Friday, January 23, 2004
The 2004 Iowa Caucuses
They call it caucusing. In schools and churches all across Iowa on Monday evening, safe from the biting cold outside, voters met to choose from a wide field of Democratic candidates hoping to challenge President George Bush this November. What made the 10 o'clock news, of course, was the surprising win by John Kerry over supposed front-runner Howard Dean, who finished a distant third behind North Carolina's John Edwards. But the real story may have been just how big the numbers were across the state (over 120,000) and just how electric the atmosphere was as Democrats took the first step on what they hope will be the road to the White House in 2004.
Lining up for the caucus
At 6 p.m. on Monday, my eight-year-old son, Neil, and I park our car on a side street and join a line of people from Iowa City precinct 24 heading up the hill towards our caucusing site, City High School. People are coming in from all directions, and for a minute it looks like the crowd you only get around here for Friday-night basketball games. Instead of the usual pom-poms and school colors, though, just about everyone is sporting stickers to identify where their allegiance lies. I see lots of Kerrys, Deans, and Kuciniches. No Gephardts.
Chaos in the hallway
"K through P, if you're K through P," someone shouts, "the registration table is open." It's just after 6:30, starting time for the 2004 caucuses, but for the moment chaos reigns in the hallway outside the school cafeteria, where we will be meeting. Neil and I have been waiting in line for almost twenty minutes now, and we can see the banners arranged inside, the early arrivals already at their posts. The two men in front of us, Kucinich supporters, are wearing t-shirts that say "Gay Marriage." A woman with a Kerry sticker half-heartedly directs traffic towards the table before someone comes up and tells her nicely that no one in the back can hear a thing she is saying.
By 6:45, we have made it to the front of the line, signed in, gotten a red slip of construction paper with the number 184 on it, and found our candidate's corner of the room. Bags of potato chips and boxes of Oreo cookies are heaped on a table in the middle of everything. In the back of the room, a coffee pot sputters to life next to boxes of bottled water. Neil takes a few cookies while I look around for familiar faces and to get a sense of the numbers. Dean's crowd is clearly the biggest, but Kerry's continues to grow, as does Edwards's. But it's the large number of Kucinich supporters that surprises me the most, that and the fact that the Gephardt contingent consists of less than a dozen people.
Unusually large turnout
Someone — the precinct chairman, I later learn — grabs the microphone at 7 p.m. and announces that due to the unusually large size of the turnout, registration is being extended beyond the usual cut-off time. "Fifteen minutes," he shouts, "Fifteen, twenty minutes." A cheer goes up when he adds that the good news is the numbers are over double what they were four years ago, when the caucus attracted only 220 people. Neil finds one friend, then another, from school, and they stake out an area at one table where they can draw and play with the YuGiOh cards someone has brought.
Finally, around 7:30, everyone is in the room, the doors are shut, and we are ready to begin, all 533 of us. First, all not-voting adults ("observers") are asked to stand next to the vending machines to the side of the proceedings. Someone asks about kids. "If they look like adults, they've got to go over to the side too," comes the answer. "The same with undecideds." The Kerry people make a motion to cut through the various rules of order and get on to what we've all come to do. But business is business, and another ten minutes is devoted to choosing a chairman and secretary for the upcoming county convention. A husband-and-wife team is approved unanimously, with people looking nervously at the clock, obviously eager to start counting heads.
A first show of hands
With kids and observers and undecideds off to the side, and the appropriate areas of the room for each of the candidates agreed upon, we make our first show of hands, holding up our red slips of paper and waiting for the captain of our candidate to come around to our table and count us. To be a viable candidate tonight, you will have to have 80 supporters (15% of 533). As each of the candidates adds up the numbers, and as it becomes clear that neither Clark nor Gephardt will make that threshold, the first rumblings of horsetrading begin to be felt. A few minutes later, when the caucus chairman reads off the preliminary figures, supporters of Dean, Kerry and Edwards descend on the Clark and Gephardt people and make their cases.
Down to the numbers
It all comes down to numbers in the end, and happens very suddenly, with each side asking the other how many people they have and how many delegates they can get. Questions are asked, arguments are offered, and quick decisions are made. In the end, Gephardt's supporters all go over to Edwards while Clark's people for the most part split between Dean and Edwards. A few go to Kucinich.
I had been told that (The People's Republic of) Iowa City never votes with the rest of the state, and indeed the numbers in precinct 24 did not reflect those elsewhere. Winning by almost a 2-to-1 margin was Howard Dean, who garnered 211 votes and 4 delegates. Second was John Edwards, with 116 votes and 3 delegates. Third was John Kerry, with 111 votes and 3 delegates, and fourth was Dennis Kucinich with 97 votes and 1 delegate. A cheer goes up among the Kerry supporters in the middle of all this, and we learn that he looks to be the winner statewide. The Dean people seem a little stunned by this news, but leave just like everyone else, glad to have taken part in something big.
Neil and I make our way out into the night, greeting friends who had been at other tables during the evening. It's after 9 p.m. already. We slip on the ice walking down the hill but make it to our car in one piece along with everyone else. As we head home, a short five-minute drive, I turn on the radio and am surprised when I hear the state-wide results.
Will Harte, who grew up in Carlisle, now lives in Iowa City and teaches high school math in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito