This evening, the state of Iowa marks the first real event of the 2008 presidential election cycle when they hold their caucus event. Essentially, its a primary election cycle, but with a twist that makes it unique. I don't fully understand the process myself but what seems to happen is that people across the state of Iowa that want to participate in this process will gather at the house of a neighbor to decide who to nominate for that particular precinct. Those that support Hillary Clinton, for example, go stand in that corner of the room. People for Barack Obama? You can go stand over in this corner of the room. Anyone for Dennis Kucinich? Yeah, I thought not... And so it proceeds for each candidate. No secret ballots here, each person's choice is out in the open. For the democrats, the real trick is that a candidate has to have at least 15% support in order to be considered "viable". Once caucus-goers have aligned themselves with their candidate (or with the "undecided" group), counts are made to determine viability. Those groups that fall below 15% support can either try to lure other caucus-goers to their cause, assign their support to a different candidate, or just go uncounted. This leads to quite a bit of strategy in that support for a particular candidate can be thrown around based on the support levels of the lower candidates. Again, I am certainly not an expert on this topic, but this is what I've been able to gather over the past couple of weeks as I've tried to learn more about the process.
Back in mid-November, I had posted about my opinions following one of the Democratic debates. I was pretty impressed with Joe Biden's performance back then, and that opinion hasn't changed. He still hasn't broken through much in the polls and has greatly trailed in terms of fund-raising. But what I do like is that he holds most of the expected Democratic values (pro-choice, health care, etc.), while he also would be very strong in the realm of foreign policy. He's developed quite a resume in his 30 years or so in the senate, and has been the head of the Foreign Relations Committee for quite a while. When compared to the "leading" democratic candidates, he has more congressional experience that Hillary (7 years), Obama (2 years), and Edwards (6 years) combined. Actually, since 7+2+6 is 15, that means that Biden has twice as much experience as those three combined. Why do I think this is important? Well, it's clear based on the events of the world that our next president needs to really understand what's going on in the rest of the world to ensure the safety and prosperity of the US. Other candidates keep demonstrating their lack of experience (despite claims to the contrary) with comments about Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf running in the parliamentary elections (he's not), or tying the assassination of Benazir Bhutto to the issue of illegal immigration in the US.
But the point of this posting is not for me to extol the virtues of Joe Biden. I wanted to provide a little update and discuss my brief experience with the presidential election cycle in Iowa. This past monday, I attended a campaign rally for Joe Biden at the public library in Ames, Iowa. The picture above of me with Senator Biden was taken at this event, and no that is not a cardboard cutout of the senator. I also took some other pictures at the event that can be viewed here. I'm not going to talk much about what Senator Biden said at this event. You can get a feel for it by watching this video, which was shot at a similar event in Des Moines the following day:
There were a couple of notable things about this event though. First, this event in Ames was well attended. It was held in a rather modest room in a local library, and reports have indicated that somewhere in the realm of 300-400 people attended this event. It was packed from wall to wall, and a number of people weren't able to get in (I don't know how many people couldn't get in, as I was already inside). Reports are also indicating that the event in Des Moines featured in the video above drew approximately 550 people. These seem like rather sizeable crowds, especially for events on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in Iowa. Crowds this size would probably be more commonly associated with healthy campaigns, not troubled ones. It will be interesting to see how this translates at the polls.
The other interesting thing for me was to see an event like this for myself. Growing up in New York, you really never get a chance to see something like this. The state of New York isn't particularly influential in the primary election cycle and when it comes to national politics, New York tends to be highly democratic. So it was an interesting experience for me to attend such an event. I also learned to appreciate the Iowa caucus process, or at least the campaign process leading up to the caucuses. I was impressed with how intently the crowd was paying attention, and I truly believed that a lot of people were still trying to make up their minds on a candidate. Its a serious process in Iowa because the results of the Iowa caucuses often determine which candidates will remain viable in other primary elections (see Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in 2004). Fortunately, many Iowans seem to take this seriously. Also, Iowa seems to be the kind of state where an early event like this can still take place without being controlled entirely by money. I just can't imagine a second-tier candidate having any kind of chance if this early process were to take place in a state like California.
So all of this makes one wonder how things will play out after the caucuses tonight. According to the polls, there's a struggle at the top of the Democratic party between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, and they are followed by Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd (and I suppose Kucinich and Gravel may still be around). If I were to predict the outcome right now, I would say the results will look something like this:
I'm very confident that the top two in Iowa will be Obama and Clinton, its just the order that needs to be determined. In order for Biden to remain a legitimate candidate in the race, he'll need to pull off a 4th place finish that isn't too far behind 3rd place, or even pull off a big surprise and finish in 3rd place. This kind of finish would garner a lot of attention and notoriety, something that has been conspicuously absent from much of his campaign so far. And I think this is quite possible. I think that Obama will emerge victorious in Iowa due to his success in the polls so far, plus the nature of the Iowa caucuses. I think that supporters of non-viable candidates will throw their support behind Obama much more so than other top candidates. In fact, Kucinich is already telling his supporters to do so. That would give the top two spots to Obama and Clinton, respectively.
Third place will probably go to Edwards because he has significant support in the polls so far, but it doesn't appear that he'll be the beneficiary of any added support due to the caucus process. In fact, there's been speculation that a lower-tier candidate such as Biden can potentially pass Edwards if they are able to gather enough caucus support. Its not likely, but this possibility would certainly be a huge boost to a lesser campaign.
In all, I'm kind of looking forward to the caucus results tonight. I think that Obama will come out of it with the win, but I'm still hoping for a strong performance by the Biden campaign. A strong 4th place is certainly a possibility and if he's able to pull off some magic and get into 3rd place, well...we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed on that one.