Monday, June 29, 2015

Mandering: Redistricting Ruling "A Freakin' Disaster"

Redistricting consultant Jerry Mandering emerged from his secret mapping bunker Monday morning to talk about the big case. The normally reclusive Mandering refuses to give media interviews, except to the Deeth Blog.

So Jerry, what do you think of the big case? Marriage everywhere, huh.

I ain't been payin' attention. Let people do what they want.

Oh, you meant the Obamacare case.

Deeth, you got a messed up set of priorities. I'm talking' about the big case that's gonna put me outta business.

I see. You meant Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

That's the one. It's a freakin' disaster for guys like me.

Why don't you explain the issues.

So AridZone is one of those initiative and referendum state.  Back in 2000 the voters passed a thing that made them use an independent commission.

Like we have in Iowa.

Pretty much the same idea but not exactly. In Iowa the politicians still get the final say, even though it's just an up or down vote with no amendments. In AridZone it was totally up to the five members of the Commission.

You mean the heads of the Five Families?

Not that commission. Now them I could work with. I asked them "Who should I give this turf to?" and they tell me, "Not to our paisan. Give it to a Jew congressman in another district." Those were the days.

Anyway, out in AridZone the legislature sued, sayin' that under the Constitution’s Elections Clause, the legislature is the ones required to be be in charge of the redistricting process.

Which party was in charge?

In AridZone it was the Republicans. Democrats do it too sometimes, which you know bein' next to Illinois. But Republicans have been been more aggressive with it lately. Me, I'm a pragmatist. My idea of "nonpartisan" is I work for whichever side pays better.

So today the Court ruled in favor of the redistricting commission. What does that mean for you professionally?

I got a serious problem in referendum states, Ohio and Michigan especially. Ohio's a split even state but map gives them 12 Republican congressmen and just four Democrats.

It's a damn shame. Just look at this beautiful map.

See that long skinny thing along Lake Erie? District 9. Nothing holding it together in the middle but a freakin' bridge. My associates got rid of a guy off of that bridge.

I'm sure there's a lot of other bodies in Lake Erie.

Not that way, wise guy. We're not the muscle end of the family. We used that bridge to hook Toledo to Cleveland so we could get rid of Dennis Kucinich.He was in enough trouble just with Cleveland because he kept running all over running for president. But throw in Toledo and he was a goner. Did the guy a favor, really, now he can spend more time at home with the wife.

I love my wife very much but Dennis is a lucky man.

You ain't kiddin'.

So let's say Ohio voters pass a referendum for Iowa-style clean districts.

My job is a lot easier when those freakin' voters stay out of it.

Does that mean Ohio gets an 8-8 map?

Maybe but probably not. But you probably get 9-7, maybe 6-10. You sure do better than 12-4.

Why doesn't it match up with votes?

Republicans get more seats per vote no matter what youse do because birds of a feather flock together. In Ohio or Pennsylvania or anyplace with a pro sports size city, you got a bunch of urban minority districts that vote 90% Democrat. Even I can't do nothin' with that. So those votes get wasted. Then out in the country you got a lot of 65, 70% Republican places, but not a lot of 90% Republican places. Just a couple, and usually those have more square miles than people. So the most Democratic places are more Democratic than the most Republican places are Republican. Iowa's one of the only places where that ain't true.

So how big a difference does this ruling make?

If every state did what Iowa does it would be YOOGE. More elections get decided on map day or on the filing deadline than on Election Day. You got 435 House districts in the country and what, maybe 30 of those are competitive. And of those 30, three are in rinky-dink Iowa which has just four total to begin with.

Careful what you say about Iowa. We like nice here.

Yeah, yeah. Here's a quarter, go buy some corn.

We don't have corn for a little while yet.

But what youse do have is competitive districts. Look at your legislature. You got maybe a third a third a third. 30-odd state House seats safe for Democrats, 30-odd safe for Republicans. Even with the sharpest knives in the business I can't cut a decent turf outta Sioux County or Iowa City.

You're scary when you talk about knives.

Remember that half a body I was telling you about?

Is a third a third a third like that?

No, your last third is open turf. Either team can win it with the right candidate, the right amount of money and a good year. So if every state does it, all of a sudden you could go from 30 competitive seats in the country to maybe 150. That's even a bigger deal than Citizens United. You can throw all the money in the world at a custom-drawn Jerry Mandering district and it won't do any good. But with an Iowa Clean style district, every race is a fight.

So if that happens, how are your job prospects?

Well, I saw this one on the docket, so I been talkin' to the Iowa City school district. I hear they need a guy who can draw funny lines.

Funny how?

Even I'm sick of that one, Deeth.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Definitely was not enough cake

As if to underscore the fact that there had been too much news to fit into one little week, my normally trusty Samsung Mega fable t locked up right in the middle of Iowa City's celebration of today's Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality the law in all 50 states.

So my live tweets are lost to history, not that they were a very big part of the 46 year march (OK, 45 years and 464 days) from the Stonewall rebellion to Obergefell v. Hodges.
County supervisor Janelle Rettig reviewed that history, timestamping the events with the number one hits on those dates, and making some of us feel a bit old in the process.
Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" and of COURSE the Village People's "YMCA" got the crowd dancing, but unfortunately those songs only hit number two in 1979. (Pro tip: Never play music trivia with a former DJ.)

Other speakers included Jen and Dawn BarbouRoske, plaintiffs in the Varnum v. Brien case that made Iowa just the third state to recognize marriage equality waay back in 2009, and county recorder Kim Painter, who gets to hand out marriage licenses ans was the first out countywide elected official in the state waaaaaay back in 1998.
And, of course,this being the most Democratic place in the state, with the Ped Mall itself being the epicenter of blueness in Iowa, lots of elected officials on hand.
Lyness Nielsen (blocking) Sullivan Jacoby Bolkcom Dvorsky Lensing Painter Weipert Rettig. Taylor (Swisher) and Botchway spotted at other points in the evening.

Team Hillary was ready for the occasion, with a small army of staffers and interns working the crowd with rainbow H➔ stickers. Either for practical reasons or for effect they were wearing the rolls of stickers diagonally across the chest like pageant sashes.
There were occasional sobering reminders, for example people who can get legally married tomorrow can get legally fired Monday morning. And those struggles remain. But they were gentle reminders, not buzzkills, at least not for tonight.

So that's what I can remember off the top of my bald head about this day in history in this little corner of America.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Patel Out in 1st CD

The last time I talked to Ravi Patel, a couple months ago, he was very confident about his bid for Congress in the 1st CD. Fundraising was strong, meetings and events around the district were going well.

So I'm as surprised as anyone by his announcement this afternoon that he's leaving the race. It takes guts to step up and put yourself forward as a candidate. And it also takes guts to very publicly step back after you've stepped up.

Sure, there had been some bumps in the road: some faux outrage about the quality and content of a film Ravi had produced, some labor questions about wages at his hotels, and a poor interview last week. But none of these things were fatal, especially at so early a stage with so few voters tuned in.

I haven't written much about the 1st District race. OK, I've been actively avoiding it because I like all three, now two, of the candidates. I haven't met Gary Kroeger yet but I like his message.

Monica Vernon did great service for the party last year as Jack Hatch's running mate. She's been bashed as a new convert to the Democrats - I admit, I bashed too when I was supporting Anesa Kajtazovic in last year's primary - but she reaches out to detractors, and so she's a new Democrat? At least she's moving in the right direction.

But Ravi and I have been on the same side of a number of fights the last few years. And I like young candidates. I'm old enough now that the idea of bringing along a new generation of leaders is very appealing.

But not all Democrats agree, especially not in my county, which may have been part of why Ravi felt the need to move into the very inviting 1st CD.  So Ravi and Anesa were young people in a hurry. Since when was ambition a crime?

Republicans have known this for years. 25 years ago my brother went to Boys State in Wisconsin. He met a very ambitious young fellow there, who was in such a hurry that he basically became a professional Young Republican before he left college. He either dropped out or was kicked out, but he already had a legislative seat lined up.

You may have heard of him. Dude's name is Walker. The investments in young Republicans that were made two, three decades ago have now paid off with the likely presidential nominee.
But back to 2016 and back to the 1st Congressional District of Iowa. I'm just speculating here:

As I keep saying, Iowa Democrats are furious that after decades of effort and near misses, and years of comparisons with Mississippi - NOT a good thing during Flag Week - Republicans sent a woman to Washington first. And not just a woman - a woman with Joni Ernst's very special cultural persona.

Survey the 2016 landscape. Chuck Grassley is untouchable, Steve King's district is unwinnable and Dave Loebsack is the only Democratic incumbent. In the 3rd CD, Staci Appel is out and Janet Peterson looks like she's waiting till 2018 when the options are better and when she is in mid-term in her Senate seat. The other Democratic female all-star, Liz Mathis, is also mid-term in 2018, and is a Vernon supporter and ally anyway. And Swati Dandekar, who may yet rise from the dead with Patel out, is still persona non grata to the base. (Unlike Vernon, she switched the WRONG way.)

So if Democratic women have a chance in Iowa in 2016, it's Monica and Hillary.

Even before Ravi Patel announced - scratch that. Even before Pat Murphy lost, which they saw coming, DC Democrats were making it very clear that Monica Vernon was their choice in this district. In fact that was probably part of the plan when she ran for lieutenant governor. And to her credit, Vernon came away from losing two elections in the same year with increased stature, which is a pretty tough career move to pull off.

And I'm speculating that message may have been sent and received.

Patel's dropout sets up a 1st CD primary between Vernon and Kroeger that's got a weird parallel to the Democratic presidential race. In this corner, a second time candidate who may be a little moderate for the base but is adjusting fast, can raise good money, and oh yeah First Woman. In that corner, an outsider with a little bit different background who's betting on a feisty progressive message.

As for Ravi Patel. It's not every day that a young, charismatic, and wealthy businessman walks in the front door of the Democratic party. So his first run for office didn't go as well as he had hoped. So what. We need to not eat our young here, like we more or less did with Kajtazovic. We need to nurture and bring him along as a future leader, the way we are with Jim Mowrer.

Ravi Patel is an asset to the Democratic Party, and to the whole state of Iowa. One campaign that didn't work out does not change the fact that he is a remarkable success at a young age. Ravi has a bright future ahead in the Democratic Party if he chooses that, and is a name I hope to be still hearing long after I hang up the beret.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

It's not about a flag

It's taken me a few days to process Charleston, in part because I was still processing Coral Ridge Mall. And during the three days since Wednesday's mass murder, a goal and rallying point has emerged.

Somehow, the issue that has come out of a white supremacist targeting a historic, politically active black church and murdering nine people has become a Confederate flag debate.

In part this is because of the scene of the murder,South Carolina, where the Confederate flag, and its display on state grounds, has been at the middle of public debate for a few decades. Fewer decades than you would think, because as the symbols of segregation were less important while actual, old school, colored fountain legal segregation was the law of the land in South Carolina.

Symbolism is powerful. Symbolism is important. Symbolism matters. It should be a no brainer to remove the Confederate flag from its remaining places of official display. Tear it down and light it on fire with a bottle of Jack Daniel's. And defining it and stigmatizing it s a racist symbol will be a step forward in defining and stigmatizing racism. Maybe down the road a couple decades, combines with a lot of other steps, it'll keep some other child from growing into this kind of a monster.

But it won't eliminate racism, either the casually accepted type or the violent Stormfront variety displayed by the murderer. Hauling the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina state capitol would be a good thing, a great thing in fact. But it would not have saved those nine lives.

Sensible gun control laws might have.

The post-Charleston discussion has turned to the flag in part because the killer chose flags for their symbolic power. But I can't help but feel like part of the reason the flag fight has become a symbol of victory here is because people feel a desperate need to do something, but have given up on trying to take on the gun issue.

There's an acceptance of the unacceptable. Yes, we know that every couple months in America some angry white boy will shoot up a place and kill a bunch of people, but that's just how it is and we'll never be able to change it. No, easier to take on a symbolic fight rather than a substantive fight.

After last week's shooting in my community, I broke the taboo and said in public for the first time what I've believed for years. It's time to repeal the Second Amendment and eliminate the archaic notion and Constitutional misinterpretation that owning a weapon is an absolute right. No other country on the planet has anything like the Second Amendment and our gun culture, and no other country on the planet has anything like our mass murder rate.

And then we need to enact strict gun control laws like the rest of the world had. Maybe in order to stop these shootings, it really does need to be harder to get a deer rifle. Maybe that's the only way we can do it. One thing's for sure, we've never actually tried.

Maybe we'll never eliminate monstrous hate like what we saw Wednesday. Maybe it will take more generations that I will see, and maybe we need to take some symbolic steps along the way. But in the meantime, we need to do our best to limit the means of destruction.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Weekend In Hillaryland

Three Hillary Clinton tweetathons this weekend. You may have followed them in real time, but here's some overall impressions.

"Four Fights" is a good theme from the launch speech, if Clinton stays with it, which I think she will. There don't appear to be signs of multiple reboots ala 2007. Usually bullet points are limited to three, but four works with the alliteration, the throwback to FDR's Four Freedoms, and because it sounds like Foo Fighters. Which is probably more important than the FDR thing because, despite its evergreen appeal to the base, the youngest FDR voter is 92.

I know I've pledged neutrality, but I will endorse if she picks Dave Grohl as a running mate. Breaks his leg and finishes show is almost as good as Teddy Roosevelt getting shot and finishing the speech.

But grunge would be too explicit a throwback to Clinton 42, so musically Hillary sticks to verbal references to "Yesterday" and rally music from this list. Tom Petty is banished, in part because the line "God it's so painful when something that's so close is still so far out of reach" hits too close to home from 2008, and is replaced by Katy Perry who in a rarity for a rally playlist is an actual enthusiastic supporter.

"Roar" almost could have been written for a Hillary Clinton rally and ties into that "fighter" theme we'll keep hearing (Clinton-Grohl 2016. Think about it.) Other things we'll hear a lot: "I've been coloring my hair for years" (drink) and "youngest woman president" (drink).

The speech was much the same in Des Moines on Sunday to a crowd of - exact body count - 713, at the State Fairgrounds in front of a Patton size flag on Flag Day. Counters in the national press noted Bernie Sanders' slightly larger crowd on Friday night, and surprisingly there was some spare room in back.

Most of the crowd got lunch - Hy-Vee catered, very Iowan - and sat at picnic tables. Once the tables were full, late diners grabbed seats on the floor. In a great egalitarian touch, Senate finance chair Bob Dvorsky was one of the folks eating at a groundling seat while Sue Dvorsky - ex-party chair who is now Hillary Enthusiast Number One - worked the press area.

Things were a bit looser on press row than they were in late caucus season 2007; we were herded but not aggressively herded, and there were lots of friendly over the fence chats between press and Regular Iowans, which was discouraged last time.

There was also plenty of rope line time after the speech, 24 minutes by my clock. The people who were most dedicated and patient mostly managed to get their moment, and from my distance it looked like Hillary was spending Quality Time.

Other than her presence, Clinton made news twice in Iowa. In the biggest distinction between Saturday's speech and Sunday's, she discussed the Trans Pacific Partnership  at length. The tl;dr version: we need to see the details and by the way I'm a tough negotiator. Not quite a Bernie Sanders Hell No, but the more important question is whether it's enough to calm jangled nerves in union halls.

The other news she made was, well, news - doing sit-downs with two of the state's leading journalists, Radio Iowa's O.Kay Henderson and the Register's Jennifer Jacobs.

Brilliant move.  Not a shocking move, but strategically perfect. No one can complain that she's NOT doing interviews, can they? Yet doing interviews with state journalists means the priorities were different than the Beltway press corps' obsessions. No horse race, email, no Clinton Foundation donors, no Benghazi.  Now all the nationals can do as say "but you didn't talk to US."

Instead, Henderson and Jacobs focused on topics more interesting to an Iowa audience, and coincidentally (or not) more in line with Clinton's message. Jacobs focused on the trade proposal and the "eagerness" (Clinton's word) for a female president. Henderson also started with trade but in a 21 minute chat also touched on Iraq, universal pre-K, and what Clinton 42's role would be in a Clinton 45 administration (TBD).

And, in a move dear to my heart, Henderson asked a version of what I call The Existential Question:
Henderson: In 2008, members of the Clinton team, including Bill Clinton, had some concerns about the Caucus process…Are you comfortable with the process…and how does this feel different than it did eight years ago?

Clinton: I am very committed to competing in the Caucus system and I do think that the Democratic Party in Iowa has made some changes that will provide some greater opportunity for people who wish to express themselves in the Caucuses to be heard.
"Competing in the Caucus system" this time ≠ KEEPING the caucus system NEXT time. Notably, in the voting rights section of the speech, Clinton made references to second shift workers in troops in New York, but dropped them in Iowa.  Those references had been made in connection to criticism of the caucuses, both just before Iowa 2008 and after. So one one level, she's recognizing that concern, but on another level she's not saying I ♡ REALIGNMENT TIME either. Still hoping to follow up on this one.

In the Henderson interview, Clinton quickly moved from caucus process stuff to praising the organizers and their organizing, which was on display Saturday morning and evening in house parties across the state.

Iowa City had two - a speech watch at the library (I overslept and blogged the speech in my PJs in the basement, which is what we bloggers are supposed to do) and an evening event at the home of precinct captain Robin Chambers, which me and about 30 folks attended.

There were legislative endorsement rollouts at a lot of these - Bob Dvorsky is now Official and Vicki Lensing was also on hand - and a brief video hookup to the Sioux City party that Clinton attended. And there was pizza and of course a Sue Dvorsky pep talk. But more importantly there were lots and lots of clipboards and commit cards.

It may seem ironic, but at the field level, Hillary Clinton seems to be running the Barack Obama campaign. And why not - it worked. (Of course, the Barack Obama campaign was really just a fine tuned and improved Howard Dean campaign.)  

What's clear is that Team Hillary won't be making the top-heavy, top-down mistakes of 2007. And with the milestone of open to all now done, and the body count and media scrum proving managable, maybe those mid-size Q and A events will be possible.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Weekend Non-Hillary Edition

All of the weekend Hillary stuff - the announcement speech, the house party I attended, and the Des Moines rally which I'll be attending - will be summed up in a late Sunday post. Before I do that I'm going to clear the deck of some other items.

The first sort of IS a Hillary item. In the announcement speech, the former Secretary of State included about 45 seconds of foreign policy discussion, and in that made sure to include a reference to "our ally Israel" with no mention of the state's human rights abuses or acknowledgement of anything called "Palestine."

Between that, and Bernie Sanders' relatively tepid answer to an Israel question the other week in Iowa City, it seems like we STILL aren't going to get a serious discussion of the Palestine-Israel conflict in this primary. Democratic leaders are lagging behind the Democratic base on this. I'd like to steer the discussion more in the direction of THIS article titled "Accelerating the Decolonization of Palestine." #SorryNotSorry

And while I'm saying stuff I used to be afraid to say: I'm more shook up by Friday's Coral Ridge Mall murder of Andrea Farrington than I thought I'd be. The murderer - I'm not saying "the accused" because he's confessed - clearly had a gun and militaria fetish.

It is simply too easy to get a gun in this country, there are simply too many of them, and their use is too easily rationalized as a "right." It's time for America to get rid of the primitive notion that weapons are an absolute right, as sacred as speech and religion and democracy.

I've long thought if there were one thing I could change in the Constitution, it would be the Second Amendment. Now I'm saying it. It should be repealed, and strict and sensible gun laws like other civilized countries have should be enacted. #SorryNotSorry
The Ames Straw Poll - since Boone 2015 never happened I'm reverting to the traditional usage - died in 2011. It died with Michele Bachmann's ultimately meaningless win. It died when Rick Perry's announcement stepped on the day.

But most of all, it died when Tim Pawlenty bet everything he had on Ames, fell short, and immediately washed out of the race. Nobody wanted to be the Tim Pawlenty of 2015. Friday's announcement was just burying the corpse.

I regret never getting to see the show. In 2007 Ames conflicted with my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, and they called dibs. In 2011 I was turned down for press credentials, though I did ask a little late.

The funeral for the straw poll brought out the Iowa haters on social media.

That attitude might explain why Greenfield was so rude to me when I tried to talk to him at the 2007 Harkin Steak Fry.

I was a pro at that time, the glory months of the late great all-star team at Iowa Independent, and was working on a piece that, ironically, Greenfield would have had a strong opinion about. Eventually it was headlined "Iowa's Neighbors Envious of Caucuses, But Not Hostile," but during its looooong gestation we referred to it on editorial conference calls as "Spoiled Iowa."

I was juggled a half dozen stories at a time and saved a lot of string that day. And I recognized Greenfield from various cable shows, and thought he could add a good quote for Spoiled Iowa.

But he brushed me off very brusquely, too important, or self-important, to talk to a mere blogger from Iowa. In contrast, Obama campaign chief David Axelrod was more than happy to share a few minutes.

As for Greenfield's question Why Iowa? I'll note that it's just not possible to transplant a political culture that has taken decades to develop into just any semi-random small state. Look at the troubles Nevada had in 2008 as a case in point.
Some folks are looking at this week's trade vote as a sign that Barack Obama's lame duck period had begun. I'm not convinced of that, but it does illustrate an interesting dynamic.

Free trade is an elite issue. Non-elites, Democrats AND Republicans, are instinctively protectionist, less worried about exporting goods than they are about exporting jobs. And it seems that House Democrats are closely in tune with that dynamic.

Friday, June 12, 2015

O'Malley Focused on Executive Experience in Iowa City Stop

And the hands that really wanted to be shook got shook twice.

Martin O'Malley held a classic, old-school caucus visit Thursday night in Iowa City, taking questions from a crowd of about 75 in a bar one size too small.

The former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor used those two offices as a key selling point. "I'm the only candidate in this race with 15 years of executive experience," he said, and cited a liberal wish-list of accomplishments.

"I have always been drawn to the toughest of fights," said O'Malley, citing Maryland's progress on living wage laws, collective bargaining, voting rights and marriage equality.
O'Malley transitioned smoothly from climate change to the green economy, saying "We created 2000 solar jobs in 7 year in Maryland. We can create a new economy with new jobs and greater opportunity for our kids"

But one aspect of O'Malleys record, policing tactics, came under fire from a questioner.  O'Malley had brought the issue up himself in the prepared speech, and said "In Baltimore we took action to save neighbors from violence," while at the same time mentioning in passing the April death in Baltimore police custody of Freddie Gray, and the rioting which followed.

The second questioner O'Malley called on read a prepared statement calling O'Malley to task for racial disparity in "mass arrests and mass incarceration" during his tenure as mayor. O'Malley took the opportunity to again defend (without being defensive) his record.

"There was nothing mass about it." said O'Malley. "This was not easy. Every day we had to tend the wound of race in America. We reduced police involved shooting to its lowest level ever" during his term as mayor. O'Malley went on to point out his efforts as governor to increase drug treatment and early intervention, lowered incarceration rates, and restore voting rights to ex-felons. He concluded with Maryland's abolition of the death penalty, which drew applause.

So O'Malley satisfied most, if not all, of the crowd with his well-prepped answer to the meta-issue. But no answer was going to satisfy the questioner, and it's a good example of how Q & A time, especially in the People's Republic of Johnson County, can be a gotcha game.

(Pro tip to Team Hillary: Have a good heckler comeback line ready for Sunday. And be more ready for that heckler to be from the left than from the right.)

And pro tip to all candidates coming to Iowa City: Grad student group COGS seems to be working the bird-dogging circuit this cycle, asking about student debt and academic freedom issues. "We need to shame Congress into action" to lower student interest rates, said O'Malley. "We need to move to a point where education is debt free. We can't do that overnight, but we need to get there."

A campaign finance group is also on the bird dog circuit, which underscores my point that, while campaign finance may not yet be an issue that moves general election votes, it's starting to move outside the realm of pure inside baseball and into the strike zone of base issues, as overturning the Citizens United decision got the loudest applause of the night.

The personal touch seemed to matter more than the fairly solid set of liberal issue positions. Roughly half the crowd, mostly the younger half, stuck around for that second handshake and a picture. There were some longer, detailed issue discussions, but some folks just thanked O'Malley for being there.

Electeds on hand were Jim Throgmorton from the city council, Supervisor Mike Carberry, State Rep. Dave Jacoby, and State Senator Kevin Kinney, who did the introduction. O'Malley came in last summer to do a fundraising event for Kinney, whose open-seat gain from the Republicans was the race that clinched the Democrat's one seat hold on the Senate.

Small to mid-size events like Thursday's are O'Malley's best shot at breaking out of the low single digit third place spot he now has in polls. It's simply not possible for Hillary Clinton, whose first open to the general public event is Sunday at the State Fairgrounds, to shake every hand and answer every question. It's hard for even second place Bernie Sanders to do that.

Pretend this is 2003. A two term governor and two term mayor looks like a pretty solid and serious candidate in that 2004 field. And a crowd of 75 to 100 seven months out - in mid-summer in a college town - seems pretty solid unless you're comparing it to a rock star crowd.

Which is, of course, what it will be compared to.

Martin O'Malley knows he has a long way to go in these next seven months. But he's definitely someone to take seriously.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Four Candidates at July 17 Iowa Dems Event

The 2016 Democratic caucus cycle now has its first official multi-candidate "cattle call" event.
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O'Malley and the not yet officially announced Jim Webb will all attend the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame event Friday night, July 17 in Cedar Rapids.

The Hall of Fame is a traditional multi-candidate event in caucus years. In 2007, five of the six leading candidates (Obama the exception) attended.

Unless something else is announced sooner, the event is likely to be Clinton's first Iowa event that's not by invitation only. UPDATE: Something was. It's not a totally wide-open event; it's a party fundraiser with tickets starting at $50. And speech time tends to be tightly regulated so Q and A sessions are extremely unlikely.

But the event will go a long way toward calming the core party activists who are paying attention seven months before the caucuses, and who've grumbled about not being able to see the frontrunner in person.

Republicans have seen several multi-candidate events over the last few months, most recently Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride last Saturday, and all have drawn major media attention.

Democratic Party officials have been hinting that the Hall of Fame would have "major" guests for several days; IDP chair Andy McGuire almost said as much at our county central committee meeting on Thursday.

An IDP spokesman said the other announced candidate, Lincoln Chafee, has been invited and is welcome to attend. I have no reason to believe he won't; my bet is party officials didn't want to wait on his final answer before announcing they'd landed the other four fish. UPDATE June 15: Yep, I was right. Chafee now on board, adding milliliters of excitement.

The Caucuses' Greatest Hits: 2015 Edition

With the once mighty Ames Boone Straw Poll struggling to gain traction, and the relatively light activity on the Democratic side*, long time caucus lovers are suffering from some existential angst: will the caucuses survive?

Well, for one thing, * ,  Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders are all in the state this weekend, and they, plus Jim Webb, will headline a July 17 party fundraiser in Cedar Rapids, the first cattle call event on the Democratic side and the first confirmed non-invite only Clinton event. (Where's Chafee?) So stuff is happening. (I'll be at one of O'Malley's stops, Thursday night at 7 at the Sanctuary Pub in Iowa City. Insert Irishman/pub joke here.)

And the Register's Jason Noble attacks the existential angst directly with a piece headlined No, Iowa isn’t over. "A spin through the last four decades of Iowa political history underscores how the importance of the caucuses has waxed and waned repeatedly without fundamentally threatening their primacy on the calendar."

I've taken that spin through four decades, in a post I first wrote back in 2006 and have updated periodically. I've looked at and ranked all the caucus cycles back to 1976.  As for history and the caucuses themselves, a mixed bag.  Irrelevant nearly half the time, critical a little less often. With the latest round of existential angst, it feels like a good time for an update.

Not Worth The Airfare To Waterloo

17. 1984 and 2004 Republican. The Republican tradition is to hold no presidential vote at all in incumbent re-elect years.

16. 1996 Democratic. The word went down from Des Moines to the Democratic county chairs: “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” Self-starters in a couple lefty college precincts elected a very small handful of Nader and Uncommitted protest delegates, but those results got swept under the rug. Clinton came out and campaigned the final weekend, largely to step on the GOP story (Actually Being President trumps winning the caucus), but it was in basketball arenas, not chat n’ chews.

15. 2012 Democratic.  As close to an unopposed caucus as possible short of “The President would like a unanimous re-nomination and this WILL happen.” The state party went to bat for actually having an alignment, when Chicago wanted to focus on a video conference with Obama. But without a live candidate, the dissenters were split between Uncommitted Democrat and crossing over for Ron Paul. In the end the Uncommitteds made a lot of noise out of proportion to their 1.5% of the delegates. (The party tried to sell attendance figures as "results.") This was right at the height of Occupy, a flawed movement whose strategy failed to take into account the key environmental issue of seasonal hemispheric climate change - what we locals call "winter."

14. 1992 Republican. Ranked up a little because, in a strategic win for George HW, the inside the Des Moines Beltway crowd stuck with the tradition of not having a vote in an incumbent president year, while the Pat Buchanan Brigade was looking like a serious threat to win New Hampshire.

Ultimately Irrelevant

13. 1992 Democratic. Hometown boy Tom Harkin runs and wins big, though not as big as it looked because of some skilled realignment work at viability time. That 76% Harkin delegate count included a lot of stealth supporters of other candidates.

Paul Tsongas was already on the ground in Iowa when Harkin announced, but he quickly bailed. There were a couple feints from Bob Kerrey and Jerry Brown but nothing serious. In the end, Iowa kept first place after `92 only because Harkin jumped on the winner’s bandwagon while the other rivals couldn’t hide their obvious contempt for Clinton. (Jerry Brown probably wrote himself in that November.)

The long term importance of 1992 may be that Hillary Clinton didn’t have to shake hands and eat hotdish in towns like Courthouse Center and East Pole Bean.  Comic relief: An Iowa City dorm precinct elected a Jimmy Carter delegate.

12. 2000 Both. On the Democratic side Al Gore beat Bill Bradley in what was merely the first moment in the overall national dynamic; Dollar Bill made his stand on friendlier turf in New Hampshire and fell just short there.

On the Republican side it was like one of those boycott-era Olympics: W won but the toughest competitor, McCain, was a no-show. The truly significant GOP event was the straw poll that winnowed out more candidates (E. Dole, Quayle, and Buchanan bolting to Reform) than the actual caucus (Orrin Hatch, as if that wasn’t obvious).  Comic relief: People who took Gary Bauer seriously, Alan Keyes in Michael Moore’s mosh pit.

Secondary event in nomination contest

11. 1980 Democratic. The incumbent won the first test of Kennedy-Carter, but that battle of giants was played out on a national, even global, stage and Iowa was a bit player.

10. 2008 Republican. Important tactically to the dynamic of the contest, but not central to the result.

Mitt Romney was looking like the guy to beat in December 2007. Which Mike Huckabee did in January 2008, after first beating Sam Brownback at the straw poll to win the mantle of THE religious conservative candidate. Had Iowa Republicans gotten behind the Mitt, they may have headed off the chaos that was the GOP field in January. Instead, we proved that there was no there there for Fred Thompson, and that the Ron Paul Яэvoutionaries were noisy in disproportion to their actual numbers (but see 2012 below). But really, we just stirred the pot, and the decisive event was in Florida between two men with Screw Iowa Lite strategies, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

Downmodded a notch below 1996, because that year the Iowa winner actually won the nomination. May move up in a few years if Huckabee goes anywhere in 2012 or maybe 2016.

9. 1996 Republican. What might have been: Pat Buchanan was within 3% of Bob Dole, but the social conservatives in Cedar Rapids backed Alan Keyes instead; Keyes thus won the second biggest county. One minister at one mega-church makes a different choice, and we’d have had a major upset.

Some all too obvious field winnowing (Dick Lugar???) happens. Phil Gramm gets out too, but his real stumble was in Louisiana’s jump-the-starting-gun contest a week earlier. 

Comic relief: Easily the funniest caucus! Dole, genuinely witty in his non-Satan mode, Steve Forbes the android, Alan Keyes… but they all pale next to Morrie Taylor, the tire magnate who literally tried to buy a win one vote at a time. Failed miserably but looked like he had more fun than the rest put together.

8. 1988 Democratic. There's a story, long told by Paul Simon loyalists, that a county chair sat on his Simon-friendly results until the Register had printed its GEPHARDT WINS headline, and they're still mad about it even though the chair in question is long dead. Real-time rules on reporting results have been enacted since then, but this one proved the winner-take-all-news theory.

In `88 Al Gore was the first candidate to use the Screw Iowa strategy.  It's never worked (save for the Tom Harkin year), but nevertheless Gore wound up outlasting the two Iowa leaders. But the nomination contest came down to Dukakis vs. Jackson, neither of whose fortunes were affected by Iowa.  Comic relief: Gary Hart’s last minute return to the race, campaigning with his wife.

7. 2012 Republican.  The real importance of the 2012 Republican caucuses was not its relatively small role in designating the nominee. That was always going to come down to Mitt vs. Not Mitt.  Because of the dead heat, dual winner result, and because Sheldon Adelson kept Newt Gingrich on life support far too long, Rick Santorum never really got the bump from the win.

No, the real importance was what happened after the presidential vote. The Romney and Santorum people both said "yay, we won," went home, and both in turn were right. The Ron Paul people stuck around, elected themselves as delegates and committee people, and took over the state party structure.

The consequences had a huge ripple effect through state, and even national, internal Republican politics for the next two years, until Terry Branstad, Jeff Kaufmann and the rest of the grownups took party control back in 2014 (the most important OFF-year caucus). And we still haven't seen the final reckoning for the 2012 national convention delegation voting en masse for Paul. This one may move up the charts depending on the long-term fate of the caucuses.

Significant event in nomination contest

6. 1988 Republican. Pat Robertson pushes George HW into third place. Robertson was insignificant thereafter, but the blow made Bush go on a fight of his life attack against Bob Dole in New Hampshire. Dole took the bait and was goaded into “stop lying about my record.” This convinces HW that hard negative was the way to go. That road went through the flag factory and Willie Horton, and ended at the White House. Comic relief: Al Haig.

5. 1984 Democratic. Gary Hart barely squeaked past his old boss, George McGovern. But second, no matter how distant, was enough to make him the Not Mondale and propel him up about 40 points in eight days for a New Hampshire win, a brief but genuine shot at the nomination, and (pre-Donna Rice) 1988 front-runner status. The Right Stuff sank like Gus Grissom’s capsule, and you're an old timer if you catch that reference.

Decisive event in nomination contest

4. 2004 Democratic. Iowa was the whole ball game in 2004. Nothing that happened after Iowa mattered nearly as much as what happened in Iowa.  The guy who won got the nomination, the guy in second got VP.  And the guy who came in third...

The Dean Scream goes down as the single most memorable caucus moment, but everyone forgets The Scream was after The Much More Important Disappointing Third Place. 

Made History

3. 1976 Democratic. This one made both Jimmy Carter and the caucuses themselves. Carter didn’t actually win this, you know. He was second to Uncommitted. But I know folks who still brag “Jimmy Carter slept on my couch.”

I’m torn about ranking a caucus that directly produced a president below one that didn't. But read on.

2. 1980 Republican. In the first true Iowa Republican caucus, an obscure former ambassador, spy boss, and failed Senate candidate George Herbert Walker Bush shocked the ten foot tall colossus of the GOP, Ronald Reagan. This one win puts Poppy on the map and ultimately on the ticket (after the botched Ford “co-presidency” deal at the `80 convention).

So why rank this ahead of Jimmy Carter, especially since Bush Sr. lost that 1980 nomination? The ripple effect. No Iowa win = no Bush 41. And with no HW, do you REALLY think Bush 43 or 45 (heh) would have made it on their own? 1976 made a president, but 1980 made a dynasty.

Number 1: 2008 Democratic. There's no question the 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses created a president. Iowa was the honing ground for Barack Obama's message and appeal and ground game. We eliminated the entire second tier, and proved that voters in one of the whitest places in America would support a black candidate. Remember, a lot of African-American voters were sticking with Hillary Clinton before Iowa, because Obama "couldn't win." Iowa shattered that myth and the perception of Clinton's inevitability.

It's too soon to tell, but the 2008 caucuses may have ushered in not just one president, but a whole era, a new alignment of states that ends the 1968 Nixon-Wallace southern-western coalition for good, at least at the presidential level

2008 was a whole new map. As late as the first John Edwards campaign, people were sill seriously saying it was impossible to break the Republican "electoral college lock" without southern white male voters.  In a realignment, you look for counter-trends, and what better example than West Virginia, which went for Carter in 1980 and Dukakis in `88? The old South has been replaced by the new South - Virginia and Florida twice, North Carolina once, and Georgia beccoming an in-play mega-state.

Barack Obama fueled this alignment, which would not have been possible without that Iowa win.

The 1976 caucuses made one president, but his victory is a mere footnote to a Republican era, brought about by the intensity of Watergate and the Nixon pardon. The 1980 Republican caucuses made two presidents, but they followed the electoral footsteps of others.

How many presidents in an era? Only time will tell if Obama is able to transfer this alignment to a successor. If the 2008 caucuses ushered in an Obama Realignment, like the FDR Relignment or the Nixon-Wallace Realignment, they could lead to four or five presidents. Thus, the number one rank.

For now.