the creation of the 'Dean is an angry madman' storyline that now dominates the headlines.

We'll see what happens in New Hampshire - the first proper election of the competition- but if Dean wins it won't be a stunning reversal of fortune. Only about 125,000 people in Iowa turned out to vote (sorry, caucus) in Iowa - and New Hampshire has less than 200,000 Democrats - in a country in which about 100 million people will vote for President in November. Kerry's winning of about a third of the delegates in Iowa, if it came on a vote of about a third of the turnout means that he got just about 40,000 people to vote for him. And yet, on the strength of that half a football stadium's worth of support, the news media has lost all sense of proportion. 'The American people have spoken," they proclaim "and Kerry's their man".

It will be interesting, and fairly depressing, to see how much of an effect the result, and the coverage of the result, in Iowa has on the choices of voters next week.

Depressingly, the polls show Dean dropping like a stone in New Hampshire. Apparently voters there are changing their minds as to whether or not they support Dean for President because he did badly in a poll of 125,000 people - about 0.1% of the American electorate. Never underestimate the idiocy of the American voter.

For a nice explanation of the caucus system, go here.

And this is pretty brilliant - in a boring sort of way: the Washington Post's video team spent the evening of the Iowa Caucuses at one of the caucus sites - literally a living room with 20 people in it. You'll notice that one of the people counting votes is drinking a beer.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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