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THOMPSON: How the American caucus process works, or doesn't work

February 17, 2020 - 12:00 PM



Last week, about 170,000 Iowans tried their damnedest to be the first group of Americans to pick a Democrat to be the next president of the United States. That deliberative process - and I use the term loosely - is known as the Iowa Caucuses. It did not go well.

Now, a caucus - for the uninitiated - is a meeting of local members of a political party to register their preference among candidates and pledge the number of delegates to each candidate.

My Canadian wife - a reasonable and intelligent woman - asked me to explain this process to her. I know she is reasonable and intelligent because she reminds me of these facts from time to time.

As I considered my explanation, my mind flashed back to a recurring nightmare in my youth…my eighth-grade teacher asking me to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to the entire class…and to show my work at the blackboard.

Since maybe six people in America - of 331,002,651- probably know exactly how an American president is elected…I feel confident my explanation - revealed here - will suffice. Some background might help.

I could use my semi-fertile imagination and make up stuff about how America nominates and elects a president. And you likely wouldn’t know whether it was true or not. It is an absurd process at best…and at worst you might think it was a page stolen from a Monty Python skit.

Would the world be worse off if America placed photos of candidates in an open pasture of bulls…who would then signify their favourite candidate with strategic plops? The symbolism is appealing to me…and I’d trust a bull over those who gave us Trump.

Instead, as soon as a president is elected…he (and I remind you that it has always been he) starts running for re-election. Americans willingly spend hundreds of millions of dollars every election…funding the lies, distortions and half-truths of each party’s campaign.

There are only two real parties in American politics…Republicans and Democrats. One or the other has ruled the White House or Congress since 1852 and 1856, respectively. There are other parties…so-called third parties…Libertarians, Greens and Constitutionalists. They are - as my father once stated with the elegance deserved - “like a fart in a whirlwind.”

Both the Republican Party and the Democrat Party…are controlled by lawyers. Okay, that should tell you almost everything you really need to know. Because it all goes down hill from there.

Maybe William Shakespeare stumbled onto something when he wrote in Henry VI, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It’s hard to look at the likes of Alan Dershowitz or Rudy Giuliani or Michael Cohen and not believe some redeeming social value in Willie’s words.

But, I digress. The Republicans and Democrats hold primaries - and much like locust plagues - arrive in the Spring every four years. The difference is Americans pay more attention to locust plagues than primaries. In some states, the government runs the primaries…in others the parties run them.

The voting in primaries - like the national election - is done electronically in some states, by punch cards in others, with pen and ink in others…and shooting basketballs through hoops in Indiana. Sorry, I made that last one up.

States that don’t hold primaries - Iowa, Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming and Maine - hold caucuses. Now the idea behind caucuses - apparently - is for neighbours who don’t work for other people and hold tenaciously to their ideologies to meet and publicly coerce their mostly small-town friends to see the light and support someone they didn't support initially.

Occasionally, even home-baked cookies are used to lure competing camps…I’m not making that up.

Campaigning by Republicans and Democrats started with the Iowa Caucus, then moved the next week to New Hampshire for a primary, then on to Nevada for another caucus, then South Carolina, before something called Super Tuesday.

On Super Tuesday - March 3 - Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Democrats Abroad, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia, all hold primaries.

The primaries of Florida, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, Hawaii, Georgia, American Samoa, Idaho, Michigan, Missouri, Washington, Mississippi, among others, are strung out through March and April. It’s like a hockey playoff that never ends.

By this time locusts have come and gone, and less than half of America turns its collective attention to the national conventions during the Summer. Here, pledged delegates gather, listen to promises that usually aren’t kept, often change their votes after the first ballot…drink a lot…and then - historically - anoint an old white guy to run in the General Election in November.

All of that background, leads me back to the Iowa Caucus. In the 18 months preceding the Iowa Caucus, presidential candidates spent more than US $400 Million campaigning in the state…often meeting with crowds of 10 people…and eating fried pork chops on a stick at the State Fair.

Candidates proudly claimed their visits to every one of the 99 counties in the state. That is tortuous…much like bragging about driving every unpaved road in Alberta. Perhaps Iowans - the 170,000 or so who care enough to show up to caucus - would settle for a check for US $2,353 from the candidates? I believe they would promise to vote for whomever survives the political belt line and is crowned at the convention?

Again, I digress. So, how did the Iowa Caucuses work? Well, they didn't…as we all witnessed a couple weeks ago. Apparently, combining paper, pencil and smart phone apps is a recipe for a dish no more tasty than a dried out, week-old pork chop stick.

I’m sorry folks, caucuses make no sense, not now, and maybe not since the very first one.

Some ignorance was caught on television cameras in Iowa…like the woman who wrote and submitted her choice of Pete Buttigieg…only to want it back after finding out he was gay…and married another man. Buttigieg and his husband were on the cover of Time…he spent millions on television ads in Iowa. The ignorance astounds me.

The guy who tries to sell candidates on the Iowa Caucuses in 2024 will have to be a heap better than any car/insurance salesman I’ve ever known. Besides, Americans need to pick up the rat’s nest of what they call the Electoral College - which renders meaningless the hallmark of democracy…one voter…one vote.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.

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