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A Night at the Texas Caucus: Hurry Up And Wait

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It was a waiting room in Limbo, act three of Jean Paul Sartre play. Most the four hundred in the cafeteria had fallen into resignation, if not coma. Grown men rested their heads on the trestle tables and slept. Fathers cradled children on their laps. Cadres of women--mothers and daughters, neighbors--sat square, grim-faced, arms crossed across their chests. They had to keep watch, or somebody might try to take what they had come for away from them. At the back of the room, a baby wailed and could not be consoled. This was the primary convention, the "caucus," at Ward Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas. It was 9:15 PM, two hours after the caucus was supposed to start, and they waited.

Two women approached the table where lay in three neat rows the long-sought end to the evening: the caucus sign-in sheets. "We have to leave. We're signing in now>," one said. My new friend Donald, who had been explaining to me why Politico and RealClearPolitics are better than The Huffington Post, stopped talking and I looked up. There was a dangerous note in this young woman's voice. If there hadn't been four determined caucus leaders protecting "the sheets," everybody would've scribbled their names and their candidate preferences (Clinton or Obama) and left long since. But out in the labyrinthine school hallways the line for primary voting still crawled. The Texas Democratic Primary rules state that caucus sign-in cannot start until all primary voting business is completed.

Texas is not Iowa. The sign-in sheet is the caucus here. There's no convening in corners of the room and trying to persuade people to come over. There's no speech-making. The second step of the Texas Two-Step is a quick John Hancock and a quicker exit, except for those crazed few who want, at their own expense, to journey on to the next level, the county convention. Yesterday reports came in across Texas of sign-in sheets filled out during the primary, outside the polling site, in the names of like-minded friends and family--as I predicted. At many polling locations, likely this practice went on and will never be caught.

Texans just could not understand why they couldn't sign the caucus sheet right after voting. Why did they have to wait around for hours? If the Texas caucus is no longer going to be about party regulars and their idea of fun, this is a case to be made, if the Two-Step survives the thousands of resolutions to abolish that were sent on to the state level last night.

Finally, at 9:50 PM the primary ended, and the last primary voter, a veteran of the Iraq War, entered the cafeteria to applause. The caucus temporary chair, a cheerful, witty, carefully non-partisan and diplomatic thirty-something angel, who in his other life volunteered for Obama, had roused the crowd and told us to clap. Now the real event could begin. The amazing thing is that most people had waited. Of the four hundred, maybe seventy-five hadn't made it and left. Families had comforted hungry children and old folk had settled in for the duration. There was a truly amazing determination in the cafeteria of Ward Elementary. The one thing the four hundred agreed on is that Election 2008 is important. As the caucus angel said, "Everybody is here for a reason, and I'm guessing it's the right reason for everybody."

The Texas Democratic Party and the Texas media did not do a good job of informing voters. Maybe there just wasn't time. But at any rate, most of the folks at Ward had had the impression that they could sign the caucus sheet right after voting in the primary. Certainly, this misapprehension was widespread among the Hillary supporters. Assuming the caucus would go fast, no one brought food or entertainment for their children. Several people, older Hispanic voters, were so confused that they thought the evening was about the presidential election, and either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama would be elected President.

Long after midnight the Ward caucus in San Antonio finally ended. With quite a bit of math help from caucus HQ, the leaders were able to turn 112 signatures for Obama and 83 for Clinton into 17 and 13 delegates respectively. At this point, less than twenty people were left in the room, so there weren't enough people to volunteer to take one of those delegate slots, much less the alternates, on to the county convention. Some people couldn't do it because of the personal expense anyway. How will the Texas Democratic Party handle this issue? It's not my problem. The race has already moved on down the campaign trail. Mississippi, anyone?