Friday, February 8, 2008

Caucus draws too many to accommodate

Obama collects all 11 Blaine County delegates

Express Staff Writer

An over-capacity crowd filled the auditorium at the Community Campus in Hailey Tuesday night. Hailey resident Kaz Thea, center, makes use of available space. Photo by Willy Cook

The numbers were simply overwhelming.

In a record turnout, 1,197 Blaine County residents participated in the Democratic Party Caucus on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, at the Community Campus in Hailey. And that is despite the fact that hundreds were turned away.

At 7 p.m., when the doors were scheduled to close, 200 people were lined up outside the Community Campus, and traffic was backed up single-file into downtown Hailey. Ballots were distributed to those standing outside, but many more did not get the chance to participate.

In the end, all 11 of Blaine County's delegate seats went to Sen. Barack Obama.

"I'm really happy Idaho has embraced us like this," said Cyrus Garrett, Obama for Idaho Blaine County field organizer. "I've just seen this thing grow from the beginning when people were slamming doors in our faces to 15,000 people at the Taco Bell Arena last Saturday.

"It's just been really impressive to see so much enthusiasm in a Republican state."

Despite Obama's success in Blaine County, it is possible that Sen. Hillary Clinton might have received a delegate had the crowd not been so overwhelming.

"This was a heartbreaker for me," said Blaine County Democratic County Chair Betty Murphy. "It was an impossible situation to do anything about the traffic jam or the parking situation. Also, we were in the largest auditorium in Blaine County."

That auditorium has a capacity of 575.

"I had 500 more people in that auditorium than was allowed by law," Murphy said. "I had to change the rules and announce that if they didn't want to cast a second ballot, that if they weren't going to change their vote, they could go home. That was entirely a new rule that was made at the spur of the moment to ensure the safety of the people who were there."

The catch has to do with how a caucus works. In a caucus, those who initially support one candidate have the opportunity to change their votes. It is a transparent process that shows how many votes away from obtaining a delegate each candidate is.

After votes were changed, Clinton was a mere two votes from obtaining a delegate from Blaine County. Had voters in other camps seen that, two of them might have switched. Maybe not.

In the initial tally, the numbers looked like this: Obama—970, Clinton—160, Undecided—53, John Edwards—14.

After the initial votes were announced, the majority of those attending the caucus left, but the process had only begun. Those who had cast ballots were able to switch their support to a different candidate. Also, the process of selecting delegates had only begun, and only 60 people remained for that.

Nonetheless, the threshold to obtain a delegate was 180 votes (15 percent of caucus participants), and after votes were switched by those who remained, the tally broke down like this: Obama—984, Clinton—178, Undecided—28, Edwards—7.

Clinton needed only two more votes, and it is fair to debate that she might have received them had the crowd not dispersed or had more of those who were turned away been able to vote.

Murphy conceded the point.

"They treated it like a primary, and a caucus is not like a primary at all," she said. "Most of our complications came because of the overwhelming turnout. Ada County had the same problem. Twin Falls had the same problem. It was so overwhelming, and the Obama people were so fired up. It was difficult to control them. It was difficult to get them to respect the procedure."

Murphy said the Clinton camp could challenge the procedure if it wants, but she pointed out that no one from the Clinton campaign even attended the caucus. Moreover, because it was close, a recount will be held today, Feb. 7, at 3 p.m. at Forest Service Park in Ketchum.

The obvious irony is that the overwhelming turnout hindered the process while simultaneously showing a high level of interest in the upcoming presidential election.

"Participation is the bedrock of democracy," said Bellevue resident Kathryn Goldman, who had also attended the 2004 caucus. "This clearly has more people so excited, and it's great to see the younger set involved."

Murphy, too, was thrilled about the energy.

"This was so exciting," she said. "It was wonderful to see the turnout and to see how many people in Blaine County came forward to vote for their candidate. It was really heart warming for me. I was so happy.

"I do feel bad that everybody didn't get a chance to vote. That's the only thing I'm really sad about. We will do everything in our power to correct the situation before this happens again in four years."

If history is an indicator, there will be exponentially more participants four years from now.

In 2000, 68 Blaine County residents participated in the Democratic Party caucus. In 2004, that number jumped to 270.

Murphy wasn't the only person impressed with the turnout.

"This is majorly cool," said East Fork resident Nick Parker as he surveyed the overflowing crowd. "Just that everyone cares so much and came out of the woodwork. We've become so jaded over the last eight years by this administration and now there's so much momentum."

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said the caucus is pure grassroots.

"People are really motivated as a community to come vote," she said. "It's like a New England town meeting."

Local teens, too, were motivated.

Izzy Taylor, 16, is a Wood River High School student who said she was jazzed by the turnout. She said it seemed ironic that the basketball court at the Community Campus was being used for practice while there was an overflowing crowd in the auditorium.

Despite the huge turnout, delegates were selected from a pool of only 60 people who remained into the evening. Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, received the most votes, at 53. He and the other 11 delegates will attend the Democratic State Convention in Boise in June.

"You know what the most incredible thing was?" asked Blaine County Democrats Co-Chair Christopher Simms. "That Democrats swelled throughout Blaine County and throughout Idaho tonight."

Idaho's Republican Party primary election will take place May 27. However, it is unlikely that the primary will have any real effect on choosing the GOP nominee. After second-place contender Mitt Romney dropped out of the race Thursday, most pundits are saying that Sen. John McCain of Arizona will certainly win the nomination.

Blaine County delegates for Barack Obama

Sen. Clint Stennett

Rep. Wendy Jaquet

David Kwoh

Gini Ballou

John Dilley

Anita McCann

Cinda Caine

Michael Ames

Steve Kearn

Vanessa Fry

Ross Clifford

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