Saturday, November 17, 2007

"The Machine Comes to Town"

Eli Sanders (The Stranger):
Clinton Plans to Win the Washington Caucuses--The symbolism was good: In the same South Seattle union hall where John Edwards appeared in May courting the state's blue-collar vote, Hillary Clinton's campaign held a caucus training session for its most devoted supporters. No mention was made at the November 10 training session of Edwards's earlier use of the hall, or of the large, cheering crowd that Edwards drew. But, in a not-so-subtle bit of braggadocio, it was made clear at the outset of the training that the union that runs the hall, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, had since taken sides in the Democratic nomination contest. Its pick: Clinton.
The numbers were also impressive: About 150 people were on hand for an event that began at 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. They had driven from all across the state to hear a pep talk from former governor Gary Locke, now a co-chair of Clinton's campaign in Washington, and to get a tutorial on Washington caucus mechanics from Jim Kainber, former executive director of the state Democratic party and one of the architects of the current caucus system.

"In a caucus system, the candidate who wins is the candidate whose supporters go to these neighborhood meetings and stay the whole time," Locke told me before he addressed the audience. That's true. Caucuses are long events heavy on public debate, persuasion over the course of several hours, and groupthink. "You can't take things for granted," said Locke. "You've got to get ready and be prepared for it."

As part of that preparation, the Clinton campaign had flown two staffers in from the East Coast to help with the event, and organizers claimed the meeting was the first caucus training event held by any Democratic campaign in this state. (Barack Obama supporters begged to differ. Peter Masundire, spokesman for Washington for Obama, told me that the Obama camp has been doing caucus training here since before the summer. "We had a couple of meetings with more than 200 people," he told me. "Rev. Sam B. McKinney addressed one of them. We have also done regional trainings across the state. The statement from the Clinton folks is inaccurate." As for the Edwards camp, Jenny Durkan, chair of the local Edwards campaign, did not reply to a question about local caucus organizing efforts.)

All very interesting, but what I found most interesting about the Clinton event is that it was happening at all. Why, I wondered, is any campaign getting serious, four months out, about organizing for the Washington caucuses?

This state's Democratic caucuses fall on February 9, more than a month after the hugely influential Iowa caucuses, and well after Democratic primaries in New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, Florida, and South Carolina—not to mention the "Super Tuesday" slew of primaries that comes on February 5, when voters in more than 20 states, comprising half of the U.S. population, will vote for their preferred Democratic nominee. It's more than likely that the Democratic nomination will be sewn up by the time Washingtonians get around to their caucusing. So why bother investing resources here?

Simply put, the answer is that the Clinton machine, famous for its advance planning and covering of bases, doesn't want to take any chances. Washington will be sending 97 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August, and the Clinton camp wants all of those delegates to be Clinton backers, an outcome that can only be assured by getting involved in the caucus process now. It also doesn't want to see Clinton sweep through a series of victories in the early primary states and then get embarrassed by a loss in Obama-friendly Washington. And, in the unlikely event that the Democratic nominee still isn't clear on February 9, Clinton backers don't want her to be vulnerable here.

Kainber, the local caucus mastermind who has been brought onto Team Clinton, told me that unlike primaries, which involve individuals making choices alone in voting booths, "caucus campaigns are much more susceptible to insurgent campaigns making inroads." The reason is simple, and will be familiar to anyone who has had to make a decision as part of a crowd rather than as an individual: Minds can be changed during a caucus meeting, labyrinthine caucus rules can be exploited, supporters can fail the endurance test of arguing for hours on end. "We're not going to let that happen," Kainber said.

Those gathered in the union hall seemed equally committed to working the local caucuses to Clinton's benefit. They were mostly middle-aged and mostly female, and spent a good bit of the morning peppering the Clinton campaign staffers with questions about how to respond to attacks, how to build networks of caucus-goers, and how to make the case to Democrats who are leaning toward another candidate. Kainber was pleased.

"It's very clear to me we've got an organization like I've never seen," he said.

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