Saturday, February 09, 2008

Our First Caucus

The Nebraska Democratic Party wanted to do something different this year and adopted a caucus system for the first time. Of course, when the system was adopted, the goal was to encourage more grassroots involvement, to get people out talking and voting with their feet and voices rather than simply filling out an oval.

But no one predicted that the tight race would put Nebraska Democrats in a position of actually having an effet on a national election. It's not a position we're used to in this land of Go Big Red that seems to be a deeply red state as well. In fact, someone at the caucus I attended said, "I didn't know there were this many Democrats in Omaha!", and we were at one of 15 sites in Douglas County.

So the sudden importance of Nebraska brought the voters out in droves and made it difficult to prepare for both a new caucus system and a new surge of voters. According to the Lincoln Journal Star:

Sarpy County had one caucus site for 28,000 registered Democrats, triggering traffic backups for miles and complaints from voters while changing the way officials conducted the caucus.

“To only have one polling place for the third largest county in our (state) was certainly a mistake,’’ said Joe Pilakowski, a 31-year-old high school teacher from Papillion. “It’s kind of a mess.’’

Law enforcement shut down Highway 370 and the intersection leading into the site — a school cafeteria — because the area was packed with cars.

The influx of people was so massive that volunteers began collecting preference cards for people who preferred Obama or Clinton, then allowing them to leave. Traditional caucus procedures allow for more interaction, with supporters standing on either side of a room trying to persuade the undecided and not-so-sure supporters of other candidates to join them.

“People are threatening to leave, and we didn’t want anyone to leave without being counted.’’ said Marea Bishop, 43, of Bellevue, a volunteer at the caucus. “The turnout is so far above all our wildest dreams.’’

“Desperation,’’ Sarpy County Democratic Party Chairman Burke Summers said when asked why officials changed procedures at the last minute. School officials wanted the school cleared of caucus-goers by midafternoon to make way for a pair of youth basketball games.

Fought, the state party spokesman, said it was up to each county’s party leaders to adjust plans in the best way possible without drastically deviating from the procedures.

An early count showed that 6,000 people showed up at the school to caucus, including 2,000 people who registered Saturday. About 1,500 of the new registrants had switched from other parties.

“There’s a hell of a lot fewer Republicans in Sarpy County than there were yesterday,’’ Summers said.

The turnout was so high that officials in Douglas and Sarpy counties announced that they would delay the announcement of their results at least one-and-a-half hours.

“We had no ability to imagine anything,’’ Fought said. “That was part of the challenge here because we’ve never done this before.’’

While I sympathize with the position party officials are in, it was easy to imagine that something was different this year and that a surge of voters could be expected. I know this because the wild atmosphere at the caucus I attended was just like the atmosphere I experienced on Thursday night as 12,000 people showed up for Barack Obama's speech in Omaha. The arena held only 10,000, but I was lucky enough to be one of the overflow crowd allowed to enter an adjacent arena, where 1000-2000 people who showed up but couldn't fit into the main event were allowed to come in out of the cold.

Obama appeared and spoke to us before he went upstairs, and my two daughters and I thus got to see him from 100 feet away rather than seeing him on stage with 10,000 other people.

So any party officials who went to the Obama rally had to have known that if people would turn out that strong on a Thursday, a Saturday a.m. caucus was sure to be packed.

I arrived late and was one of the last to be admitted, but the crowd was easily 5 to 1 for Obama. It was simple to spot the Clinton "crowd" because it looked like they were standing at the back of the event. It wasn't until the crowd started chanting that I realized obama's group wasn't the event, they were only one side of it. It wasn't even close.

I predict Obama will win easily based on what I saw on Thursday in downtown Omaha and today in the west side of the city. The results should be in soon, but count on an Obama win.

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