Image: Democratic candidates
Kevin Sanders  /  AP
Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Barack Obama, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, take the stage at the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola, Iowa, in this Sunday, Sept. 16, 2007 file photo.
By NBC Reporter
updated 12/4/2007 2:09:15 PM ET 2007-12-04T19:09:15

On Thursday night, one passionate caucus-goer in Iowa leveled a devastating criticism against a candidate whom she characterized as a flip-flopping opportunist.

"Rhubarb doesn't know whether it's supposed to be sweet or sour!" she shouted over the din of more than 30 supporters of Barack Obama who packed into a tiny office in Knoxville, Iowa. "Vote for cherry pie!"

With the intricate proceedings of the Iowa caucuses only a month away, Democratic campaigns are looking for easy (and tasty) ways to educate their Iowa supporters on exactly what to expect on Jan. 3. Mock caucuses held at community centers and field offices across the state allow participants to mimic January's process without the politics.

For Team Obama, that means pie.

Thursday night's "candidates" -- in addition to the much-maligned rhubarb -- included cherry, blueberry, apple, pumpkin and pineapple-cherry pies lovingly baked by residents of Marion County, many of whom have never caucused before. As they arrived at the small office in Knoxville, Obama field organizer Maia Henry diligently posted signs for each pie in a corner of the crowded room, describing to each new arrival how to show support for their favorite baked good by gathering in areas around the office.

"If you're not viable," explained another staffer clad in the campaign's signature red "Fired Up!" t-shirt, "you might have to go to a different pie."

"We don't want to have to do that," he added gravely.

The practice round
Why do campaigns in Iowa have to make the caucus process more, well, appetizing? The notoriously complex rules of the Democratic nominating process in the state require some lighthearted practice to train the community leaders on whom campaigns rely to coalesce support in more than 1,700 precincts in the state. And the mere mathematics of the process require that winning campaigns be able to quickly calculate delegate percentages on the spot.

Here's how it works: The state of Iowa is divided into 1,781 precincts, and each will have separate caucus meetings for Republicans and Democrats on Jan. 3 at 6:30 p.m. CST. The meetings -- held in venues such as churches, high schools, community centers and even individuals' homes -- are technically intended to be the formal elections of delegates to county conventions held later in the year, which are eventually whittled down to candidate delegations sent to the national convention in August 2008.

The process for Republicans is relatively simple: attendees arrive and cast written ballots to select their choices in a straw poll.

But for Democrats, the process is much more complex.

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On Jan. 3, after arriving at their caucus site, Iowa Democrats will be greeted with the reading of letters from each candidate who would like to deliver last-minute appeals for support. At each location, most campaigns will have precinct captains on-site who will use detailed lists of committed supporters to assemble their candidate's fan club in a corner of the room.

Here's where it gets complicated.

The Democratic caucus process requires that a candidate have the support of 15 percent of the total attendees to be "viable" in any given precinct. At the Knoxville pie contest, for example, the total count of mock caucus-goers was 37, so each pie required six supporters (37 multiplied by 0.15) to stay in the game. At first count, only apple and rhubarb met that threshold, so supporters of rival pies had to "realign" into viable factions.

Similarly, at the real caucus in January, supporters of nonviable candidates will have to shift to create stronger groups.

Unless they don't. A campaign that is at risk of losing its viability can band together with another nonviable campaign. (At the pie caucus, the predictable partnership of cherry and blueberry yielded the formation of a single pro-blueberry group.)

Even more complex: nonviable campaigns can also recruit supporters from dominant campaigns by arguing that a few castoffs won't hurt an already-viable group and will rob delegates from rivals. Negotiations like that could provide minor victories statewide for some of the second-tier candidates, which could theoretically result in a surprise third-place showing for the camp that harnesses the system in the most effective way.

But if nonviable campaigns can't garner the needed 15 percent, their supporters will be wooed by those that can. This is where the oft-discussed "second choice" becomes important; caucus-goers usually go into their precinct meetings with a good sense of whether or not their guy (or gal) will stay alive, so most consider their backup candidate.

So, for example, despite the protestations of some members, a few cherry supporters were won over by the well-organized captain of the apple team.

Rate candidates' positionsBut wait, there's more. Caucuses, unlike primaries, are neither a one-person-one-vote nor a winner-take-all contest. Each precinct assigns a set number of delegates to the county convention, meaning that several campaigns can tally support in any given locale.

So, in the end in Knoxville, even though the all-American apple pie garnered the most supporters after nabbing a number of former blueberry loyalists, it only won four of the 10 delegate points allotted. The other viable groups -- pineapple, rhubarb and blueberry -- each won two.

In some cases the allotment of delegates can be so mathematically close that a coin-toss is needed.

Confused yet? Veteran caucus organizers are quick to explain to newcomers that they don't have to understand all the rules to participate. But it's undeniable that the campaign that grasps the ins and outs of the caucus process will be in the best position to come out on top at the end of that cold night about a month from now.

And despite the complexity of the caucus procedure, there was one rule that everyone in Knoxville could agree on.

"Please eat a piece of pie before you go."

"But," clarified Henry, "You don't have to eat the pie you caucused for."

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