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February 09, 2008

Peoples of the Caucuses

Today I did something I have never done before: I went to the caucus meeting to elect delegates for the presidential election.

In a normal year the candidates are decided by "Super Tuesday", and by the time the Washington caucuses roll around, one candidate has established an unbeatable lead and it's all over but the shouting. But this year, with Obama and Clinton neck and neck, Washington suddenly became important (I'm talking about the Democrats here; as readers of this blog may know, I'm an inveterate liberal). Both candidates visited the state yesterday, and we received many phone calls (some automated, but most not) from people urging us to attend our local caucus. My wife spent some time talking to a 74-year-old Obama supporter from California.

For state constitutional reasons, Washington has a primary in ten days, but the Democratic party chooses its delegates via caucuses and then ignores the primary results. It starts out at the precinct level, then they elect delegates to a county caucus, then that rolls up to a state caucus, and there they choose the delegates to the national convention. I was actually unaware of this until recently, but people did a good job of getting the word out that the important votes were happening today at 1 pm.

About ten precincts were caucusing at our appointed site, which was the school district building (the place was a zoo; see photo). My precinct, which I recall from letter-writing campaigns for Laura Ruderman has about 200-300 houses, had 58 people show up, which I think is an impressive number (evidently the turnout was more than double that of four years ago). We had already indicated our preliminary votes and the tally was 36 for Obama, 21 for Clinton, and 1 undecided. Each camp (included the undecideds) could pick one person to give a one-minute speech, in the hopes of swaying the other side. Then they asked if anybody wanted to change their vote (nobody did). Our precinct is allocated 5 delegates to the county caucus (which is in April), and because of the votes the Obama camp got to pick 3 delegates and the Clinton camp got to pick 2. The undecideds would have been able to pick an undecided delegate if there had been enough of them.

In the days leading up to the caucus I had been having an internal debate about who to vote for. I think that both Obama and Clinton would make fine presidents (so for once, I have sympathy for undecided voters); my overriding concern is getting a Democrat elected so that they will form a Democratic administration. Many people seemed to have the same opinion, although there were some people who were basing their decision on their perceived qualities as president (summary of the anti sound bites: Obama is inexperienced, Clinton is compromised by special interests). I think Clinton has higher positives but also higher negatives, and in the general election the positives don't matter much, it's a question of what the Republicans can do with the negatives. I also am slightly annoyed with Bill Clinton's behavior vis-a-vis Obama, which is veering into win-at-all-costs (as it did when he was president; if he had just taken his lumps and allowed himself to be impeached, Al Gore would be president right now). And, fairly or not, I do view a Clinton presidency as "8 more years of Bill and Hillary", and that is also how the Republicans would spin it.

Anyway, I was one of the 36 for Obama, so we gathered to vote on our 3 delegates. There were 6 people who wanted to do it: 3 high school seniors, and 3 adults. They all gave little speeches about why they wanted to be a delegate, and then we voted. In the end the 3 high school kids got chosen. So the delegates from precinct 2448 are Griffin, Marcus, and Kate. Marcus had essentially the same attitude as I did, but Griffin and Kate seemed genuinely jazzed by the promise of Obama. I gather many of the high school students had skipped school to go to his rally yesterday, and Kate mentioned that she had shaken his hand (and like all teenage girls these days, and my daughter, ended her speech by saying, "and so, um, yeah").

There was something really neat about being there at the start of the process that would eventually lead to choosing a candidate. And the down-homey feel of the local caucus reminded me of what I picture a New England town hall meeting being like. I hope our delegates have fun at the county caucus; I suspect that at the next level the knives will come out and the delegates chosen will be the cynical, hard-bitten types, but for today youth and optimism won out.

Posted by AdamBa at February 9, 2008 10:30 PM

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I wish I lived in a Caucus state. I'm assuming you have to be a registered democrat to participate?

Posted by: Steve Evans at February 10, 2008 11:34 AM

You have to be a registered voter. I have never registered as a Democrat officially, I don't think Washington state does that. As somebody put it at the caucus, "You have to be a Democrat...at least for one day."

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at February 10, 2008 12:19 PM

The states vary on whether you have to be registered with a party or not to vote in a primary or caucus. Some of them allow you to vote for either if you're officially registered as an Independent, and some of them just assume that. I live in New York, which does require party registration, and a woman at the next table seemed rather indignant to be asked what party she was... and I think she probably wasn't registered as either and didn't get to vote (although I got called into the voting booth before I found out).

Posted by: Becky at February 11, 2008 05:29 PM