Politics & Government

Iowa's caucuses: forbidding, mysterious or just fun?

SIOUX CITY, Iowa - Turns out many Iowans view their caucuses the same way Victorians viewed sex: Forbidding and mysterious, but pretty fun once you try it.

"Every day, I run into people who say 'I've never done it before, I don't know how to do it,'" Sen. Hillary Clinton told supporters at a rally here. "They don't know what's gonna happen."

The Clinton campaign's solution for caucus virgins: Do it with somebody else, somebody with experience.

Clinton criss-crossed Iowa for two days earlier this week on a "Bring a Buddy to Caucus" tour. She urged supporters to come to caucuses in groups, reassured new caucus goers that there's nothing to be afraid of, and shared the stage with Iowans who have caucused and some who haven't.

"The first time I did it, I was nervous, I was scared," said Jackie Schroeder of Marion, a Clinton supporter. "I didn't know what a caucus was. But it's so easy, so fun!"

Schroeder's enthusiasm - and experience - helped persuade neighbor Dianna Anderson to plan to attend the Jan. 3 caucuses for the first time. They'll go together.

The Clinton campaign even produced a video called "Caucusing is easy" that it showed at rallies this week, featuring Bill Clinton trying to exercise, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack trying to dance, and Hillary Clinton trying to sing, all to show that caucusing is easier than those activities (see "Here's Looking at YouTube, at right).

Fact is, a caucus isn't like a simple primary, where you go anytime the polls are open, vote and leave.

It's at 7 p.m. sharp (doors close then, so latecomers are shut out), it lasts an hour or so, and it involves standing up publicly to declare an allegiance to a candidate - in front of friends, neighbors, maybe even your boss.

Then it gets more complicated: If a candidate doesn't have the support of 15 percent of folks at the precinct caucus after the first round, his or her supporters can support other candidates - whose own supporters woo the free agents heavily.

"It's like a fun game," said Ed Winfry of Sioux City, a Clinton volunteer. "You hit that floor and work 'em. You say, `Remember I loaned you that snow shovel.'"

It's a system geared toward the hard-core activist, not the occasional voter.

"Three million people live in Iowa," said Jay Carson, a Clinton spokesman. "The most people who have ever caucused before is 180,000. I'll let the numbers speak for themselves."

The Clinton campaign says it has the highest percentage of supporters among those who would be first-time caucus goers. That means the campaign could be especially vulnerable to supporters who decide to do something else or simply get cold feet. The Clinton team figures that a first-timer will be more willing to follow through when the experienced "buddy" calls up and says, "It's go time."

The buddy system is designed to "demystify the process," Carson said. He called the effort "an incredibly robust field program that we're putting a lot of money, a lot of resources behind."Besides Clinton's public efforts this week, the Iowa campaign is using quieter, more private methods to persuade their most committed supporters to bring one or two friends to caucus.

Among those who've signed up is veteran caucus goer Bill Benning, 59, a farmer from Granville, Iowa, who sad he's "pretty well committed to Hillary."

He'll happily talk a rookie through caucus night: "It's not as much voodoo as people say it is."