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How The Caucuses Really Work — And Why They Matter So Much

The Iowa caucus, where voters will gather in rooms to cast ballots publicly, remains important not only because it’s the first primary contest, but because candidates can win a majority of delegates there, even if they don’t have a majority of the votes.

That caucus anomaly is particularly important for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is polling just behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the final hours before the polling places open. In the first caucus round for the Democrats, every candidate must have 15 percent of the votes or their votes are redistributed to the other candidates in a second round.  Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is unlikely to make that cut off, so his handful of supporters eventually will have to choose between Sanders or Clinton.

In Iowa, geography favors Clinton: More than a quarter of Sanders’ voters are expected to come from only three counties. The rest are spread out across the state’s 96 other counties. So even if Sanders were to build a substantial lead, he may only win a limited number of delegates.

Caucuses are the remnants of an archaic political process that have managed to survive into the present day. In fact, the caucus predates the republic by several decades. Working with a select group in Boston before the Revolution, Samuel Adams had devised a process to bring political candidates before the public. In 1763, John Adams wrote about a “Caucus Club,” filled with notable town figures who would then be presented to the public for a vote. One central purpose of this process was to ensure solidarity so voters could get behind a single candidate.

After the colonies achieved independence from Britain, the practice continued — but was limited to closed door meetings attended only by Congressmen and party leaders. Caucuses weren’t a deliberate attempt to subvert democracy, however; they were instead a practical necessity of the time. Slow modes of transportation and communication prevented an electorate beyond those in the state capital from taking part in the nomination process.

John Quincy Adams criticized the practice while serving as Secretary of State. He wrote in 1819 that caucusing was “a practice which places the President in a state of undue subserviency to the members of the legislature.” Since presidential candidates were chosen by the members of the House and Senate, potential nominees had to maintain a sometimes uneasy peace with the legislature. Otherwise, they could be excluded from the ballot. The process was an obvious violation of separation of powers, as the legislature could select candidates that represented their own interests.

Since those early days, caucusing has been expanded to include the full electorate, but the delegate voting system has not gone away. In Iowa, caucus-goers will head to their local precincts, where they will vote for county delegates who will in turn vote for state delegates. The state delegates will vote for the national convention delegates, who will then vote to choose the party’s presidential candidate. While the process is not confusing, it is lengthy and complex. In a recent ThinkProgress post, the author described it “as if Rube Goldberg designed a method of polling voters.”

Even this modified caucus system is subject to manipulation, with Iowa’s delegates allocated on “a county-by-county analysis of Democratic performance in the last governor and presidential elections.” That opaque process can give certain counties a much louder voice in the caucus results than others, regardless of voter turnout in tonight’s election — and potentially give undue weight to a smaller pool of voters.

Iowans take part in this system of disproportional voting strength by default, while their residence in the first primary state gives them undue national influence — but only if they’re among the minority that shows up. Each vote from Iowa is calculated to have the same impact as five Super Tuesday voters put together — a fact that explains why ethanol subsidies are a far bigger issue than they should be, and why early voting states get more federal funding if they voted for the winning candidate in the elections. With no major urban centers in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada, the first four voting states, this system is among the reasons why cities chronically remain short of education, infrastructure and housing funding.

Yet this is the reality Sanders will have to grapple with if he wants to become fully competitive by Super Tuesday. The momentum he has coming out of these first primaries will determine his future. Clinton is hoping that she can stop him in South Carolina, where black voters are a majority and support her by a margin of 4-to-1 against Sanders. But should Sanders win tonight, he just might be propelled all the way to the convention. It won’t be long before we know.

Late Night Roundup: The Colbert Presidential Candidate Town Hall

Stephen Colbert pivoted off this week’s Democratic town hall event on CNN, to hold his own town hall meeting with his audience. Stephen got in all the typical candidate remarks and poses, like rolling up his sleeves — and his pants leg.

Larry Wilmore celebrated the indictment in Texas of those anti-Planned Parenthood activists who produced the fraudulent videos alleging that the organization sells fetal body parts. But Larry pointed out the damage has been done: “Here’s the thing about bull@#$t, people remember it a lot more than telling the truth.”

Seth Meyers highlighted the many times Republican presidential candidates have been citing the deceptively edited videos to accuse Planned Parenthood of criminal wrongdoing — with perhaps the worst offender being Carly Fiorina.

Jimmy Kimmel played a fun little game based on the presidential race: Sending a crew down the street, and asking random people if they can recognize a photo of Martin O’Malley. Ouch. (It took them a while, but they finally found one person.)

Democratic Presidential Candidates Get Chance For Seventh Debate

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. news channel and a newspaper will host a debate for the Democratic presidential contenders in New Hampshire a few days before the state’s primary election – but it remained unclear whether the party will relax its rule banning candidates from non-sanctioned debates.

The news channel MSNBC and the New Hampshire Union Leader will hold the debate on Feb. 4 in New Hampshire, the second state in the nation to vote for parties’ presidential nominees following the Iowa caucuses on Monday, the Union Leader said on its website on Tuesday.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) has been criticized by two of the three contenders, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, for its relatively skimpy debate schedule.

The DNC scheduled only six debates for its 2016 candidates, and, contrary to its practice in previous election years, forbade candidates from taking part in debates not sanctioned by the party. There were 25 Democratic primary debates in 2008 and 15 in 2004, both sanctioned and unsanctioned.

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has dismissed criticisms from within her party that she organized relatively few debates and scheduled them at times when viewership might be lower than average in order to protect former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s position as the long-standing front-runner for the nomination.

Sanders has recently been drawing near or even, overtaking Clinton in some opinion polls as the first voting draws near.

“We were always concerned that this would have been the first time in 32 years without a Democratic debate before the New Hampshire primary,” Joseph W. McQuaid, the Union Leader’s publisher, said in an article on the paper’s website, explaining the decision to add an unsanctioned debate.

The paper did not say which candidates were invited or whether any of them had accepted ahead of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. Spokesmen for Sanders, Clinton and the DNC did not respond to a request for comment.

John Bivona, O’Malley’s campaign director in New Hampshire, said in an email to reporters that O’Malley looked forward to participating in the debate.

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks as she discusses issues with former Governor Martin O’Malley (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders at the NBC News – YouTube Democratic presidential candidates debate in Charleston, South Carolina January 17, 2016. REUTERS/Randall Hill

Here’s A Fact: No Democrat Gets High Marks From NRA

By William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — The liveliest portions of Sunday’s Democratic debate, the last before Iowa’s caucuses Feb. 1, were sparked by gun control and Wall Street regulation.

The charges and counter-charges, particularly between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, were spirited.

GUN CONTROL

Clinton accused Sanders of flip-flopping on the issue of immunity from lawsuits for gun manufacturers. On the eve of Sunday’s debate, Sanders said he would support a bill introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that would reverse a 2005 measure that Sanders voted for that shielded gun manufacturers from liability when their weapons were used in crimes.

“I am pleased to hear that Senator Sanders has reversed his position on immunity and I look forward to him joining with those members of Congress who have already introduced legislation,” Clinton said. “There is no other industry in America that was given the total pass that the gun makers and dealers were and that needs to be reversed.”

Sanders insisted he’s been consistent on the issue.

“What I have said, is that (the) gun manufacturer’s liability bill has some good provisions among other things, we’ve prohibited ammunition that would’ve killed cops who had protection on,” Sanders said. “We have child-safety protection work on guns in that legislation. And what we also said, is a small mom and pop gun shop who sells a gun legally to somebody should not be held liable if somebody does something terrible with that gun.”

Sanders also defended his record on gun control, saying he’d been given a D-minus rating by the National Rifle Association, a rating the lobbying group reserves for “an anti-gun candidate who usually supports restrictive gun control legislation and opposes pro-gun reforms.”

Clinton and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the third candidate on the stage, have both been given F grades by the NRA, a rating the NRA says it reserves for a “true enemy of gun owners’ rights.”

RAISING MINIMUM WAGE

O’Malley and Sanders expressed support for the “Fight for $15” movement, which calls for doubling the federal minimum wage. Republican candidates have argued employers can’t afford it, and that it will cost jobs.

But a study published last January by the University of Chicago’s Booth School suggested it would be consumers who would pay for the higher wages in higher prices. Employers in high-cost states or low unemployment states already have workers making above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

Clinton didn’t address the topic.

REVAMPING WALL STREET

Clinton went after Sanders for voting for a financial deregulation bill in 2000 that critics believe gave Wall Street the rope it used to hang the economy in the 2008 financial crisis.

The criticism was unfair given that the bill was signed by a Democrat in the White House, her husband, Bill Clinton.

Sanders and O’Malley both criticized the Obama administration’s landmark revamp of financial regulation, called the Dodd-Frank Act.

The two suggested the legislation failed to give regulators the power to break up big banks, and Clinton rightly noted it in fact does.

Clinton defended herself against a charge by Sanders that she had received $600,000 in speaking fees from the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs, suggesting that GOP strategist Karl Rove and financial firms called hedge funds are teaming up to run ads against her. In blasting hedge funds, she failed to mention that her son-in-law, Marc Mezvinsky, runs one. He also worked at Goldman Sachs for more than eight years.

FOREIGN POLICY

Foreign policy and national security issues didn’t come up until well over an hour into the debate, and even then the moderators spent only about 10 minutes on the issues, skimming over the Syrian conflict, the fight against Islamic State extremists, diplomacy with Iran and relations with Russia.

Only O’Malley, in his closing statement, mentioned the wave of migrants fleeing violence in Central America. There was no mention at all of the United States’ gradually warming relations with Cuba.

There was also no discussion of Libya, where chaos has reigned since a Clinton-backed intervention helped to topple leader Moammar Gadhafi, and scant mention of Yemen. Clinton referred to Yemen only as a place where the Iranians were meddling, but she failed to note the merciless bombing campaign that U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has waged there, to the outrage of international human rights groups.

BALTIMORE HOMICIDE RATE

O’Malley was pressed by NBC’s Lester Holt about tough-on-crime measures he implemented as mayor of Baltimore, measures that several critics said contributed to rioting following the death of Freddie Gray while in Baltimore police custody.

O’Malley said, “When I ran for mayor in 1999, Lester, it was not because our city was doing well. It was because we were burying over 300 young, poor, black men every single year. And that’s why I ran. Because black lives matter.”

O’Malley added: “We were able to save a lot of lives, doing things that actually work to improve police and community relations.”

The Baltimore Sun reported in November that the city had more than 300 homicides before the end of 2015, its deadliest year, per capita, in history.

©2016 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidates U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton share a laugh at the start of a commercial break during the Democratic presidential candidates debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire December 19, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder