January 31, 2008

Dems Take Sides in Caucus-Style Debate

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Correction Appended

As the country prepares for the excitement of “Super Tuesday” next week — in which 24 states will be holding nominating contests for either one or both political parties — the Cornell Democrats attempted yesterday to recapture the prevailing national political passions of early January by staging a mock Iowa caucus.
“The Super Tuesday primary dilutes the importance of those states’ votes, and it’s already assumed that New York will go for Hillary Clinton,” said Cornell Democrats President Randy Lariar ’08. “The Iowa caucus has the advantage of being examined more in depth by the press and the candidates.”
[img_assist|nid=27111|title=Political Gestures|desc=Sun Columnist John-David Brown ’09 debates the merits of Hillary Clinton.|link=node|align=left|width=300|height=300]Members of the C.U. Dems met in Rockefeller Hall to act out the process of a precinct-level caucus, like those that took place at some 1,700 localities across the state of Iowa on Jan. 3. Despite the fact that many of the Democratic candidates have now dropped out of the race, all of those who were on the ballot in Iowa were represented at the event. In a similar fashion to the actual caucus, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) won by a clear margin, with nine out of 20 possible mock delegates. However, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) placed better than in real life, finishing in second with six delegates, as did Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who finished in third with five delegates.
In recent decades it has become tradition for Iowa to be the first state to conduct its selection of delegates to send to the national convention, and so receives a significant amount of media attention as a perceived early indication of national voter preferences. Excluding this year’s results, the Democratic candidate who won the highest percentage of Iowa’s precinct caucuses also won the Party’s nomination six out of nine times since 1972, and many political commentators attributed Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) successful 2004 campaign for the Democratic nomination to his surprise defeat of front-runner former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in the Iowa caucus.
“We’re holding a presidential caucus in the way that took place in Iowa so people become aware of what the caucus system actually entails on the ground. Members of the progressive community will be able to debate, discuss, and vouch for the candidate they support in front of fellow progressives,” said Ethan Felder ’09, communications director of the C.U. Dems.
Caucus procedure is more complex than primary elections; instead of a ballot, Democratic voters must stand in designated areas for the candidate that they support, and an allotted amount of time is given for informal attempts by community members to convince one another to change their alignment. Candidates that fail to obtain the support of at least 15 percent of the precinct are then eliminated, and the process is repeated. Delegate seats are distributed to the candidates on a proportional basis to the final vote tally.[img_assist|nid=27112|title=Political Gestures|desc=Eronmonsele Elens Eignokhan ’08 argues in favor of Barack Obama.|link=node|align=right|width=300|height=300]
“It’s the most hectic and exciting 30 minutes in politics,” said Eric Kollig ’08, who spent last semester working as a regional field director for the Biden campaign in Iowa. “Because the dynamics of each room are different, caucuses are micro-organized and require constant attention to protect one’s base in the room while also trying to win over new voters.”
The only candidates to clear this 15 percent “viability threshold” after C.U. Dems members completed the original round of caucusing were Obama, Clinton, and Biden. Former Senator John Edwards, who officially dropped out of the presidential campaign yesterday, had only two people out of the approximately 40 in attendance join his candidate preference group.
Eronmonsele Elens-Eigbokhan ’09, leader of Cornell Students for Obama, tried to entice voters who were either uncommitted or had supported eliminated candidates to switch their allegiance to Obama.
“When people ask me why I am so passionate about politics, I explain to them that I understand the importance of the democratic process because I was born in a country without one. In this country, people have the power to change what they don’t like, and though some people are skeptical, Iowa voters chose Obama as the person who can do this,” said Elens-Eigbokhan. [img_assist|nid=27113|title=Political Gestures|desc=Eric Kollig ’08 points out Joe Biden’s favorable policies.|link=node|align=left|width=300|height=300]
In the second round of caucusing, Kollig almost succeeded in peeling two voters off of the Obama group for Biden, a change that would have resulted in Biden being awarded an additional delegate and tying him with Clinton in second place. Kollig made the case that Obama’s group did not require the support of either Tarik Zawia ’09 or Chloe McDougal ’09 due to the wide margin of victory it already claimed.
Elens-Eigbokhan was eventually able to prevent the change, after much cajoling from both sides in a scene that was reminiscent of back-room party politics.
“It’s tough. The way people can pressure you to change your vote in a caucus is undemocratic. You have to strongly believe in your own views,” said Zawia.
Kollig said that the exercise was a good representation of how caucusing actually works in Iowa. “It’s not undemocratic by any means. People have different expectations for how each candidate will perform coming in, and may be willing to throw their support behind someone if they see that [the candidate] is viable and liked by their friends and neighbors.”