Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#71, January 25, 2000


by Marylaine Block

My son and I did our civic duty as Iowans tonight; I went to the Democratic caucus, and he went to the Republican one (yes, political discussion in my household is, um, lively). I went to cast my vote for Bill Bradley, who I've long admired; Brian went to cast his vote for Alan Keyes because only he and Gary Bauer oppose the World Trade Organization (and Bauer looks too much like Howdy Doody).

Now, there are two things you need to understand about the caucus process. One is that the actual votes for candidates -- which is what the networks report -- don't matter as much as you might think. All we are really doing is sending delegates on to a county convention, where they will choose delegates to the state convention who will choose delegates to the national convention. There is a fair amount of watering down in the process.

The other thing is that some people are more equal than others. Your average caucus is attended by many eager, fumbling political novices who have not a clue what they're doing, and by the political crowd who know what the rules are, and therefore run the show.

In Brian's caucus, after one of the pols congratulated everybody for "participating in democracy at its best," he nominated another pol as chair. Yet another pol seconded the motion and the nominee immediately started running the show until a puzzled citizen said, "Er, excuse me, but I don't think we actually elected you yet." At this point, they held a vote. He was duly elected and went right back to running things.

In my caucus, one of the pols read aloud congratulatory messages from the county and state Democratic organizations, assuring us that the eyes of the world were on us tonight; after all, they said, "CNN WILL BE THERE!"

They do a little party business before the votes are taken. In my caucus, they passed a hat around for contributions, after explaining, with simple pride, that the party had recently raised enough money to buy a copy machine. I asked them if we gave them money, would they finally start answering their phones? [Like Will Rogers, I say, "I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat."]

At this point, Democrats declared themselves by heading for the corner of the room reserved for supporters of their chosen candidates. Republicans cast a secret ballot (while wearing their candidates' lapel buttons).

Candidates have to get 15% of the vote to be considered viable, so in my caucus, which required a minimum of twelve votes for viability, the eight uncommitted delegates became a highly sought-after commodity. Organizers for Gore and Bradley bustled around the room trying to woo them, and after heavy dickering, the undecideds split evenly between the two candidates.

You've probably heard the overall Iowa results already: Bush 41%, Forbes 30%, and Keyes with a surprisingly creditable 14%; Gore 66%, Bradley 33%. But in our caucuses, Forbes was well ahead of Bush, and Gore was only marginally ahead of Bradley.

It didn't matter, anyway. In the Republican caucus, voters were given the choice of staying after the head count to choose their delegates and platform, or leaving. Sixty percent of them left. Since many of the remaining delegates were passionately committed to Alan Keyes, half the delegates going on to the county convention will be Keyes supporters. Moral: as is so often the case in life, passionate conviction trumps casual interest.

In my caucus, it was moved and seconded that people should submit platform resolutions in writing and leave them to be debated at the county convention; people who were buttoning coats and looking for car keys said AYE enthusiastically. We chose our delegates and alternates (I, always eager for a new, only-in-America experience, will be one of them) and ran for our cars. The whole process for our caucus took 90 minutes flat.

The Republicans actually debated platform issues. My son's proposal that the United States should drop out of the World Trade Organization passed by a comfortable margin, as did the Human Life Amendment and a generous health reform plan. After declaring himself pro-life, Brian was chosen as an alternate delegate to his county convention.

Once we got home and traded stories, we checked out the final results on Headline News, which had its amusing moments: the crawl along the bottom of the screen gave the scores:





They had a point. The caucuses ARE a little like a sporting event, if a somewhat more rigged one. But in basketball, we don't get to vote for our starting point guards; our only input is booing and cheering, and hassling the referees. In the caucuses, we do have a voice, however tiny, in choosing who will lead us. Even if you're a cynic, you've gotta love it.

Read the rest of
these columns

home to all my
other writing