Monday, January 19, was a night millions of people had been anticipating for months. The country watched as a diverse group of contestants faced their first test in a series of competitions from which only one can emerge victorious. Some of the competitors started strong but met harsh reality at the hands of judges who were not afraid to be blunt in their criticism. There were jubilant celebrations, quiet resignation, and embarrassing displays of histrionics. Ultimately, we hope to discover the brightest talent America has to offer. In the back of everyone's mind, though, was a nagging concern. The last competition had been tainted by rumors that voting improprieties led to the more popular contestant losing.
Of course, I am talking about American Idol. But if you lived in Iowa, you
had the choice of two activities that fit that scenario. While Simon, Randy,
and Paula looked for the next big singing star, Iowa Democrats caucused to
find a challenger to George W. Bush. Along the way, they also celebrated
a temporary cease fire in political mailings, tv advertisements, phone calls,
polls and fresh-faced collegians on the doorstep.
Today's caucus is a modification of old-time back room politics, where insiders
met in secret and decided which people and proposals would move up through
the county and state conventions on the way to the national convention. Selection
of delegates is still an important part of the caucus, but rule changes in
1968, such as announcing in advance when and where the caucus would be held,
made it easier for anyone to participate.
In 1972, George McGovern's campaign thought Iowa might be a place to goose
up some media attention before the New Hampshire primary. It worked. His
strong second-place finish moved him into the media spotlight, and he eventually
won the party's nomination. (Then he flamed out spectacularly in the general
election, but that is another story.) Four years later, Georgia Governor
Jimmy Carter slipped his foot in Iowa's door and went on to win the presidency.
The Iowa Caucus had officially become a big deal for aspiring candidates.
This year's caucus started at 6:30 PM, one half hour earlier than in the
past, in order to help the East coast media make their deadlines. Unlike
an election, you cannot drop in whenever you feel like it over the course
of the day, nor can you participate on an absentee basis. You have to be
there, in person and on time, or you can't vote. If you have to skip dinner
to do it, well, no one ever said life would be easy. Fortunately, the Kerry supporters had a simmering crockpot, vegetables, and crackers available for anyone who needed sustenance.
Once you are there, though, the system is quite open. In order to participate,
you must be a registered voter in the party whose caucus you are attending.
Not registered to vote? No problem, you can register on site and participate.
Registered to a different political party? No problem, you can switch your
party affiliation on site and participate, a strategy that some use when
they want to stop a candidate from the other party. Not old enough to vote?
No problem, as long as you are going to be 18 by election day in November.
You can (say it with me) register on site and participate Just want to watch?
Come on in, and bring the kids, or the news media.
The caucuses are trumpeted as "meeting with your neighbors," and that was
certainly true. Most groups have outgrown the living rooms of yesteryear,
instead meeting in neighborhood schools, libraries, or churches. Precinct
21 met in a high school auditorium. Almost everyone seemed to find someone
to visit with before the meeting started. Some of the pre-caucus talk was
about candidates and issues, but most of it was friendly chit-chat. One woman
moved through the auditorium with a petition about a local city council issue.
The attendees were representative of an old neighborhood with affordable
housing. Retirees who have been there forever live alongside young working
class families of various ethnicity. There were lots of people in parkas,
and none in cashmere. (Speaking of coats: Regardless of what you heard on
the news, Iowans did not leave there homes on a "bitter cold night." Bitter
cold is what they had in New England a few weeks ago, when people were going
into the ice house to warm up because, at -15 degrees, it was some 20 degrees
warmer than outside. It was cold, but that is all. Just cold.)
Lists of registered voters were spread out on the auditorium stage. Registered
voters just had to sign the form and take a seat in one of the wooden auditorium
chairs. This was the first of several periods in the evening known as "waiting
for something to happen." I had been tipped off about this at my local yarn
shop, and so took some knitting. Every few minutes, someone yelled that anyone
who wants to vote should sign in.
The business meeting is supposed to begin at 6:30. I don't wear a watch,
but I suspect we started a little late. Our soft-spoken chairperson had trouble
getting everyone's attention in that cavernous old room. We elected officers
to conduct the meeting, and then it was time to read letters. And if you
haven't signed in, come on down right now and do that.
There were letters from the candidates, the governor, and several other elected
officials. Some caucus veterans groused about whether they should be read
aloud. "We'll be here all night," a woman in front of me said. Eventually,
volunteers read the candidate letters while the lesser dignitary's letters
were passed around. The hat was also passed, to collect money for the state
and county party organizations. And has everyone signed in?
At 7:00, registration ended and candidate selection began. First, we counted
off to determine how many eligible voters were present - 82, until someone
in the back of the room said, "You passed over me." That made 83. We counted
again to be sure. The chairperson, almost as an aside, said, "Only count
off if you are signed in to vote." Another voice from the back of the room
said, "We're supposed to sign in?"
This is where some unwritten neighborly latitude came into play. Some people
grumbled, "How much of a dip do you have to be, not to have heard them say
you must sign in?" That was met with, "She was here before seven, just let
her sign in and let's get on with it." In the end, neighborly latitude carried
the day and she was allowed to participate.
I had to put down my knitting for the next part, the real reason they carry
on about the "gathering of neighbors." The chairperson pointed out different
areas of the room for each candidate, and we announce our preference by moving
to that area, literally gathering with our like-minded neighbors. Kerry supporters
up front by the refreshments, Edwards behind them under the balcony, Gephardt
on the north wall under the signs, and so on.
A candidate must have the support of fifteen percent of the voters to remain
in the running, or viable. With our 83 voters, the viability number was 13.
It was quickly evident that the south half of the room, Kerry and Edwards,
were viable and then some. Dean was on the edge. Gephardt's group was short,
and the Kucinich Six stood vain but valiant in the middle of the room. The
Gephardt and Kucinich groups, at less than 13 members each, had to split
up and join another group, or convince someone to join them.
Noting that Edwards and Kucinich had recently asked their supporters to work
together in the event that one of them did not remain viable, Team Kucinich
invited the thirty or so Edwards supporters to join them, and were met by
resolute inaction. Eventually, they gave up and migrated to other groups.
Some went with Edwards as their candidate requested. One woman stood in the
aisle looking back and forth before blurting out, "I'm sorry, I just can't
do it!" and walking toward the Kerry supporters.
Once all of the non-viable groups had disbanded, there was more counting,
and more knitting. The groups were counted again, when a familiar voice from
the back of the Edwards corner said, "Don't count me, I'm undecided." It
was the same woman who had neglected to sign in earlier, the one for whom
the rules had been bent. "Why are you even here?" someone grumbled.
Ears perked up in the Kerry camp, though. Our precinct sends five delegates
to the county convention. Edwards already had enough votes for two delegates.
Kerry's supporters were one vote short of having two delegates. A young woman
walked up the aisle to the Edwards supporters. Now we will see some real
politicking, I thought, the philosophical and practical give and take that
drives our political system from the lowest level to the highest.
"Would one person please come vote with us so we can get two delegates? Pleeeeease?
You've already got your two, and we just need one more person to get two
A dozen thumbs pointed to the back row and the lone undecided participant.
"Talk to her."
The Kerry supporter zeroed in. "Just come up here for a minute and be counted,
and then you can get right back to your friends."
And it worked! Ms. Undecided went to be counted as a Kerry supporter. A delegate
shifted, not because a voter had studied the candidates and determined who
was most worthy, but because one voter didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.
Simon Cowell would be appalled, but Paula Abdul would understand.
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