In two days, the Iowa caucuses will convene once more. This time around, voters will come together to stand for their choice in the Republican presidential primary contest and I will remember the thrill of caucusing for my first and only time on a chilly January evening in Des Moines four years ago.
I wrote about it then, in a more personal forum than this blog–an email to friends and family mostly still voting the conventional way of filling in ovals or tapping a touch screen back in California. And, I pulled that old email out to remind myself how exhilarating that process had been for me as I stood with my neighbors in an elementary school gym standing up for my support of Obama. Here it is: democracy in action.
OK, I know you all (ok maybe not all of you, but at least three of you) are chomping at the bit to know all about caucusing in Iowa (Ok maybe not so much chomping as didn’t even think about it), so here’s a little rundown of how it all worked for this first-timer.
First off, I have to say that if you’re gonna be in Iowa, this is hands down the best time to be in Iowa–once every four years during a presidential primary race (or if you just can’t get enough of pork chops on a stick then it’s the Iowa State Fair, also a good reason to be here). The media spectacle in itself is a wonderment.
Since this summer every candidate (some more than others) has made a temporary nest here in central Iowa. Probably every town on the map got at least one visit from a candidate. So that was exciting, mostly that for a change Iowa and Iowans were being paid attention to. I don’t consider myself an Iowan if that’s what you’re thinking, but it was nice to see them getting their shoulders
rubbed by national media and important political people. Anyhoo, the buildup to last night’s caucuses was palpable. I have never physically witnessed so much political activity among normal people. On my street alone, which is a very normal, working class neighborhood, people displayed their political preferences via lawnsigns and bumper stickers for Hillary Clinton, Richardson, Obama and Edwards. And as I drove around town during the last few months I saw every single Dem and GOP candidate
represented on lawns, in windows on bumpers. It was very invigorating for me who enjoys the political process so much to see a community outside the Bay Area come alive with such fervor and diversity of opinion. Not only were people very interested in what was going on, they proudly shared their opinion on candidates with the rest of us. This dialogueing, even if in just the form of a lawn sign, was such a great thing for me to witness here because I’ve been so used to people either not talking about politics
because it’s such a touchy subject or because of a little media theory called the spiral of silence (which I won’t get into, and you can
thank me for that later).
Caucus night capitalized on the people’s ability to share their opinions on candidates in a public forum. At 6 p.m. Kurt and I walked the several blocks to the local elementary school where our precinct was to caucus. After a bit of uncoordinated rigmarole, we were cattle herded with our Democratic precinct mates into this little room where we were supposed to stand with people who are also voting (caucusing) for the same candidate. However, our small room was too small for the 425 Democrats from precinct 46 who showed up (they only expected 300). And the Republicans had a very large room for their 30 or so caucusgoers so we negotiated with them to switch. Look the bipartisanship in action in Iowa!
We are herded into the bigger room and fill it up as well, but not as much and there’s no where to go. So we’re about an hour past caucus starting time and finally the guy in charge (who is wearing an Edwards shirt and getting negative comments from the mutterings of Kurt) tells us we have to get ourselves in order. Kurt and I stand with the Obama folks and the Obama precinct
leaders instruct us to make single file lines and then the first person in each line (that’s me) count the rest and report to a guy walking by with a clipboard. So we did that. Our first count, Obama had 167 people (40 percent of the 425 in the room!) It was already a huge upset victory for the Obama campaign. We didn’t know yet that Obama by this time had already been
declared the winner in Iowa so the energy was still electric in that room. Edwards came in second with 77 or so and Clinton
in third, just barely viable, with 67 or so. (Huge surprise to us). In caucusing for the Democrats, a candidate has to receive I think
about 15 percent of the vote to get anything out of it. The Richardson campaign came just shy of the magic number of viability and Dodd, Biden and Kucinich had much fewer votes. Since those candidates weren’t viable, those who were standing in favor of them and others who were undecided were instructed to move to the groups of other candidates for a final tally of votes.
Some came to Richardson, making him viable, and some came to Edwards, Obama and Clinton. The final count was something like Obama: 175; Edwards 88; Clinton 77; Richardson 65. It was such an exciting process. You could feel the energy in the room. People were truly engaged and excited to be participating. Seeing your vote in this tangible format is incredible because you
can see who is with you and who is not. You can also persuade others to join your team. So instead of going to the polls and wondering who all those people are who voted with you or for an opposing candidate, you can actually see them, and see who is winning and losing. And you can talk to them, shake their hands, call them a sucker, yell at them for making a bad choice,
whatever. It’s a democratic thing and it’s fun!
Another interesting aspect to caucusing was seeing the people who came out to support certain candidates. Obama’s supporters were incredibly diverse. There were people of all colors and ages, many of whom had never caucused before or who had just registered to vote in order to caucus for Obama. It was clear he really had touched a marginalized population, and that was
great to see. Edwards seemed to draw mostly middle aged and older white men, though there were some middle aged white women standing for him. Hillary’s people seemed to be mostly middle aged and older white women, and some men. My grad
school friend who caucused in Ames where Iowa State is said that Hillary attracted a lot of gay men at her precinct. Richardson’s people, like Obama’s, were a pretty diverse set, and I didn’t get to see the Biden, Dodd and Kucinich people (one of the downfalls of being a short person in a crowded auditorium).
Now that the caucus is over and all the candidates and their entourages have left Des Moines, it feels a little empty. No more
political ads to entertain us on TV, no more tank-like media trucks taking up valuable parking spaces and making us feel important. I’m definitely feeling a little abandoned!!
It will be interesting to see how Obama’s momentum continues from his big win in Iowa next week in New Hampshire and then on Feb. 5 and how Hillary’s upset will affect her campaign.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope those of you who are in and around the Bay Area/Sacramento
area are doing OK. For a change the weather there is worse than here! It’s supposed to get up to 40
degrees today, I can’t wait. I’ve got to go get my bathing suit