Opinion » Bill Cope

Before and After

Two takes on one raucous caucus


I, Bill Cope, swear that I am writing the first part of this column days before the Feb. 5 Democratic caucus. I also vow to not amend, emend, revise or tweak in any way (excluding spell check) what I have written in paragraphs three through seven once the caucus process has taken its course and chosen the candidate Idaho's Democrat delegates will support in the 2008 presidential race.

Allow me to explain, fellow political fiends, what this is about: I thought it would be sort of trippy to predict what might happen at the Ada County caucus, and then compare it to what actually happens. Hence, the first part of what you're reading is speculation. The last part will be history. Somewhere 'twixt the two, I hope to discover a sensible reason for having decided to do this. Wish me luck.

Pre: The caucus is scheduled to start at 7, but doesn't, due to the enormous turnout. Ada County Democrats are expecting the largest attendance in the history of Idaho caucusing and try to plan accordingly. But no one could have foreseen that fully one-fifth of the population of Ada County will be trying to squeeze into Qwest Arena at the same time. Incoming traffic on State Street from Eagle creates the worst jam the Valley has ever seen. The North End must look like an abandoned planet, with no one left home but the dogs.

When the organizers try to close the doors promptly at 7, several hundred attendees who didn't quite get there on time threaten to rush the name-tag table. One disgruntled gentleman is heard to wail, "But I had to park in a strip mall on Vista and walk all the down way here. Ain't no goddam way they're gonna keep me out." Many are muttering, "This is Hillary's doing." while others cluster in groups and conspire bitterly that "If those Barack brats think they're gonna get away with this, they got another think comin'." A 67-year-old lady who volunteered to be in charge of the communal Sharpie marker collapses in tears from the stress and is carried out by union firefighters.

Organizers agree to wait until everyone is in, which takes until approximately 7:35. Not everyone gets a name tag, as the communal Sharpie is on its way to St. Luke's. Someone forgot to ask the management of Qwest Arena to cover the ice (there for the convenience of the Idaho Steelheads hockey team) but the slick surface turns out not to be a problem, as the crowd is so tightly packed that there is no room to fall down. The caucus chair explains the rules, asking everyone to separate into groups according to their choice of candidate. This proves impossible. There is no extra space to separate one group from another.

Instead, yellow police barrier tape is stretched from wall to wall, midway though the rink. Organizers then ask everyone for Hillary to migrate to one side of the tape, and the Obama supporters to gather on the opposite side. This eats up another hour, largely because paramedics continuously move through the crowd, attending to stomped-on toes and "elbow eye."

By 9, the migration is complete and the first head count is taken. Results: Barak—49 percent; Clinton—49 percent. The missing 2 percent are Kucinich die-hards, cloistered in a utility closet under the stands. Spokespeople for each candidate make their pitches for those 2-percenters. It is clear that Obama supporters have the edge in enthusiasm. But what Hillary supporters lack in energy, motivation and optimism, they make up for with age. This factor is what eventually decides the caucus. Even Barak's eager youngsters bow to the will and wisdom of their elders and obediently switch sides. Hillary sweeps the night.

Post: So, OK, I got a few things wrong. But I got a few things right, too. I was wrong about the ice not being covered, and I was wrong about the yellow police tape. I was wrong about the rash of "elbow eye" and I was wrong about the head count. (They provided good old paper ballots like God intended democracies to have, and everyone there, including the Barack brats, were exceedingly polite to one another.) If any volunteers fell to pieces from the stress, I didn't hear about it, so I was wrong about that. There were no name tags (hence no communal Sharpie) and if there was a Kucinich contingent holed up in a utility closet, I couldn't find them.

Oh—and I suppose you could say I was wrong about Hillary sweeping the caucus.

Other than those few piddling things, though, I was 100 percent prescient. The turnout wasn't quite one-fifth of Ada County, no, but the line outside Qwest Arena was so long it twisted all the way around the block and coiled back around itself like a big snake in a small box. The evening was the most impressive demonstration of democracy in action I have personally witnessed. It reminded me of the news footage you see from places like Africa or Guatemala, where people trudge for days on bare feet through thorny bushes to get a chance to vote. (And as how every county in Idaho held its own Democratic caucus—for the first time ever, incidentally—I imagine over in some of those Eastern Idaho precincts, there may well have been people who trudged for days on bare feet through thorny bushes to get a chance to vote.)

All in all, the affair was organized remarkably well, considering what was being organized was a revolution. That's right, fellow political fiends—a revolution. You could feel it in your gut like critters sense impending earthquakes. This country will not be the same in a year, and Idaho will not escape it. After Obama's explosive stop in Boise three days before the caucus, state GOP leaders went on record to assure themselves that Idaho would stay securely clenched in their stubby Republican paws—but to these ears, it sounded like the chirping of endangered birds. Even they, I believe, see it coming.

Speaking of changes, I'd like to suggest one, myself. (This may be the sensible reason for doing this I was looking for, but I'm not sure. Only time will tell.) If the caucus demonstrated nothing else (and it certainly did, so don't think I'm dissing it in any way), it showed that local Democrats can no longer all squeeze into one van and ride downtown together. And undoubtedly, for every one that made it to the caucus, there were many more who, for various reasons, couldn't all be in the same place at the same time. We need to dump the caucus and go to a presidential primary. Ada County, at least, has simply outgrown the caucus.