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Still viable in Iowa

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There's an intriguing line in Newsweek's cover story this week on John Edwards. Under the "arcane" rules governing the Iowa Democratic caucuses, it says, "a precinct where 25 people show up to vote gets the same number of delegates as a place that packs in 2,500." Is that right? Indeed, the online version of this story, headlined "The Road Warrior," read: "Even if he loses in Iowa's biggest cities, Edwards can still win by wrapping up smaller, far-flung precincts."

It's true, the results in Iowa, on the Democratic side anyway, are not a straight-up polling of caucus-goers. (On the Republican side, they are.) But the rules aren't nearly as loopy as Newsweek makes them out to be. Here's how they work: Delegates are allocated to precincts according to the total number of Democratic votes each precinct cast in the '06 gubernatorial and '04 presidential elections. So, yes, regardless of how many Democrats show up this year in Precinct X in Des Moines, they will choose a fixed, pre-set number of delegates to the county convention, which picks delegates to the state convention, which picks delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

However, Des Moines has a lot more precincts than, say, Estherville. And while precinct turnouts do vary some, they're generally in the plus or minus 100 range; Iowa Democrats are forecasting a total of 150,000 caucus-goers spread across 1,784 precincts statewide. Bottom line: It's one person, one vote, but it's not one vote for Estherville and one for Des Moines, either.

The system is intended to give precincts more delegates if they have more Democrats, rather than just allocate them by the total number of registered voters. They don't, as Newsweek implies, give equal numbers of delegates to every precinct, regardless.

The question of turnout has come up in connection with college students, who are expected to go heavily for Barack Obama. Most won't be back on campus by January 3, however, which as you've probably heard or read somewhere, will hurt Obama's chances. Wrong, says Norm Sterzenbach, Iowa Democratic party political director, who recently briefed reporters on caucus arcana. Says Sterzenbach, per the Washington Post: "College students can have a significantly greater impact now" if they vote in all their home towns, rather than just bunch up in a handful of college-town precincts where, as noted, huge turnouts would make no difference to the number of delegates selected.

Second choices are a big deal. After some speech-making, all caucus-goers vote with their feet, gathering for their favorite candidates. But candidates who have less than 15 percent of the room are declared "non-viable"—and caucus-goers get a second choice. In 2004, caucus "entrance polls" showed Edwards and Howard Dean neck-and-neck for second place behind John Kerry. But when the caucusing was over, Edwards finished second with 32 percent of the delegates (to Kerry's 38 percent); Dean won just 11 percent.

The latest line in N.C.: According to Public Policy Polling, Edwards would defeat the top three Republicans in North Carolina, but Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney would all beat Obama or Hillary Clinton. publicpolicypolling.blogspot.com.

—Bob Geary

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