Barack Obama is going to win Iowa, going away

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Grinnell College. (wikipedia.org)
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Ben Jacobs

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GRINNELL, Iowa— Neill Goltz, the Democratic vice chair of Poweshiek County, said he was frustrated that many media outlets have reported that the Democrats are not holding a caucus this year, when they simply mean that the Democratic caucus will not be competitive. He’s “written multiple letters to complain,” he said. So far, he hasn't received any responses.

It may be an afterthought (or no thought at all) for the national media, who have flooded Iowa this week to cover the contested caucuses on the Republican side, but across the state, Democrats are going through the caucus process as well. Theirs just happens to be far less suspenseful than the G.O.P.'s. Barack Obama will win.

But just as there always must be a primary election, even if there is only one candidate on the ballot, there are always caucuses. Each caucus is a precinct-level process to select delegates for a county convention, and the county convention elects delegates to a state convention, which elects delegates to a national convention, where the presidential nominee is technically selected.

Democrats could caucus for anyone they want, but it seems unlikely that Obama will receive much less than 100 percent support, and all of the delegates.

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In fact, without a competitive election, the caucuses merely serve as a process for electing delegates to a county convention (and from there, up the ladder to district, state and the Democratic National Convention to be held in Charlotte this year) as well as to debate potential party platform planks.

Basically this means that unless you’re a die-hard activist or in the mood to socialize with die-hard activists, there’s not much reason to go.

The lack of activity was evident today in the streets of this college town in east-central Iowa. It’s winter break for Grinnell College, a liberal-arts school (and my alma mater) that is considered a bastion of lefty sentiment in this part of the state. It is the type of school where the most famous former member of the football team in the past 50 years is noted poet Edward Hirsch.

The Grinnell caucus site drew approximately 900 students for the 2004 Democratic caucus and about half that number in 2008 (when, like this year, the caucus took place over winter break). It wasn’t just students who showed up then: In a county of only 20,000 people, local Democrats estimate that well over 1,500 showed up for the 2008 Democratic caucus.

Former county party chair Don A. Smith (my former college adviser) told me he was worried that there wouldn’t be enough Democrats tonight to elect every available delegate slot for this year's county convention. Although the county party reduced the size of its convention from 150 to 100, even that might be too ambitious a goal to meet.

Mark Mercier, a recent Grinnell graduate, was one of a handful of people in the Saint’s Rest coffee shop downtown. He’s an enthusiastic Democrat and was one of the many hundreds of students who returned to Grinnell during winter break 2008 to caucus for Barack Obama. He said he was marginally aware that there were Democratic caucuses being held tonight. He “hadn’t been keeping up with it,” and said that there certainly had been “no buzz on the campus.”

Outside his office on campus today, Smith was making copies of forms for the caucuses. In the past, the Iowa Democratic Party provided sign-in sheets in triplicate so that attendees could be kept track of. One copy would go to state party headquarters in Des Moines and others would be kept for local use. This year though, state party organizers were just using a sheet with one layer of paper. They had assured the locals that they would make copies and send them back. The locals were distrustful and were instead making their own forms as backups.

Smith asked me how many copies he should make. I offered my guess, he made his, and he ended up deciding to make enough for sixty attendees. Then he had a second thought and decided to make enough for eighty. It’s not that he actually expected that many more attendees, but it would cost a flat dollar to make enough forms for 80 people and he didn’t want to fiddle around with change.