Farm State Caucuses Cull Wheat, Chaff

By Compiled From News Services | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 13, 1996 | Go to article overview

Farm State Caucuses Cull Wheat, Chaff


Compiled From News Services, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


It's an odd but engaging way to pick a presidential nominee: a small number of Iowa Republicans gathered in fire stations, church basements and school gyms, their decisions destined to make the first cut in the GOP field of nine.

In these caucuses, it's OK to twist your neighbor's arm just as he is about to vote. Even odder, the results don't necessarily affect the delegates Iowa sends to the GOP convention. And it's all done before a crowd.

But engaging, too, because here - in a way that voters in states without caucuses can hardly imagine - the business of expressing your political preference is still very, very tangible.

"It's a true community event," said Sandy Hoenig, who has participated in the state's caucuses for more than 20 years. "And it's a very good way to do things."

Not everyone agrees.

"It's a great thing for us," said Tom Economos, ready to attend the uncontested Democratic caucuses. "But I don't think it's much of an indicator of what the nation's thinking, frankly."

And there's the rub, the critics say.

Iowa doesn't exactly look like the rest of America these days, being 97 percent white and full of farms and small towns. Yet because of the decisions made Monday night, its political impact is huge.

And it's all an accident.

In 1972, Democrats started the caucuses as part of nominating process reforms in the wake of the chaotic 1968 Chicago convention. Anti-war activists that year gave George McGovern a slightly better showing than expected. Not many people noticed, except Jimmy Carter.

The obscure Georgia governor used the caucuses next time around to get an early win in the Democratic contest, and the momentum that propelled an unknown to the nomination.

The pattern was set and has just grown stronger.

These days, TV cameras from New York and Japan crowd into some of the 2,142 caucuses along with the voters. Attendance ranges from just a handful to several hundred at each gathering.

"Everyone mills around for a while while they check your names," said Jeanne Samame of Des Moines. "Then you take the vote, and then you divide into your groups of supporters and talk about what your platform is."

The vote is secret, written on a piece of paper. In some places, though, crowds of reporters watch as voters write, then rush out to report the results of what is essentially a non-binding straw poll.

Many voters go home at that point.

But others linger on to finish the party's business. …

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