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January 08, 2008


Very interested in your experience with the McGovern initiated reform of party rules. As it happens, my father-in-law was very close to George - George "discovered" him in 1952 when George was running his first congressional campaign and my FIL was doing radio news for the Farmers' Union in South Dakota. George recruited my FIL to run his campaign, and thus began a long relationship.

To make a long story short, George appointed my FIL - his name is Bob Nelson - as staff direction of the McGovern-Fraser commission. He has some interesting stories to tell about the effort, especially with respect to the roles played by Eli Seagel and Ken Bode.

Also, just to add a little spice to my FIL's career, he was working for Larry O'Brien in the Watergate at the time of the bugging. Bob says Paul Duke, who was a reporter for NBC News at the time, called him early the next morning at home to ask if he knew anything about it. Bob says it was news to him at that point. Duke said "I think this is a story with legs." Yup.


mr. emptywheel asked the other day when the caucus system FIRST started. Do you know? Was it the default and folks have just moved onto primaries?

Also, can you imagine a way to make it easier for people who work nights to attend? That's my single biggest gripe about caucuses. For those who are servers (or who work the night shift), for example, you're asking them to forgo an evening of work to cast a vote. And that always struck me as very wrong for the Democratic party to do.

Well in Minnesota we have addressed this as best we can. First, we have a state law that forbids any public organization, or any organization that meets in a public building from meeting during caucus night. You can't even schedule a youth hockey game on a public pond in the park on caucus night. I was horrified by Jane's report that in Iowa the school she was observing had a basketball game scheduled on site.

Second, law requires employers to accomodate requests for shift changes for those who wish to caucus. Thus, a nurse wishing to caucus can notify supervisor of the need for a shift change, and if possible, it has to be accomodated.

Third -- those who are in a hospital, or home sick, or required to work and cannot make an accomodation, can write a letter to the precinct chair asking to be counted and written in as an attender with *, and have their preference for a candidate counted, and can also request to be considered for a delegate or party office position even though not present. The letters must be posted at the caucus location and read out in any relevant sub-caucus. Last time I chaired I had two such letters, one got elected a delegate, the other an alternate. It is respected. The requirement of reading out and posting keeps false claims at a minimum, but I doubt if someone new to the Precinct would get elected a delegate. And if I remember my rules rightly, the chair has to ask for acceptance by the body of the letters. Yep, I think I called for a vote to accept what were essentially excused absences.

Caucus day is a big deal in Minnesota, and as far as possible people who are active are respected and accomodated. It isn't perfect, but we have tried to accomodate. Remember it is not an election, it is a Party Caucus.

The greater value of the Caucus system should be evident -- it is a huge party building mechanism. People who are motivated to come to a night time meeting in the middle of the winter are also likely to be good workers in campaigns, might help with local lobby efforts, might show up at a low tab fund raiser, might agree to put up a lawn sign, or maybe take training and become a poll worker. The caucus is the great entry point -- you cannot make this kind of connection in a polling place.

This is an outstanding history of the process.

I guess one question I'd ask is, how would you resolve the dilemma that the Iowa caucuses have, of trying to both elect a strong ticket (and build a strong party) statewide-- which leads to the funny caucus math you describe -- while also serving as a national bellwether, a goal which might be better served by direct primary (secret ballot, one vote per person) -- or would it?

Basically, I'm curious how you see the party-building aspects of the caucuses intersecting with the first-in-the-nation role. (I doubt many nonIowans would take issue with the caucuses if they were JUST about electing delegates, and not about setting the tone for the rest of the primaries!)

Problems with the past Iowa caucus in my town.

The biggest problem we had was the turnout was way beyond expectation and the kind of people that turned out.

In my precinct we were expecting 120, we had 208. It was hot and crowded. At least 44 or 21% were no party or Republican. I seriously doubt most of these will actually be activists in the local Democratic Party. I would doubt the same for the Democrats who vote every two years and don't do much in between.

Another complaint was the non-viable candidate supporter numbers from the first division (sub-caucus) were not reported to the Iowa Democratic Party and therefore not available. That can fixed very easily.

I do have to say for the caucus bashers that caucus are for committed Party activists and I personally want to limit participation of those who just want to come "vote" for his or her favorite candidate and leave. There are Party announcements that happen before the Presidential preference division and after that are elections (for precinct chairs and delegate for putting together the county convention) and resolution discussions that take place. The name and address of all attendees are taken so they can be contacted later on, if the precinct chairs so choose.

Andy86...."personally want to limit participation of those who just want to vote for his or her favorite candidate and leave." Geezus good thing no one died and made you king!

Thank you Sara; you have helped educate my 12 year old daughter tonight. I actually think she caught the political bug this evening; its kind of cool to watch the young feel the unique energy of an election for the first time...

Bmaz -- if she caught the bug, nurture it!!! Twelve is not too young to get involved at all. Building and placing lawn signs is a great job for teens, counting out packets of literature for door knockers is a huge contribution. We use lots of teens to sell buttons and bumper stickers at any sort of Party Event. Then look around for one of the "camps" -- Wellstone Action has run some for teens around the country. It's three days of some fun plus learning about campaigns.

One thing that has intrigued me about the Obama Campaign, they got Ted Sorenson and Harris Wofford to volunteer to train their volunteers, so apparently the Obama Volunteers have the chance to sit around and listen to lore from two of the last surviving New Frontiersmen. Sorenson as one remembers, was JFK's Speechwriter and special counsel, and Wofford was the Campaign Counsel who connected JFK with Coretta during the campaign, when they had thrown Martin in a pretty rough Prison for an expired driver's license. Wofford went on to help Shriver put together the Peace Corps, and then was director of the whole African program. Later was a Senator, and pushed Americorps. Anyhow, getting young people to have access, and hear the stories of folk like this -- that is what is essential. You have to look for the opportunities.

Some folk don't like the math that eliminates a sub-caucus that doesn't make 15% in a precinct. Sadly -- and I have been in some of those that were super minorities -- the point of the process is to find the fulcrum of the party strength, and that isn't done by having a ton of one vote minorities hanging on to the process. So at all levels we give sub-caucuses that don't make the option of joining another caucus. The negotiations to join or not join can be powerful. (Coalitions and all that?)
First of all, one-vote minorities never get anywhere anyway. If you precinct has n delegates then you need something approaching 1/n of the votes to have a reasonable chance at a delegate. While it's possible to get by with less, the more you depend on the fractional ranking, the more likely the other candidate supporters can find ways to take your delegate away, so in practice, there's still a kind of threshold there even without the 15% rule.

Secondly, the whole notion of "viability" at the precinct level depends on the notion that the 30 or so people (*) who show up at an individual precinct can somehow be representative of an entire state. You simply don't know who's truly viable until the first statewide vote totals come in. Whole precincts often can and do go 85+% for what turn out to be marginal candidates.

Thirdly, if the point of the process is to represent people, then it simply doesn't make sense for a precinct that has 7 delegates and 1/7 of its voters supporting a particular candidate not to get a delegate; it's especially absurd if that candidate does in fact turn out to be one of the front runners -- support can be distributed in all sorts of weird ways that don't respect precinct boundaries; never mind that precinct boundaries ultimately don't matter in the presidential election.

Finally, I think you're mistaken on the history somewhat. DNC rules do not and so far as I can tell, never have required the threshold at all levels. The language is quite clear in the current DNC rules: the 15% criterion is specific to the case of district level delegates to the national convention -- and by this stage you really do want to have things narrowed down, so this kind of criterion makes perfect sense at the national level.

People assert that all levels of the caucus have to be done the same way, but if you look at current DNC rules, you'll see that there is no such requirement. And, in fact individual states can and have done markedly different things at the precinct level. Iowa actually uses a sliding precinct threshold that increases to 25% or 33% for precincts with small numbers of delegates. Texas has never had a precinct threshold at all. Here in Washington we just this year abolished the precinct threshold and the DNC approved our Delegate Selection Plan without batting an eyelash.

I suspect what really happened in the states that insist on 15% at all levels is that the rules committees, as a convenience understandably only wanted to have to write one set of rules, and so they just willynilly plugged it in at all levels, no matter how absurd it might be at the precinct level. And then the party folks just got used to it and it became tradition.

(*) now there may be some differences because I get the impression that precincts in Iowa and Minnesota are much, much larger than they are in Washington (my precinct has about 300 registered voters, which is about typical for King County; in 2004, which was something of a hundred-year-flood in terms of turnout, we had maybe 25 people showing up at my precinct caucus. We do rent school gyms and cafeterias but those are all multiple meetings where there are 10-20 precincts together in one room... it's quite chaotic, actually....

Wrog, My Minneapolis Precinct had about 2700 votes for Kerry in 2004, meaning that the possible DFL size of a caucus could be at that level. Actually we are likely to get 250-300 out to caucus. (University District, lots of churning as some graduate, and others change apartment mates.) (about 600 Republican voters).

The 15% Rule is a DNC rule -- it is up to the State Central Committee as to where to begin applying it in the process. In Iowa and Minnesota we do it at the Precinct level on the logic that someone who showed up ought to have a full strength vote as second choice by moving to a caucus that makes. Yes, the option is there to let minority support to progress through the system only to be cut off at State Convention Level, but we made the rules decision to do it at the lowest level. (I spent ten years, five terms on State Central and know the debate -- it is a State Party decision.)

In Minnesota things get complicated because our delegates sometimes have to reflect several races. This year for instance, we have a four candidate Senate Race where all the candidates have promised to abide by the State Convention Endorsement. We have Bob Olson, Jay Nelson- Palmyer, Mike Cerisi and Al Franken. Thus I expect all nominated caucuses to be about one of two Presidential Candidates, Clinton or Obama, and then split four ways by Senate Candidate. There will probably be one Uncommitted announced. If Caucus were today I would Go Uncommitted-Franken. Who knows where I will be February 5.

Believe me, none of the media has dealt with the complexity of multiple races involved in the caucus process. But I have chaired caucuses where we had three races to consider. Lots and lots of divisions just don't make -- which makes something like Uncommitted-Franken really very acceptable.

Sara - Don't know how you make it over to EW's, so here is a response I left for you to yours to me. It is good to talk to you again.

Sara - I’ll be honest, that is not something that can or will come out of this. I have an inkling that Rather has been liberated from a lot of things personally and professionally as a result of his forced ejection from CBS. I think it might be worth writing him a letter laying out your story, background and question. Heh, you can copy most of it off the comment you left for me. I have no personal knowledge, but I bet there is a decent chance he will engage you and maybe answer your questions. I would hazard a guess that the answer involves many of the same actors and principles we are afflicted with currently. Please note that I am not sure the email address is good, but I think so. If not, drop a regular letter off to him. It is worth a try and it may well be something he would like to get out now.

Dan Rather
HDNet Dallas Office
320 S. Walton Street
Dallas, TX 75226
(214) 672-1740
[email protected]

Wonderful information: shouldn't this have been in my 8th grade civics class?
I was outside the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago getting harrassed by Daley's police force for the war demonstrations.
Little did I know what the process was inside or that Daley's group was ushered of off the floor. Bravo.
Working within these narrow frameworks is required to be effective. Easy to seehow it was used to keep the power away from the people.
Getting the planks in place for energy policy, human rights, equal opportunity,fair living wage for all, housing for all, food for all and the long list of other issues is the next thing iwould like to know the process off. I have several loyal party dem friends that have been involved for over 65 years and I have yet to hear the mechanics. Can you suggest a book or make an abreviated description of how the issues get promoted to planks?

Yes, Having served for four years in the 1980's as a member of the State Platform Committee -- as co-chair for two years -- I do know the process. (at least in Minnesota). By the way, Daley was removed from the floor at the 1972 convention, not the Chicago Convention. In 1968 his Machine chosen delegate slate was quite legal given DNC rules that year. It was the McGovern-Fraser reforms that led to the new rules for 1972, and Daley did not follow them, thus the Credentials Committee gave the seats to a delegation that had been properly elected.

It is my view that if Video Reporters were to get Democratic Party History "right" -- they would show the three way split among the Kennedy, McCarthy and Humphrey factions of the party. Then they would go to the police riots outside the hotels on Michigan Avenue during the convention -- and some of the things people tried to say from the floor at that time, and then in would morph to Hubert's not being able to unify the party after the convention -- and then to a rather undramatic series of hearings all around the country chaired by McGovern, and later Fraser with all the arguments about proportional representation in the delegate selection process -- all the energy that survivors of the Civil Rights movement brought to the table -- all the Feminist Rhetoric about inclusion in decisions -- and it would end with a Credentials Report that Called Daley out for violation of the new rules -- a vote, and the arrival of the Sergeant at Arms to take him off the floor.

In my mind the people who reformed the Democratic Party then -- the heroes if you will -- were the people who turned their anger about Chicago into attending committee meetings in every state, comprehending the new rules, and fixing their state rules, constitutions and by-laws so as to reform the process.

And yes, because of this Daley did not endorse McGovern in 1972, nor did George Meany, then head of the AFL-CIO. A price had to be paid. Power does not shift easily. But these days Labor is still well represented in the DNC, but they get there according to the new rules. The old line party boss has much less power, and has to work for what he gets.

So yea, I'll work up a new essay on Platform matters.


This post was extremely helpful and needed in light of what happened in Nevada. However, I was wondering if you could also answer the questioned posed by Atrios toady:

"Some voters might actually be interested in finding out just what these 'superdelegate' things are, too."


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