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Minnesotans just sit and watch — or head to Iowa — while the nation’s presidential parade passes us by

Supporters of U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards
REUTERS/Keith Bedford
Minnesota has been largely ignored in 2008 presidential politics so far. Instead, candidates are focusing on Iowa. Here, backers of Democratic contender John Edwards cheer outside a candidate appearance in Des Moines.


Minnesotans are heavily involved in the presidential sweepstakes — in Iowa.

Each week, hundreds of Minnesotans are packing up and heading to Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and Sioux City to work for their favorite presidential candidates.

“It’s really amazing,” said Minnesotan Ted Mondale, a John Edwards supporter who recently was in a group of about 30 people knocking on Iowa doors. “You can’t rent a car. Motels are filled. Restaurants are filled. Every print shop in the state is busy. (The Iowa caucuses have) become an industry.”

And that industry will be rolling in more and more cash as the Jan. 3 caucus night approaches. Mondale said that even budget hotels will be charging more than $300 a night in the Des Moines area in the last nights leading to the caucus.

It should be noted that the Mondales are a family divided. While Ted works for Edwards, his father, former Vice President Walter Mondale, has endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Heart-pounding passion in Iowa, barely a pulse here
There’s door-knocking and heart-pounding passion in Iowa. Meanwhile, a few miles north, there’s barely a pulse.

Yes, Minnesota Republicans and DFLers will caucus on Feb. 5, which has been dubbed Super Duper Tuesday, because it’s the day when 20 states will hold primaries or caucuses. But what happens in Minnesota on that night will be neither super nor duper.

When Minnesotans caucus, candidate and media attention will be focused elsewhere for a couple of reasons. First, such heavyweight states as California, New York and Illinois will hold primaries on Feb. 5.

Second, Minnesota’s caucuses are virtually impossible to interpret.

While other states declare winners and losers, Minnesotans will select delegates to attend a series of meetings. Each caucus will select delegates to attend local district conventions, which will be held from late February to mid-March. Those conventions will choose delegates to attend congressional district conventions, which will start in late March. Some delegates will be selected for the national conventions, but the national delegations won’t be filled until state party conventions in late spring.

When this long, clunky process is over, Republicans will have selected 41 delegates to their national convention. The DFLers will have selected 88 delegates.

There will be straw polls at each of the Feb. 5 caucuses, although the DFL prefers the term “presidential preference poll” because its poll does have meaning. The party’s national convention delegation will reflect the outcome of the February preference poll. For instance, if Edwards attracts 35 percent of the votes on Feb. 5, the delegation to the Democratic convention will have 35 percent Edwards support.

Typically, however, these proportions do not get reflected in the moment of the first roll-call vote. That’s because usually, before the start of the convention, failed candidates release their bound delegates. The unbound delegates then are free to support whomever they please.

The Republican straw poll is nonbinding, meaning it’s virtually meaningless.

Minnesota system guarantees little attention
Given this maze, is it any wonder that presidential candidates only stop in Minnesota to raise money to spend elsewhere? Is it any wonder the Minnesota media pay more attention to Iowa than to what is happening on the home turf?

There is presidential campaign activity going on in the state. But it’s all low-budget and low-key.

For the most part, it’s party activists calling other party activists.

Rob Hewitt, the volunteer head of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign in Minnesota, spends hours on the phone trying to create a statewide volunteer network.

“We have about a thousand volunteers making phone calls to people who have been convention delegates in the past,” said Hewitt. “We figure at least half of those people will be interested in being delegates again. We want them to hear about Rudy.”

But Hewitt is the first to admit this is not the sort of activity that’s going to make Minnesota a player in presidential sweepstakes.

“We are a very low priority,” said Hewitt. “Candidates have limited time and resources. They’re not going to put much effort into Minnesota.”

Former Gov. Arne Carlson has a pithier view of the Minnesota process.

“It’s not representative, it’s not democratic,” said Carlson from his winter home in Florida. “If the Russians had a system like this caucus system, we’d mock them.”

When he was governor, Carlson tried to turn Minnesota into a primary state. But he couldn’t get the DFL or the Republican parties to budge. “They like it this way,” he said. “It keeps the insiders in charge.”

Indeed, neither party is showing any inclination to turn Minnesota into a primary state, though both parties moved their caucuses from March to February in the hope that the earlier date would make the state relevant. But when heftier states, with primaries, made the same jump, Minnesota maintained its ho-hum status.

Brian Sullivan, a power player in the state’s Republican Party and a leader of the Mitt Romney campaign in Minnesota, likes the system as it is.

“Ideally, we would be able to alternate with Iowa as the first state,” Sullivan said, “but that’s not going to happen.”

What Sullivan likes about Minnesota’s current system is that “it’s grass-roots, there’s nothing phony about it. People who decide to be active can mix it up and have a real impact on who will be in the delegation.”

Sullivan admits that there will be no instant national recognition of what happens in Minnesota during the caucus process. But, he said, if either party gets to its national convention without a candidate already selected, Minnesota delegates will suddenly be very important players.

Of course, there hasn’t been anything close to a brokered convention since 1976, when neither Ronald Reagan nor Gerald Ford had enough delegates to win the nomination as the convention opened.

For years, many have complained about the state-by-state chaos that ensues when the parties go about the business of selecting their candidates.

Tri-partisan approach to push regional primaries
Now, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and colleagues Joseph Lieberman and Lamar Alexander intend to do something about it. The three senators have proposed legislation to create a national system of regional primaries that the National Association of Secretaries of State has advocated for a decade.

“This is a tri-partisan effort,” said Klobuchar. “We have an independent (Lieberman) and a Republican and myself working on this, and we’re getting more authors.”

Klobuchar believes that after the November election, we’ll all be disgusted by what a mess the current nominating system has become.

“In 2008, at least 34 states have scheduled a primary or caucus prior to March 1. That’s up from 19 states in 2004 and 11 states in 2000,” she says. “The system is not working.”

Under the proposal, the nation would be divided into four regions: East, South, Midwest and West. The states in each region would hold their primaries — or caucuses — on the first Tuesday of March, April, May and June. The regions would alternate positions, so the region that is first in 2012 would be last in 2016.

As a bow to tradition, Iowa and New Hampshire would be exempted from the legislation and allowed to stay first in line.

The parties long have argued that they have the right to determine how their candidates are selected. But Klobuchar and her partners believe the Constitution gives Congress the right to determine election processes.

“All we’re trying to do right now is set the table for meaningful discussion after the next election,” Klobuchar said. “If the parties want to clean this up, fine. But they’ve never shown the willingness to do it and it’s clear to us something needs to be done.”

It’s impossible to predict whether there really will be an appetite to change the system following the election. What is obvious that Minnesotans who want to see Oprah or work shoulder to shoulder with Huckabee must pack up and head to Iowa.

“It’s exciting,” said Mondale of what’s happening so close but so far away.

Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Grace Kelly on 12/12/2007 - 01:12 pm.

    I think this is a very misleading article. The problem is timing, not caucuses. You did not even try to solicit comments from people who like the caucus system. I love it. Neighbors get together to talk and to share political concerns. This a great time to organize and to get good political information.

    Bill S1905 supports caucuses, just changes the timing. Excerpt from THOMAS, ” (a) In General- Subject to subsection (b), in the case where a State elects to select delegates to a national Presidential nominating convention of a political party through a caucus held by any political party which has the authority to nominate a candidate, the State shall hold a caucus during the period in which the region the State is in (as determined under section 3(b)) is scheduled to hold a primary (as determined under paragraphs (1) and (2) of section 3(a)).” You have misrepresented this bill and Senator Klobuchar as being against precinct caucuses.

  2. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 12/13/2007 - 07:59 am.

    Some caususes may feel like a gathering of neighbors, but mine is a circus. Arne Carlson is dead right.

  3. Submitted by Rick Stafford on 12/14/2007 - 11:31 am.


    I must echo Grace Kelly’s comments about your article be misleading!

    You state a premise that “Minnesota’s caucuses are virtually impossible to interpret”. But, then go on to show that in the DFL Party Democratic presidential candidates will now who will have won Minnesota on February 5th. From 6:30 p.m. until 8:00 p.m., Minnesotans who want to cast a ballot for their choice for the Democratic Presidential nomination will have that opportunity at their precinct caucus. Just like a “Primary”, but with a shorter voting period. They don’t have to stick around and take part in any other caucus night business. You again inaccurately state, “While other states declare winners or losers..” The truth is on February 5th, Minnesotans will know how many of the 88 delegates from Minnesota to the 2008 Denver convention will be for Clinton or Edwards or Obama or Richardson or Dodd or Biden or Kucinich or Gravel. So much for the “long and clunky process.” While the DFL refers to it as a “presidential preference ballot”, it is actually a binding vote on the allocation number of delegates. I ought to know because I’m the chief sponsor and architect of the change starting in 2000.

    While you are correct that Minnesotans won’t know who are the individuals selected to represent that presidential candidate in Denver until they are selected at later conventions, this is the same delegate selection process used by approximately 45 state Democratic parties.

    Regarding caucuses versus primary. After 30-plus years of involvement in the party politics, I have seen the benefit to having both.

    You write that Gov. Carlson tried to get a primary in Minnesota while serving as governor. As DFL State Party Chair at the time I am well aware of the legislative attempt at a presidential primary. A presidential primary bill was passed by the state legislature and a non-binding presidential primary was held in 1992. In 1993, the legislature tried to change the primary to a binding primary in legislation that contained a myriad (or “bulk”) of electoral changes, including moving the regular Minnesota primary election up. But the bill was torpedoed because chief legislative sponsors were using a stick approach versus a carrot to the DFL and Republican parties in making a drastic departure from the way each has done presidential selection before. An attempt was again made this past legislative session, but it feel victim to the “bulk” strategy again.

    When the 2008 DFL presidential process is held on Feb. 5, it will mark the third consecutive time the Party has used a “binding” presidential ballot. I earnestly believe that the DFL Party is at the point where it would accept a presidential primary here. But, legislative representatives need to craft something that still embodies the caucuses that grassroots activists and others feel are important. One thought I tried to float a couple of years ago was holding a presidential primary on the first Tuesday in February and then hold precinct caucuses the following Saturday or Tuesday.

  4. Submitted by Mike Haubrich on 12/27/2007 - 12:43 pm.

    Minnesota needs to hold on to its caucus system, because this is where the parties give their members the opportunities to get more involved in the process. The doors are open at the caucuses. Anybody can come in, as long as they live in the precinct and are an eligible voter. They have to affirm that they agree with the principles of the party. And that’s it.

    It is a grass roots opportunity for volunteering and involvement in the party, and the candidates don’t control it. They are subject to the process, seek endorsement and then ask for money from the party. And the party is me, my neighbors and anyone else who is willing to put in the time to participate at more than a primary ballot level.

    Yes, it seems that the caucus attendees tend to be more extreme than the mainstream of their respective party; but one needn’t be be a committed “true believer” to join at this level. I know many party officers whose introduction to the process came at a caucus.

    Caucuses offer a means for more minority participation. It involves shaping the platform and the direction of the party as a whole. It is a process far more crucial to participation at the grass roots level than mere selection of presidential candidates. We will also begin the process selecting delegates to the state nominating convention, to determine who gets the endorsement for Senate. It distributes power a bit more evenly than the built-in special interests that work the party machine.

    It hasn’t worked perfectly. In 2006 the process led to the wrong candidate for governor based on the results of an early Rasmussen poll. The Rasmussen poll led the unions to jump on Hatch’s bandwagon before they got a chance to know either Steve Kelley or Becky Lourey. But as long as Minnesota keeps the caucus system we have the opportunity to keep our respective parties more responsive to the grassroots.

    I agree with Sullivan, as much as it pains me.

    Another way to look at it is this: once the primaries are over in New Hampshire and the caucuses are over in Iowa they probably won’t see the candidates much any more. The surge in activity dies a sudden death. If no clear front-runner emerges after Super Tuesday, then the candidates will need to be here to woo delegates to the congressional district conventions, where the national delegates are selected.

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