In the late 90s my family moved from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa–my husband got a dream job we couldn’t turn down and the idea of living “in the country” appealed to us. We did buy a lovely rambling house surrounded by trees on a quiet street and though we were in the city, in Des Moines we could get anywhere in 20 minutes. John’s commute for years was 90 minutes. Now if he did leave at 5:00, which was rare, rush hour lasted about 20 minutes. We enjoyed the Des Moines Symphony, the Des Moines Metro Opera and met some amazing friends. More on that later.
Being political animals, we also participated in the Iowa Caucuses, some years being more exciting than others. General definition: The Iowa caucuses are an electoral event in which residents meet in precincts in all of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts and elect delegates to the corresponding county conventions. The Democrats and the Republicans caucuses are slightly different.
The DEMOCRATS break into groups that publicly declare their support for a candidate. If the number of people in any group is less than a 15 percent viability threshold of those attending the caucus, they can either choose not to participate or can join another candidate group. That’s what makes the event exciting, as leaders for one group encourage their people to go around the room and persuade folks whose candidate is low in numbers to switch to their candidate. It’s a numbers and a persuasion game. It’s politics right there in the gym on a cold Iowa night. (One year, an older wild attorney who I admired, sequestered his Biden supporters in a side room, so that no one could get them to switch to another candidate. It didn’t work.)
When the groups are organized, the number of “votes” is determined by running the number who support each candidate through a formula that determines final votes based on a county-by-county analysis of Democratic performance in the last governor and presidential elections. Besides determining which candidate wins the caucuses, the results are the first step in determining delegates who are expected to support candidates at the national convention.
For Republicans, it’s a much simpler matter of giving supporters of each candidate a chance to give a brief speech, then everyone privately marks a ballot. The ballots are counted, then communicated by a local caucus organizer to the state party via a new smartphone app, developed for both parties. Even though it’s a vote, it’s not binding for Republicans, who determine delegates at county and district conventions later in the year.
Even though winning is a goal, many candidates are simply eager to exceed expectations. Though a candidate might finish second or third, he or she can claim a victory by noting they finished near the top and received more support than expected. It’s all politics, it’s a numbers game, but it’s the American way.
MY IOWA POLITICAL HISTORY
2000 and 2004
The first year I caucused, I joined my neighbor Alan and we drove through ice and snow to the local grade school where we were ushered into a small room for our candidate. He won–it was a foregone conclusion and not exciting at all. He lost the general election – Gore VS Bush.
Then in 2004, my husband and I went together–the same school but we were in this huge cafeteria and the place was wild. Groups had gathered with signs and people were agitating to bring voters into their territory. Thus our eyes were opened to this process. My neighbor Alan now supported John Edwards and we were supporting Howard Dean. That night John Kerry and John Edwards beat out Dean and he famously went a little crazy at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines. We went home–we missed it.
Dean had been ill for several days and when he went to the rally to speak to his volunteers his aim was to cheer everyone up. But somehow as he was shouting over the cheers of his enthusiastic audience, the crowd noise was being filtered out by his unidirectional microphone, leaving only his “screams” to be audible to TV viewers. He sounded like he had lost it. He sounded not very presidential. But Dean survived, led the Democratic party for a while and is still very involved in politics.
2008, 2012, 2016
Above, I referenced Iowa friends. One is Dr. Andy McGuire, now the current head of the Democratic Party in Iowa, mother of seven, a medical doctor who also has an MBA and from the start has been involved in politics. She ran for lieutenant governor when we lived there and I feel certain there’s a political role of some consequence in Andy’s future.
In 2008, she worked in the Clinton campaign, as we did, but she had a big role. She would call us, suggesting we go to the Drake Diner at 5:00 am as Hillary was doing an interview there. Other times, Andy and her husband Dan filled there big home with political activists and we attended–thus able to meet folks like George McGovern, Tom Vilsack, once Iowa’s governor and now Secretary of Agriculture, Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi and many state and senate members from the state government. It was stimulating and fun.
But the caucus in 2008, you will remember, didn’t work out for Hillary. Barack Obama road to a specific victory. The night of the caucus, my husband and I were once again in the grade school’s big cafeteria, supporting Clinton. Our son Andrew, who was supporting our future president, was also there. But when he arrived with the Obama supporters, we knew immediately that they would win. They filled the entire back of this huge room as we clung to our few numbers. Barack’s win was predicted within the hour.
Andy McGuire had worked tirelessly for Hillary and she was exhausted and down–having to leave the school and drive downtown on this cold icy night to stand with her candidate and cheer her on. Hillary actually came in third, John Edwards second. Later, in New Hampshire, Hilary had 39.1 of the vote, Barack Obama, 36.5 and Edwards came in 3rd.
In 2012 the Caucus for Dems was a foregone conclusion. We gathered at a large venue and watched an address from the President. But his last stop in Iowa was November 5th where crowds swarmed the East Village and he thanked them for their support. At this moment it’s hard to say what 2016 will bring.
Iowa Caucus Monday, February 1st, 2016
I won’t be at the Caucus this year, as I am now living in California. But I will be eager to see how both the Dems and the GOP do on caucus night. Andy McGuire https://twitter.com/DrAndyMc will certainly be working like crazy, supporting the Democratic candidates and using her influence to once again bring a Democrat to the White House. Iowans of all persuasions will head to schools and churches, auditoriums and recreation centers to support their candidate.
There was so much about living in Iowa that I enjoyed, and I have to say that rubbing elbows with candidates, reporters, hard-working volunteers and lending my own support–was just awesome. Again, it’s the American way.
Photos Courtesy of the Des Moines Register