Today was my first ever experience in caucusing, and I must say, it felt more like a full immersion in democracy than anything else I've experienced before. And it was really great to be around a bunch of people who enjoyed discussing politics, and didn't get miffed at you for talking about it.
We met at the local school, and the gymnasium quickly flooded to overflowing. They weren't expecting so many people, so we began late, and even as we began people were still in line signing in. I'm told we doubled the record for participation in a Washington caucus. (And incidentally, more than doubled the Republican participation.)
There were some 12 precincts present in the auditorium, and our precinct was by far the largest, with four tables, and a crowd standing around with no seating. We began by talking about who we supported, Obama or Clinton. (Strangely, no one was a supporter of Gravel. I feel sorry for him. He's still in the race, and no one's talking about him.) Then a woman made some announcements up on the stage that no one could hear since the mike wasn't working, and finally the mike worked, and she instructed us on the steps. The first bit was that we wouldn't have a discussion between all precincts, but each precinct would be an entity unto itself. We were all in one place for organizational benefit, with all the materials in one place, but because of the exceptionally large crowds in extremely small spaces, it all felt rather unorganized. We got conflicting information, and were having to shout over each other. But this, also, felt like real democracy in action, as if we were back in the first Constitutional Congress as they tried to figure out how to get their Blackberries to count the votes.
For most of us, this was our first caucus. One man had experience in leading caucuses, and we elected him the chair. He explained how the event worked.
We were told initially that we should break up into our support groups (Obama, Clinton, and Undecided), and count the number of supporters. We finally figured out a method of counting off like in kindergarten, as we lowered our hands, for any other method in such a large crowd would have resulted in an inaccurate result. We went to report our result, only to find out he had sat down at his table (he was a Clinton supporter), and recorded the support from the sheets we filled in when we signed in to the caucus. This was a good method, except that many of us hadn't written who we support, as we didn't know about that part. So I and others were initially recorded as Undecided, until we clarified the numbers.
All three groups got an opportunity for a one minute speech in support of their candidate. The Obama crowd was obviously significantly larger, but I was in the midst of it, so I didn't record our representative. Here's the Clinton guy:
He was representative of the Clinton crowd. They supported their candidate, but they weren't as die-hard about it. It was more, "Well, she's the best one for the job, and I think we should support her." Whereas the Obama people were saying, "I will bleed blood before I support Clinton." (Okay, I was the one who said that, but still, it was indicative of the general mood.)
Our precinct was assigned seven delegates, based on a complicated formula of the number of registered voters and how Democratic we'd voted in past elections. It couldn't be more than seven. Based on that, we had 15 people for every one delegate (making about 105 people gathered around these four tables). Incidentally, this is why caucus numbers reported by the press look so much lower than primary numbers- they are the number of delegates. These delegates will go to the Legislative District Caucuses, who in turn will elect delegates to the County Convention, and then the Congressional District Caucus, the State Convention, and finally the National Convention in Denver. Because Democrats really have that much time on their hands. Our seven delegates would go on to the District Caucus, and they will send some number like "one" delegate to the next level.
After the counts, we had the opportunity to try to convince the Dark Side to come to the Light, or the Undecideds to join our team. I don't think any Clinton or Obama supporters ended up switching. The numbers to begin with were enough for 4 Obama delegates, 2 Clinton delegates, and 1 undecided delegate. (There was one guy who supported Kucinich unwaveringly, but since he was 14 people short of a delegate, his vote went uncounted.) But through some hard work, we won over the majority of the Undecideds, so that we gained a fifth delegate. And, to toot my own horn a bit, I was told that my arguments were rather convincing for the Undecideds. My main points were that:
- After South Carolina and Florida, many Democrats won't support Clinton. After her campaign falsely claimed that Obama had brought race into the race, when in truth it was Bill Clinton who was doing it, and after Hillary promised not to campaign in Florida but did anyway- after all this, many Democrats like myself feel we can no longer trust her. McCain says most of the stuff we don't want to hear, and Clinton says most of the stuff we want to hear, but we suspect that Clinton won't keep her word, and will do all the stuff we don't want. Therefore, many like myself are probably not going to vote at all in the General if Clinton is elected. Since polls are showing this is a widespread, if minority feeling in the party, better to vote for Obama if you want a Democrat in office. (This clearly demonstrates why Obama is winning the caucuses. Clinton puts the lies out there, like accusing Obama of being in bed with a slum lord, and people believe it. The undecided woman I spoke with was shocked to find out that the guy had also supported the Clintons, and learning this helped sway her to Obama.)
- I'm voting for Obama because I want the candidate with experience. Obama has far more elected experience than Hillary- he's been doing the job on the ground.
- More importantly, Obama has the international experience. Because of his skin colour, his cultural upbringing, his father, and living in Indonesian and Hawaii, the rest of the world sees him as someone they can trust. He's someone they can negotiate with. Many in the Arab world in particular are saying this. (And by the way, amazing the hush that fills a crowd when you mentioned that you used to live in the Middle East.) And now, in this time, that is exactly what we need- someone who can be trusted by the rest of the world so that we are no longer the pariah that we've become. Only Obama can do that. He can do that not just because of perception, but because growing up overseas gives him a worldly perspective, and not myopic to America. This last argument in particular was persuasive. Some Clinton supporters poo-pooed it, suggesting that an international experience was irrelevant. A man of colour with a foreign accent in the crowd put paid to that idea, and the feeling of the crowd became that, indeed, this was a serious benefit to Obama.
This convincing and cajoling all took place standing in these crowds, as people rushed in and politely elbowed each other for space and speaking time. We had enough for 5 & 1/3 delegates, giving us six total. For a moment. We were told that, with enough for 1 & 2/3 delegates, the Clinton people would get one delegate, and we'd get our five plus the left over delegate. But then a clarification of the rules went out, that numbers were to be rounded, and so Clinton got two delegates, to our five.
After three hours, almost done. We were there longer than any other precinct, due to our size. The only thing that remained was to select the delegates and alternates to the Legislative District Caucus. We'd have one alternate for every delegate, and I was selected as an alternate! And I can still go to the District Convention as an Alternate, and may be seated if a rep from another district doesn't show up. If not seated, I can participate without voting.
We gave speeches before the selection. This is where I gave my speech that I will bleed before I will vote for Clinton. We had 11 candidates, and 10 spots. It was a very hard fight. We made speeches, and chose from a hat. Democracy in action.
Then, just as the caucus was ending, standing in the corner, was our Congressman, Jim McDermott! When we broke up, I ran over to him and shook his hand, thanking him for all the work he does in Congress supporting Arab rights. I know he is a minority there (about 20 Congressman are not Israel supporters), and I told him that I know it's often difficult, so his work is doubly appreciated.