Privacy, Technology, and the Iowa Caucus

Every four years, the national media re-discover the Iowa caucus.  The countdown to the current version has begun in earnest (the caucus will take place on January 3), and it’s happening again.

It’s not only the media, of course.  At roughly caucus-minus-3o days, as they do every four years since Carter/Kennedy in 1980, college students and well-intentioned political volunteers start streaming across the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers in large numbers, hoping to sample — and influence — some authentic political debate.  They’re shocked — pleasantly shocked, but shocked nonetheless — to find deliberative democracy alive and well in America.

I’m here to remind you that there’s not much new under the sun.  The Iowa caucus appears to a 21st century perfect political storm:  the crush of media-intensive national campaigns; a fully-caffeinated and fully-networked population of voters and activists; and a political process straight out of the 18th century.  Thus the “how about those Iowans?” media frenzy; thus the “I’ll go to the heartland and talk some Obama-sense into Clintonians” earnestness.  But there is both less and more here than meets the eye.  I was a political operative in the 1983/84 Iowa Democratic caucus, and I’m part of a large family of Iowans.  There are a few things that you need to know.

The key to caucus success isn’t the message.  The key isn’t debate success, and it’s not the endorsement of the Des Moines Register.  The key is turnout.  The Iowa caucus is all about figuring out who your candidate’s supporters are, and getting those people to the right caucus location, on time, on caucus night.  In the best of worlds, that means that the campaign knows the name, address, phone number, and email address of every one of those supporters — ahead of time.  Knows where their caucus is, and knows whether that person can be counted on to show up independently — or needs a ride, or directions, or some other helping hand.

For decades, Iowa politics have been highly bureaucratized (which is not surprising in a medium-sized state with 99 counties), data-driven, and — this is key — privacy-defeating.  If you know anything casually about the caucus system, you probably know that the caucuses are technically organized by the political parties, not by state or local governments; and that your candidate preference is not private.  That preference is shared with everyone else in your precinct, because you “vote” by standing in a corner, or assembling in some visible part of the room, with your fellow Clinton/Gore/Dukakis/Mondale/etc. supporters. 

Not as well known outside the caucus system is that these “votes” get recorded in a database maintained by the Iowa Democratic Party, and that the Party makes these lists available to the campaigns.  (I can’t comment on the Republican Party, but I would be surprised if Republican practice were different.)  Back in 1983 — before email, before cell phones, before the Japanese were making (many) cars in the United States — our number one campaign tool was a name-and-address printout of every soul who showed up at a Democratic caucus in 1980 — and who they “voted” for (in that case, Carter or Kennedy).  That dataset today is all the richer — and more valuable to the campaigns. 

One might imagine, plausibly, that modern communications and networking technologies would make all of this list-creation and management vastly easier.  In other words, as in other social and cultural domains, it’s plausible to think that fast and cheap information exchange in the caucus world would reduce, if not eliminate, advantages from incumbency and other embedded social relations.  My best estimate is the caucus system, and the old-fashioned political organizing that has traditionally been the source of success, is largely resistant to Web 2.0 politics.  If the key to success is finding a specific group of your people, moving them to a specific location at a specific time in the dead of the Iowa winter, and expecting them to engage in a highly counterintuitive, ritualized, and public process of preference revelation — at each precinct, your “vote” counts only if your candidate has enough support to be considered “viable” as a proportion of the overall participation at that precinct’s caucus, and if your candidate isn’t “viable” you can realign to form a “viable” group in support of a different candidate — then there is no substitute for face-to-face social networks.  If you turn out for such a thing, you’re not only committing to a candidate.  It keeps you warm and motivated if you’re also committing to your colleague or your neighbor or your classmate.  On caucus night, there’s as much arm-twisting and local political deal-making as there are debates about how to solve America’s health care crisis, and what to do about the tax system.  Technology doesn’t help as much as you might think.

Four years ago, about three months before the caucus, Howard Dean’s campaign had an enormous amount of public momentum.  Meetup and Moveon and email and online networking were pushing him to the top of the polls, in Iowa as elsewhere.  I remember that around that time I had lunch with a couple of colleagues — one a law school classmate well-versed in progressive policy advocacy, the other now, like me, with his own blog platform — and I predicted definitively that Dean would crash and burn for want of an old-style Iowa political organization.  And he crashed and burned. 

Having paid relatively little attention to contemporary caucus politics, I won’t make a comparable prediction this time around.  But I will note that anything short of an outright Hillary Clinton victory on January 3 will be and should be regarded as a setback for her campaign.  She benefits from roughly 17 years of campaign contacts in Iowa, going back to 1990, two years before Bill Clinton first won the presidency.  That’s 17 years of county Democratic Party chairs and committee members, union leaders, teachers, senior center operators, Iowa legislators, school board volunteers, veterans’ advocates, liberal farmers, and Planned Parenthood and Sierra Club board members who could and should have been lined up as Clintonians long ago, all of them people who are presumptive precinct captains, carpool drivers, and caucus attendees.  Iowa should be a cakewalk for her, and if it’s not, then she’s in trouble. 

John Edwards only needs to finish second; he had an uphill battle to build an Iowa organization four years ago and will do well to hold onto that crew, perhaps adding some Dean holdovers.  If Obama finishes second, even if it’s a distant second to Clinton, he puts Edwards on the ropes.  The Democratic Party and the media will tolerate a three-candidate race only for so long.  Organizationally speaking, Obama had virtually no chance when he first headed into Iowa.  A second place finish would be tremendous.  Even a third place finish would hardly be fatal, especially if he keeps it close.  If Obama somehow wins the caucus outright?  I’d lay odds on the first female Vice President in American history.