Monday, January 21, 2008

Running numbers in Reno

Counting on the caucus

PiD decided to participate in the Nevada caucuses last weekend. He and his wife went to support John Edwards. The experience was, in a manner of speaking, quite educational. PiD phoned me Sunday to recount their adventures. Innumeracy was a big part of it.

The organizers soon found themselves facing a challenge: counting the participants. The leaders of the Clinton, Obama, and Edwards factions decided to go about the room pointing at people, who were supposed to count themselves off. Complications arose when the triumvirate did not always point at the same person. One trouble-maker suggested having each table of participants report its number to the leaders, who could then add up the results. This was deemed too complicated, as well as relying on the honesty of each table. The leaders persisted in the point-and-count technique. After three tries, they finally decided there were 146 attendees.

Then came a new problem, also numeric. The threshold for caucus participation by a candidate was 15% support among the attendees. Most people were in the Clinton or Obama camps, but the Edwards people faced possible elimination of their candidate. But how to compute 15% of 146? While some folks yelled out “twenty-two,” the leaders conferred in nervous agitation, trying to puzzle out the computation algorithm included in the caucus guidelines. “No, we have to be sure,” they said.

PiD and other participants were getting exasperated, but it appeared that computing a percentage was a major problem. Some people tried to explain: “Ten percent of 146 is 14.6. Add half again to get to fifteen percent: 14.6 + 7.3. You get 21.9, so the result is 22!”

The explanation didn't help. The leaders finally obtained a calculator and worked through the math several times. It was finally announced that 15% of 146 was 22. There was much rejoicing. (Well, not really.)

Although their ranks had been reinforced by a few Kucinich stragglers, the Edwards cohort did not reach the 15% threshold. The Clinton and Obama leaders pounced quickly: “Okay, you have to choose sides. You have to pick Clinton or Obama.”

The edict was not well received. PiD said, “What if we don't want to?”

“But you have to.”

Diplomacy was not the order of the day, but the Edwards people did understand that their candidate was out of the running in the day's caucus and that they were up for grabs.

“Okay, so why should we pick one candidate over the other?”

Although that might have sounded like an invitation to offer some persuasive arguments to attract the Edwards supporters, it was instead taken as an excuse to engage in mindless chanting. The Clinton forces yelled “Hillary!” over and over while the Obama troops shouted “Obama!” The Edwards cohort resisted the compelling pitches. Eventually the leaders realized it was time to talk. PiD listened to their paeans to their preferred candidates. The Clinton leader was not doing her candidate a lot of good. PiD had met her the day before when she was walking precincts to drum up caucus attendees. One of her arguments was that Hillary was not “as liberal” as her husband. That was sure to confirm PiD in his support for Edwards. Fortunately, the Clinton leader did not offer her opinion about Clinton's relative liberality again and the Obama leader was a weak advocate for his candidate.

PiD ended up moving to the Clinton side of the room while his wife took up with the Obama forces.

It was time for the calculator again. The leaders discovered that a couple of caucus attendees had slipped away. They counted up the the tally anew and determined that the Clinton forces comprised 59% of the remaining caucus participants. Someone pointed out that this meant Obama had 41%. The leaders balked. No, they had to be sure. They computed the numbers for Obama and seemed surprised to get 41%. Imagine that!

I asked PiD whether he had found the three-hour caucus experience rewarding. He told me that his first caucus would definitely be his last.

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