Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Iowa Caucuses--A personal retrospective

It's finally caucus time, and the state that I once called home can recede from the center of national attention. I thought I'd recycle a post from last year which explains the origins of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, and reflects on the 1976 Democratic caucuses, in which I played a small part. My precinct caucus voted me to be a delegate to the county convention, and from there I won a seat at the district and state conventions. It's there--at the congressional district and state conventions--that the actual delegates to the national convention are selected. So the caucuses are really something of a straw poll. Iowa's actual delegation to the national convention may not reflect the results of the caucuses, as every delegate has the right to change his or her mind, and candidates who receive fewer than fifteen per cent of the vote at cannot go on to the next level. But the news media have made the caucuses the first test of a presidential race. What goes on later, in a state which has a very small delegation at the convention, doesn't much matter to the media.

Until 1972, caucuses were held in March or April, and Iowa had virtually no influence on presidential nominations. But that year two things happened: Harold Hughes, the popular ex-governor and senator, was considering a run for the presidency, and the complicated McGovern Commission rules for selecting delegates went into effect. Iowa Democrats decided to hold their caucuses early that year to allow more time to work through the McGovern Commission rules, and to give Hughes a boost in his run for the White House.

Alas, Hughes bowed out of the race, saying he knew he could never push the button to fire our nuclear missles, even if the Soviets launched first. He endorsed Edmund Muskie, who won the caususes. George McGovern managed a strong showing. It was not until four years later that the Iowa caucuses became the media spectacle they are today. I was living in Iowa City that year, and was working the precincts for Representative Morris K. (Mo) Udall of Arizona. He was one of about a dozen Democratic candidates in the Bicentennial Year. A bumper sticker that year, taking off on a McDonald's Big Mac commercial, read something like:
"bayhbentsenbrowncarterchurchharrisjacksonsanford
shappshriverudallwallace...on a sesame seed bun!"

Udall had the problem of telling too many jokes. He was a serious candidate, and his message of conservation was right for the time, but people didn't take him seriously because he couln't stop telling jokes. Instead, Iowans--even very liberal Iowans who had campaigned for Gene McCarthy in '68 and George McGovern in '72--seemed to be backing a conservative former one-term Georgia governor who had been a supporter of the Vietnam War.

I saw Jimmy Carter at a forum at the Iowa Memorial Union. I had a work-study job driving the campus bus (Cambus), and we drivers were in an adjacent room, signing up for shifts. While waiting for our names to be called, some of us looked in on the candidate. I thought he was boring. Of course, after seeing the trailer for the movie "Rocky," I said that the last thing this country needed or wanted was another fight film. My finger was not exactly on the national pulse of that decade.

But I also remember walking around campus that winter, and seeing the chartered Greyhound buses parked by the Fieldhouse. The "H" in CHARTER had been taped over. Scores, perhaps hundreds of Georgians had left their subtropical world for the snows of Iowa. They did what the students for McCarthy had done in 1968: knock on doors and make personal contact with the voters. Even then, Carter was unable to win the caucuses. He came in second, to "Uncommitted." In the Iowa caucuses, you can beat somebody with nobody. And Carter's spin doctors (I'm not sure they used that term then, but there were people who did the same thing) convinced the news media that coming in second to Uncommitted was indeed a great victory. He went on to win the New Hampshire primary. In spite of the "Anybody but Carter" movement in the West, where Frank Church and Jerry Brown beat the Georgian in several primaries, Carter's people held onto their lead and swept the 1976 convention.

Carter beat Gerald Ford in a very close election that year. Ford might very well have won, had it not been for Ronald Reagan, whose attacks on Ford during the Republican primaries weakened the president.

It was a bizarre campaign, with dozens of candidates, from Ronald Reagan and George Wallace on the right to Mo Udall and Fred Harris on the left. I had friends who wouldn't vote for Udall because he was a Mormon, and supported Harris, a populist from Oklahoma. (Harris was a born-again radical; in 1968 he was a Johnson/Humphrey man.) Since then, the Iowa caucuses have been more important in winnowing out the weaker candidates or persuading the eventual winners to shake up their campaigns. But in 1976 the Iowa caucuses really did make a president.

8 comments:

Lisa said...

I love these posts. I must confess that I paid very little attention to politics until fairly recently. Ironically, during my 14 years in the military, I (and most of my fellow service members) tended to be pretty oblivious to what was going on within the government except within the DoD. This really helps to fill in a long overdue education. Thank you!

Tea N. Crumpet said...

I remember the McD's commercial! I don't recall the Democratic bumper sticker but I said it out loud and my kids who were up had to come over and say it 'til they got it!

Poor Udall-- I almost understand his plight. Years ago I stuttered and my debate coach noticed that I didn't when I was telling a story so she had me do humorous interpretations of literature. I wanted to be on the debate team because I was smart and that was what smart people did. (I was out of my league in that class-- I was with some poeple who've since done Georgetown and Pepperdine and are professors and lawyers and lawmakers, oh my! And Lions and Tigers and Bears!) I started speaking and making people laugh and I didn't stutter. So I was ready to debate and I was cracking jokes, laughing at myself with my audience and thus my debate career ended after three debates. I was only at ease with my audience laughing.

goatman said...

Thanks for the history lesson. Seems that there is a lot of mis(dis)information going around about the caucus system. I heard on radio yesterday that only the Democrats have the caucus system in Iowa, that the Republicans have a primary system in that state! News to me.

I can't believe that there are now three people in the world who liked Incredible String Band (my wife, me ,and apparently you.)
"I'm the original discriminating buffalo man and I'll do whats wrong as much as I can"

Have a nice year ahead for yourself.

Julie said...

Intruiging insights, Steve; tho I'm having to fill in the missing pieces in terms of knowledge of your system!

Came up with interesting historical snippets on the Shipbourne Church - (second lot of photos today); confusingly more than one Green Street Green in the area; tho' there's a good curry house in one of them...!

steve said...

Lisa--I'm glad you appreciate the political posts. It's understandable that you weren't politically aware in those days, especially when you were stationed overseas. Your recreation of life in the peacetime (or is it Cold War) military is a real strength in your novel.)

Tea--That's a great story. That may have been Mo Udall's problem as well. Even though Udall had a glass eye, he once played semi-professional basketball. Once when he was having a bad day on the court, one of the fans was taunting him about his glass eye, and sayng he didn't believe Udall had one. Udall stopped, plucked the glass eye out of the socket, held it up to the guy and said, "See if you can see with the S.O.B." The really sad thing about Udall was his lingering death from Parkinson's Disease.

Goatman--Welcome. Iowa has a primary later in the year for state and congressional offices, but both parties use the caucus/convention system to select delegates to the national convention. The Democrats were the first to move the caucuses up to January, but the Republicans eventually followed.

There are more ISB fans than you realize. For one thing, all three of my children are hooked on them. Type in the Incredible String Band on Youtube, and you'll find them singing "Painting Box," accomapanied by the ethereally beautiful Julie Felix. The ISB has a site on MySpace. Strangely enough, Doctor Strangely Strange has one, too. Ivan Pawle of that group plays keyboard for the ISB on "Changing Horses." They're not so brilliant as the ISB, but in the same tradition. Check out their signature tune, "Strangely Strange but Oddly Normal." BTW, I did a post on the ISB--check May 2007 archive.

Julie (who's way too young to be Julie Felix)--Explaining the American "system" of picking a president is a lot harder to explain, than, say, the British system of choosing a party leader. Briefly, each party has a convention to pick the nominee. To be nominated, you need 50 percent plus one of the delegates. Some states use primaries, and some use the caucus/convention system. The purpose of either is to choose delegates to the national convention.

Thanks looking into Green Street Green(s).

Julie said...

Steve, thanks. Appreciate the complexity and scale of your system. We've had a few indirect contacts with politicians over the years as a result of being in the British goldfish bowl....

Tea N. Crumpet said...

I wish I'd known Mo. We could have lead each other into stressful situations to see how far the other would go!

Charles Gramlich said...

I like how the story plays around the tale of the Cardiff Giant.