Friday, January 11, 2008
An insider's view of the Iowa Caucus
Only a few minutes remain before the start of Caucus Night, and still the line of voters outside Longfellow Elementary School in Iowa City extends down the sidewalk into the icy shadows beyond. For weeks, pollsters and pundits have predicted a record turnout for both political parties. However, with frigid temperatures and frequent snowstorms making their way across the prairie this winter, nobody has really been sure what things will look like here on January 3. Now, at 7 p.m., the last few eager caucus-goers from Iowa City Precinct #18 shuffle their feet in the cold, looking nervously at their watches and finally —finally! — make it through the door to a warm welcome from volunteers inside. It is clear that tonight will be big.
Candidates tour the heartland
Throughout 2007, candidates from both parties traveled this state of 2.9 million people trying to drum up support for their campaigns. They worked the crowds at big-city rallies and quietly pushed their platforms in rural living rooms. They showed up for Memorial Day and came back for the Fourth of July. They celebrated Labor Day and Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day with their new good friends here in the heartland.
During the final month leading up to the vote, with January 3 looming ever larger, it seemed you couldn't eat anywhere in Iowa without running into someone with designs on the White House. Here was Hillary having breakfast at a Maid-Rite in Marshalltown. There was John Edwards chowing down at Hamburger Inn No. 2 in Iowa City. And wasn't that Mitt Romney pressing the flesh at Diner on 1st in nearby Cedar Rapids?
Iowans enjoy the media spotlight
Iowans, to be sure, loved every minute of it. (Well, almost every minute: those 3 a.m. automated phone calls on January 2 from one desperate hopeful who shall go unnamed were not terribly popular.) Despite slick roads and relentless winds, large crowds turned out every time to get a glimpse of their favorite candidate and celebrity supporter. Midwestern reserve slowly gave way to the media storm. People here began to enjoy being in the spotlight for a change. "As you may know," Jay Leno said last week upon his return to late-night television, "caucus is a Greek word which means, 'the only day anyone pays any attention to Iowa.'" Ha, ha, very funny, Jay. Think that one up yourself?
Regardless of what the rest of the country may say, Iowans accept their quadrennial duty with a certain seriousness and pride. Caucusing, after all, has its roots in town meetings like those held each year in Carlisle and throughout New England. Iowans, as it happens, relish not only being the first to pass judgment on the current crop of politicians, but also being different from the rest of the country come election time. Instead of casting ballots for candidates, Democrats divide up into preference groups and then try to convince others — especially those in "non-viable" groups comprising less than 15% (in large precincts) of those present — to join their camp. Precinct captains take and retake head counts. Strangers discuss and debate platforms and positions. Voters "realign" themselves with new candidates or choose to remain officially "undecided." Based on the final numbers, each viable group receives delegates to the county convention later in the year.
"This process allows folks to have give and take with their neighbors," Johnson County Democratic Chair Brian Flaherty explained in a public forum several days prior to the caucus. "I would encourage everyone to be nice."
Young and old support their candidate
As the doors close on the cold night outside at the appointed hour and the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign officially gets underway, it looks like the entire Longfellow neighborhood has decided to attend. Young couples in Obama T-shirts hold babies and coffee cups. College kids carry signs for Kucinich. Good men and women going gray hand out Richardson stickers.
Upstairs in a classroom, a mere 66 registered Republicans gather to cast votes for their candidates by straw poll. This is, after all, Iowa City, a university town and a long-time liberal stronghold. Not surprisingly, then, throngs of Democrats stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the school gym, holding signs and trying to get a sense of their candidate's numbers. Obama's supporters, clearly the largest group, occupy a full third of the packed gym. Edwards has taken over center court, Hillary one corner. Voters for Richardson, Biden, Kucinich and Dodd set up shop near the exits, perhaps sensing the reality of the situation. With more than 500 caucus-goers in attendance, they'll need at least 75 people to remain viable, a tall order. A few elderly voters and non-participating guests sit in the middle of things while Japanese television catches the action and grabs an interview or two.
As precinct captains rally each group, county party officials announce — to the disbelief of just about everyone, it seems — that they want to do an overall head count. "Just to be sure we've got the numbers right." Pretty soon, people are counting off ("Like kids in P.E. class," as someone nearby mutters), but before long, officials recognize the folly of the situation and go with the number indicated by the tickets handed out at the door. "We have a new record," someone announces to general applause and hooting. "720 people. No wait, 719." A quiet descends on the room as people do the math and discover that they'll need 108 supporters to be viable.
The final tally
In the end, the only real surprise is how hard Hillary's supporters have to fight to be viable. As the last two minutes of the half hour given for voter realignment tick away, the Clinton crowd courts undecideds and others. "Six more votes!" becomes "five more votes," then four, and three, and, finally, just in the nick of time, "Hooray!" Hillary has 110 votes: viable, but barely. Obama's and Edwards's numbers are two and three times that, thanks in part to Biden and Richardson supporters who have been persuaded, after considerable discussion of the issues, to join their camp.
As in the rest of the state, where he will take first place with 38% of the vote, Barack Obama easily outpolls his rivals in Precinct #18. He garners 327 votes or 45% here, good for five delegates. John Edwards comes in second with 262 votes or 36% and earns four delegates to the county convention. Hillary's 110 means she gets the remaining two delegates. At 8:30 p.m., her supporters look dazed as they head out the door and back into the cold of a winter evening in Iowa. They will be relieved to learn later that evening that Hillary fared better elsewhere in Iowa, garnering 30% of the vote statewide, slightly behind Edwards.
As hats go back on and cell phones come out, people of all camps congratulate each other on a job well done. More than 350,000 Iowans (236,000 Democrats and 120,000 Republicans) have gotten the 2008 political season off to a good start. November seems a long way off.
Now it's time to get some rest before this summer. By then, with any luck, some good friends will be coming back to town.
Will Harte grew up in Carlisle and graduated from Concord-Carlisle High School in 1983. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and is now a math teacher at George Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He lives in Iowa City. In the 1990s, he was a reporter for the Mosquito.
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito