We moved from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa when my husband was offered an executive position in the expanding insurance industry there. We settled into an older home on a tree-lined tree, with deer feeding across our back fence and warm and welcoming neighbors. For the first caucus, I drove to the local grade school gymnasium with my neighbor, Alan. Our party lost that election. But politics is often about “where you are in your life.” A new job, settling into a new community, focussing on raising your children can blur political lines. I wouldn’t say I was at the WHO CARES point, but I wasn’t very engaged.
NOW THAT I’M A TRUE IOWAN…
For the second caucus, I owned a dark navy blue sweater with the American flag on the front. That night, I wore it. My husband & I sat in chairs in the same grade school gymnasium. There were many candidates. We paid strict attention, voted for our candidate–who subsequently did not have enough followers. What we will never forget is one older lawyer in the community sequestering his group in a side room–something we were sure was not part of the protocol. But what was happening was this ground-roots feeling of involvement. We mattered. Yes, our votes had always mattered, but this was feeling more personal.
WILL THIS BE JUST ANOTHER CAUCUS NIGHT?
For the last caucus we attended, (We have subsequently moved to California and now vote like everyone else!) we had formed strong relationships with local movers and shakers. We had attended the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines which introduces all of the Democratic Party candidates, and there were many: John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd. We met Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton that night. But we didn’t know much about this new candidate from our hometown, Chicago, Barack Obama.
CAUCUS NIGHT SURPRISE!
Our son, Andrew, was now older and becoming more interested in politics. On the night of January 3, 2008, my husband I walked to the same gymnasium in drizzling rain–Andrew going off to be with his friends. You couldn’t find a parking space. People were flowing into the building. Because we were caucusing for Hillary Clinton, we had duties to perform, assigned to us by a close friend who was heading up her Des Moines Campaign. As the hour drew closer to start time, we lined up on either side of the entryway waving flags and signs with our candidate’s name. A few Obama followers lined the other side of that hallway.
But then everything changed. The doors opened and people began to pour in, more than we had ever seen in our years caucusing. This time it mattered more. This time the people pouring in were waving Obama signs and right in their midst was Andrew.
Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucus that freezing-rain night. Because Hillary was our first woman candidate for president, it took me a while to change my allegiance, but when I did and she gave her “glass ceiling” speech, I was there, dedicated, calling people, doing the door-knocker thing, whatever Obama’s campaign asked me to do. Days before the election itself, I drove back from Chicago where I had been visiting my mother, making my way immediately to a central point in Des Moines, where, with protective guards on the rooftops and helicopters in view, our future president gave his last address to Iowans. And because I had worked the campaign, I was upfront and able to shake his hand. (President Obama did not forget his Iowa beginnings. For the 2012 campaign, he was in Iowa in the East Village the night before the election, and thousands gathered.)
WHY THE CAUCUS PROCEDURE MATTERS
The late Tip O’Neill, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives and a Democrat, is often quoted as saying, Politics is Local.
He’s right. When decisions by powerful men and women fail to devolve down to WHAT YOU NEED, in your life, your neighborhood, your workplace, you feel disenfranchised. Politics is not working for you. The power to vote in primaries and in elections helps keep politics local. And the Caucus process emphasizes that. There is a reason that candidates spend money and time talking to people who live in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina–the contests that start things off.
HOWEVER, LIFE IS NEVER SIMPLE. Here are some of the Caucus NEW RULES:
The most important number to remember for the Iowa caucuses is 15 percent.
That’s the minimum level of support that the Democratic candidates must get to achieve viability at most caucus sites — so candidates who get LESS than 15 percent must realign to a different viable candidate, or join with other non-viable groups to get to 15 percent or above.
Bottom line: If you’re a candidate that can’t sniff 15 percent, you’re really not a player on Feb. 3.
To read more about the changes in Caucus rules go here.