The big winner in the Washington caucus

T.A. Barnhart

Or, How I defied my own state's primary calendar and did what I could for Barack Obama.

It's approximately 10 weeks until I get to vote in the Democratic Presidential Primary, and even though it looks increasingly as if the vote in Oregon will matter for the first time since 1968, I don't want to wait. I want to do all I can to help Barack Obama secure the nomination. So, given that Washington's caucus is right across the Columbia River and, unlike Iowa, they allow non-voters into the caucus room, I decided I'd head over and participate.

No, I didn't go to vote. I went to help out of if I could, provide support, maybe tell someone why I support Obama, and, most of all, just be there. After all, these are the kinds of political battles that are won by those who show up. My presence wouldn't count as a vote, but it would count in the bigger picture. The movement, as Sen Obama called it Tuesday night in Chicago.

So I set up an event on to get other Oregonian Dems to join me and cross the river. I already knew some were going anyway; Charlie Burr had his own plans and others had stated they were going. My event got about a dozen replies, but this morning, as I waited for them to show up, I didn't expect that. Anyone's whose done volunteer organizing for anything knows turn-out rarely matches promises. Even for good causes.

I would have been really disappointed by the fact that only one person turned up except for one thing: Fran had a car. And I didn't. So even though it was just the two of us, I was able to go, and she was so enthusiastic, and the day was so lovely, how could I be anything but excited?

Fran's like many Obama supporters: new to the political scene. During the day, we talked about all kinds of things political, from what the hell a precinct person is to how volunteering for a phone bank is a good way to stretch oneself. I'll be sending her info on how to get more involved (in her case, head over to the Clackamas County Dems and hope their monthly Central Committee meetings are not too painfully boring).

To add to the pre-caucus excitement, it was great to know that Obama was kicking butt in the Washington polls. On Friday night, 21,000 people showed up to see him in Seattle, 3,000 of them in overflow at Key Arena. The previous night, only 5,000 had come out for Hillary. There was some serious writing on this wall. It promised to be a good day to be standing up for Obama.

With only one wrong turn, Fran and I got to the elementary school in east Vancouver at 12:15, well before the announced start time of 1:00. I found Debbie, the Obama supporter I had previously contacted to ask if it would be ok for us to join them at their caucus (she had been more than glad to tell me Yes). After introducing ourselves, we asked what we could do. Debbie and Tammy, who was serving as her precinct lead (675, which would have the most delegates of the five precincts due to Democratic turnout in previous elections) were not sure what they were doing at that point. Everyone was waiting to see what the caucus chair would do, or what instructions he might give, but in fact he left the various precinct organizers to their own devices. He simply taped signs to the walls of the school cafeteria in which we were meeting to tell us where each precinct would gather.

So, with Debbie and Tammy, we taped up Obama posters and signs, placed sign-up sheets, and began talking strategy. I had watched all kinds of coverage of Iowa, including some of the training videos available on the Obama website. I felt I had a good understanding of the process, but that didn't stop me from reading through the rules for this caucus. After all, we weren't in Iowa. Maybe I couldn't vote, but at least I could know what was supposed to happen.

The caucus chair let people start signing in early; he felt if we waited until the prescribed time of 1:00 pm, things would just turn into chaos. As it turned out, he was right. Over 300 people packed the cafeteria, and there was enough difficulty getting everyone in place with the extra 20 minutes. Still, as 1:30 — the time everyone thought was "cut-off" for participation — rolled around, most folks were signed-in, at their precinct location, and with their respective candidates.

As far as I could ever tell, there were no Edwards or Kucinich supporters in our caucus. There was nothing to prevent people from declaring for suspended campaigns, but the people who showed up were there for the two who remained in the race. And it also appeared, as the caucus unfolded, that over 90% of the caucus-goers had made their minds up before arriving. I did not see a lot of evangelizing, but I was lucky enough to get the chance to try and convince one undecided.

Jennifer came with her husband, Ben, an Obama supporter wearing a Chicago (Cubs) sweatshirt. I spoke to them at first to help them find the right precinct location, but then asked who they supported. When she said she was undecided and saw my "Oregon Wants Obama!" t-shirt, she asked me why she should pick him.

Which, of course, was the main reason I had come: To stand up for Obama. To make a difference. Maybe to gain one single vote. After all, that's what Maria Shriver's daughter told her: Mom, if you think you can convince one voter, go. So I got to tell Jennifer some of the reasons I support Barack Obama. I don't remember exactly what I said; I know I mentioned his 100% rating with Illinois NOW and Planned Parenthood, the fact that he has the highest ranking with the League of Conservation Voters of all the Dems running for president (higher than Kucinich), and, of course, his steadfast opposition to the war. I did not over-do it; I said my say, Jennifer thanked me, and then she and Ben went off to sign in.

One thing we learned a bit late: 1:30 was not the cut-off time for participation. At 1:45, according to the rules supplied by the Obama campaign, the precincts would count the declarations of participants, not based on standing in small herds as we learned they do in Iowa but based on the sign-in sheets. And if anyone showed up late, up til this point they had to be allowed to sign-in and declare. In our caucus, that came to about three people. But unfortunately we didn't figure that part of the rules out properly until one couple had been sent away. Our expectation that the doors truly closed at 1:30 meant we misinterpreted the rules for a while. (Because we were not voting, Lydia, another Oregonian, and I were doing a bit of door duty. I'm really sorry for the couple we turned away; it was a good faith mistake. Hell, they could have ben WAbamar's for all I know.)

After the sign-in sheets had been tallied, then came the most political part of the event. Different people in each precinct spoke for their candidate. These were just citizens. Just citizens. The one thing America needs more than anything else: Citizens who show up, speak up, stand up. And 300 citizens did exactly that in a small school cafeteria in Vancouver. One women spoke of how she and her partner studied the candidates at length before deciding on Hillary. One man spoke of how he trusted Obama. Others spoke of health care — a major thought in many of these people's minds.

(Just a brief aside. From what I could tell, these were almost entirely working class folks. The area where this caucus was held was not quite suburban, held many very nice smaller family homes, and a few planned communities — not the McMansion kind but the middle-class sort. Bread-and-butter issues would clearly meant a lot to them.)

Then people were given a chance to switch their declarations. I saw about a dozen do so, but I have no idea which way they went (or if they were undeclareds who had finally made up their minds). And at last, the final delegate count for each precinct was tallied (those who would attend the county convention, which would select delegates to the state convention, where the national delegates would be picked):


(Another aside: Precinct 663, the only one of the five to go for Clinton, had voted for Bush in 2004. Not to editorialize or anything....)

The final step was to pick actual delegates and alternates for the county convention. It appeared that people simply volunteered, filled in the paperwork, and no one was too fussed. I didn't see any voting going on. Those who wanted to be delegates got to be; the rest just headed home (the cafeteria was stuffy, and almost everyone wanted to get out into the gorgeous afternoon).

Then clean-up, Tammy calling Obama campaign HQ with her precinct results, a text message from Lydia's boyfriend that his parents' caucus in Olympia had gone for Obama 65-6, and, of course, a final round of speculation at what it would all mean. Half-an-hour later, I got out of Fran's car in front of the Division New Seasons and my day at the Washington State caucus was over.

That Obama had a huge day today, not just in Washington but Nebraska and Louisiana as well, made the event a lot of fun. But as I watched these ordinary people performing what has to be considered extraordinary acts of citizenship, I was both jealous and proud. I'd love to be part of such an event in Oregon (in 2016, when it's time to pick President Obama's successor). But to be in this room with these people, all of them caring that much about their nation, all of them taking the time too few Americans take in service to their country? What an honor. What a privilege.

I didn't get to vote today? Not true. I showed up. My presidential prefence was not tallied, but along with 300 other American citizens, I showed up. I voted for democracy, and that was the best result of the day in that school cafeteria.

Democracy won in a landslide.

  • Michael Hanna (unverified)

    Great post. Thank you for the detailed description of democracy in action. I too was a Portlander up in Vancouver for the caucus (Lydia--who you met today--actually carpooled with me). I was a few miles away at a middle school. Our caucus finished with 33 delegates for Obama, and 17 for Hillary. I went table by table, observing with my AFSCME shirt on and Obama pin, fascinated with the whole process, and talking with people. I am a recent Obama supporter (after being a long time anti-Hillary evangelist--would love to see a woman in the White House, just not a compromised, corporate sell-out who embodies perpetual war and tired 20th century partisan grudges, but I digress...). Today, the ordinary citizens who took their Saturday to engage in America's future made me proud. Washington had their say today, and they spoke with a resounding voice for change. And now I am ready to fire up Oregon for Obama. President Obama will be the first Generation X president, something that makes this X-er very proud. Si se puede!

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Great job TA!

    And what a day for Obama! Landslides in Washington, Nebraska, Louisiana, and the Virgin Islands! Nice to see such a diverse group of peopl and States backing Barack.

  • (Show?)

    Echo Michael. For those of us who have never been to a caucus it's interesting (and appreciated) to get a glimpse behind the curtain.

    I've been blogging at my blog for almost four years now and I don't recall ever seeing the kind of widespread interest in a subject that I have in how Obama was going to do in Washington over the last week. We've been getting hundreds of search engine hits per day from literally all over the world, but mostly from other parts of the United States - all interested in how Obama (and others) were polling in the lead up to the Washington Primary. The overwhelming majority were searching some combination of "Obama" and "Washington."

    Kari mentioned the other day how including Ron Paul in a blog post is a sure way to trigger a traffic surge. And my experience is that that's certainly true. But my experience at my blog is that that kind of surge pales in comparison to writing about Obama in the Washington Primary. Seriously! I've never seen anything like it.

  • mc (unverified)

    I love watching these caucuses and I certainly do understand that for those involved it is democracy in action...BUT for those citizens living outside the US, those in the armed forces overseas, those folks severely disabled, the caucuses cut us out of the process. I therefore am in favor of the primary elections.

    Just a thought from a citizen whose vote won't count in the Washington primary and couldn’t be there in person.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)

    From a ZNet Sustainers Commentary: "Three weeks ago in a Future Hope column I wrote about how similar Obama and Clinton are when it comes to positions on issues. That hasn't changed. But I also said this:

    "It may be that if Obama becomes President, the political forces he has unleashed-particularly among young people and the African American community-will come to constitute a progressive political bloc that, by means of independent pressure from below, will make it difficult for him to accommodate to the conservative and corporate interests-with whom he has significant connections-who will undoubtedly lean on him."

    Will the people rise to the occasion?

  • MCT (unverified)

    The candidates did not spend much time campaigning in WA, compared to the non-stop multi-state stumping prior to Super Tuesday. But I had somehwat anticipated that the population of the Vancouver area, and its proximity to Portland, would have made a kill-two-birds opportunity for the candidates in general and Obama in particular. You just gotta know that hordes of Oregon supporters would have shown up at an Obama event in Vancouver. Media coverage would have been ideal.

    What happened? Someone didn't do their research, or didn't fully appreciate the geographical advantage of Vancouver. Someone didn't get the memo...or someone never wrote it. Someone missed the boat....maybe the Oregon Obama base? I mean really, did the idea of visting So. WA come up at all, or was it discussed and for some ass-backward reason decided against? Just when you think you understand how a huge, run-by-professionals multi-million dollar campaign machine calculates the numbers & surges forward.....

  • Lydia (unverified)

    Thanks for posting about this. It seems significant to me that many of the people I spoke with on Saturday said that this was not only their first time Caucusing, but the first time they felt really excited about being involved in politics.

    Something tells me that this new wave of political awareness and activism is more than just a long overdue response to eight years of G.W. Bush. The people I spoke with weren't all worked up over simply getting Bush out of office. They weren't hot and heavy over the prospect of two more terms of a Clinton White House. They were fired up AND ready to go for Barack Obama.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Good job! The WA victory has lent momentum to the now declared victory in Maine. Obama leading there now 68-41, with 70% counted. It could go past 20 pts. Three more big victories in MD, VA, and DC. And Wisconsin later in the month.

  • Matthew Sutton (unverified)

    Bill, dont' forget about Hawaii on Feb 19th!


  • Aneurin (unverified)

    Thanks for coming up to Clark County to help out, TA. Indeed, most of Vancouver is not McMansions and the like, it's fairly blue collar ex-urbs, ripe territory for the Democratic message.

    Turnout was easily three times what it was in 2004. My precinct went from 25 participants in 2004 to 84 this time around. Obama cruised to victory, garnering 8 delegates to Clinton's 4.

    As a former Deaniac, I was very impressed with the organizational prowess of the Obama folks: they were the only one with a table at the door to greet caucus attendees. As a more "seasoned" caucus attendee, I helped out any which way I could, and I look forward to supporting Obama as a delegate to the upcoming county convention in April.

  • Joe Kear (unverified)

    Sorry you turned people away. You were mis-informed. You weren't supposed to turn people away at any point during the caucus. I attended caucus training at the Washington State Democratic Party Convention. I am also a precinct chair. Everyone was entitled to attend and(!)if you showed up late for the first sign-in you could still participate. If you were late for the second round selection, you could still participate in the delegate selection for the county convention. You just couldn't go back and make a selection on your preference for President.

    <h2>My precinct had twice the turnout as 2004. It was great.</h2>

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