Newsletter: Essential Politics: Tonight’s the night, so here’s a caucus explainer using gummy bears


I’m your Essential Politics host Christina Bellantoni, and I don’t know about you, but I’m excited for the first-in-the-nation caucuses tonight in Iowa.

Californians often ask why Iowa, and some wonder what, exactly, is a caucus, anyway? Those are totally fair questions, especially for voters who don’t get the same privilege of retail politics. There is plenty to say about Iowa’s demographic makeup not being representative of the nation. There’s no argument that is true.

Consider that America is 17.4% Hispanic, 13.2% black and 5.4% Asian. Iowa is 5.6% Hispanic, 3.4% black and 2.2% Asian. (California, by contrast, is 38.6% Hispanic, 6.5% black and 14.4% Asian.)


There’s also no argument that Iowans take the responsibility they’ve only held for a few decades seriously, and they put the candidates through the paces. Each and every one of them.

That brings us to the difference between a primary and a caucus, which is basically a meeting. Democrats have a slightly different process, so your friends and neighbors are actually working to convince you to join their candidate. 

Get a sense of what it’s like with this video I shot at a caucus in 2008. This one, held in a church, gets good about 38 seconds in. The best quote was from the organizer counting off the groups caucusing for their candidates: “Anyone for Christopher Dodd?”


That night, without being plugged in, I was sure Hillary Clinton had won Iowa because she had performed so strongly in the caucus I observed. How is that possible? Well, a caucus is sort of complicated. 

Talking this over in the newsroom, we decided to try and simplify things. So we made a video with gummy bears.

Mark Z. Barabak outlines how tonight’s caucuses will work, and the long game of why it matters in the context of the party nomination which three tickets are punched out of Iowa.

It’s perhaps easiest to tell the story of Iowa through the voters themselves.
Let’s start with Gabe Searles, a lifelong Californian who moved to the Hawkeye State eight months after the last caucuses in 2012. He and his wife, Jaime, are getting a kick out of feeling like they matter. And being there to experience the caucus season has rekindled Gabe’s interest in politics.

They took their three children on the road Saturday, starting with patriotic waffles, heading to a rally for Sen. Ted Cruz, snapping pics soon after with Sen. Marco Rubio and ending the day with Carly Fiorina. Sunday it was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

They already had seen Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley

Sen. Marco Rubio with the Searles family

Sen. Marco Rubio with the Searles family

(Courtesy the Searles family)

The Searles family got photos with most of the candidates, too.

“We figure we’ve got a unique opportunity being here in Iowa, and we wanted to take advantage of it,” said Searles, a guitar teacher and graphic designer who grew up in San Jose.

Or consider Charlie Comfort, an Iowa millennial who will be caucusing for Fiorina tonight. I’ve been following him for years, and tracked his political journey for a story that went live this morning.

It was an action-packed weekend in the Hawkeye State, and our team was all over it on Saturday and Sunday.

Evan Halper and Chris Megerian write that Sanders is trying to be Barack Obama, not Howard Dean.

Megerian and Barabak also find the extremes of both parties are emblematic of deeply divided America.

Seema Mehta examines Fiorina’s roller-coaster candidacy, and finds she enters the Iowa caucuses much as she entered the race — an asterisk in the polls and a non-factor in a crowded field.

Kate Linthicum has our Iowa weather report, and four other things to watch for tonight.


We have five reporters and an editor on the ground in Iowa today. Meet our team and follow along tonight.

We’ll also be tracking how people are viewing what’s happening back in California. It starts in Sacramento, as freshman Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach) returns to work after spending his weekend in Iowa to help Cruz.

Are you in Iowa? We want to hear from you.

We’ll have live results on our politics page all evening. The caucuses begin at 5 p.m. Pacific time.


When it comes to ousting Republicans in swing districts, you might think Democrats would all be on the same page. But that’s not the case in a handful of races, as Javier Panzar reported Sunday.

Local activists feel national Democrats and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are meddling in their affairs and pushing candidates who might demonstrate fundraising prowess but have less support at home.

He reports that two members of Congress, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren, called an emissary to ask if Lou Vince would consider dropping out of the race to challenge GOP Rep. Steve Knight. Vince won 82% of votes among local party activists at a pre-endorsement conference, meaning national favorite Bryan Caforio’s campaign will have to file a formal objection if it wants to bring the endorsement to the state party convention floor for a vote among all delegates.

Here are the results of the weekend party meetings, which will make the convention at the end of this month very interesting.


As the November 2016 ballot starts to take shape, one missing component is what both lawmakers and advocates hoped they’d see from a 2014 change to the initiative process: compromise.

The law, among other changes, offered new avenues for the Legislature and initiative proponents to work together instead of launching a costly political campaign.

Sacramento bureau chief John Myers takes a look at what’s happened so far and finds few seem willing to pay down arms and negotiate. “We don’t have the time,” said Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina), a backer of one of the proposed ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage.


How often is it that California leaves more than $1 billion in a state account, untouched?

Christine Mai-Duc reports that’s exactly what’s happening, at least for now, as state lawmakers and the governor still haven’t come to an agreement on how to spend money collected as part of California’s cap and trade program, which they were supposed to do last year.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed that all the money all at once and rolling it into negotiations for next year’s budget. Environmental advocates and some state lawmakers say that could leave some programs, like the state’s electric vehicle rebates, in the dark.


Brown’s announcement last week of a proposed ballot measure to revamp prisoner parole and juvenile trials was easily one of the biggest policy and political stories in the Golden State this past week.

On the latest episode of the California Politics Podcast, Myers and his reporter roundtable discuss the ramifications of the governor’s sweeping plan. They also look at the political truce called in the race for a San Diego state Senate seat, and the accusations lodged against members of the California Coastal Commission over the potential removal of the panel’s top staffer.

You can subscribe to the free podcast on iTunes.


-- Cathleen Decker takes another look at the last debate in her Sunday column and finds for a while, it was almost as if they wanted to talk to the majority of Republicans in the nation’s biggest state. She is already in New Hampshire, and writes about Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s efforts on the ground. 

-- George Skelton weighs in on Brown’s prison sentencing reform ideas.

-- Melanie Mason finds that Brown’s administration has yet to nail down a plan to extend a tax on healthcare plans that can win support from the insurers, much less secure the Republican votes necessary to pass the Legislature.

-- Brown adviser Nancy McFadden was paid $81,500 by the California Democratic Party in 2015 to consult on campaigns, payments on top of her government salary, Phil Willon reports.

-- Emily Alpert Reyes is on the case of a former L.A. city councilman’s missing files.

-- Noam Levey counted down to yesterday’s deadline for Americans to get health coverage through the Affordable Care Act, with federal and state officials across the country making a final push to get people to sign up.

-- With the exception of former President Clinton, no other political spouse faces as much risk of turning from asset to liability as Heidi Cruz, Lisa Mascaro reports.

-- Doyle McManus finds Trump has an Achilles’ heel when it comes to winning a general election: He doesn’t do well at attracting female voters.

-- We missed this story last week on the politics of the Porter Ranch gas leak, and it’s still relevant.


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