Unlike virtually every reporter who descends on the state every four years, I actually grew up in Iowa, in the town of Fairfield, population 9,509. But that didn’t make me an expert on our arcane caucuses. For most of my youth politics was like background noise–I was aware of all the visits by political candidates but never paid them much attention. In 2000, I voted in Illinois, where I attended college. It wasn’t until 2004, when I returned to the state as a passionate supporter of Howard Dean, that I saw firsthand what the caucuses were like.
It was a crushing experience. Dean did well in my town, one of the most liberal in the state, but lost virtually everywhere else. Within minutes of leaving the caucus with cautious optimism, a friend phoned and told me Dean was lagging a distant third. We all know what happened from there.
After the hype of Dean, I was skeptical of the grassroots buzz surrounding Barack Obama. Fairfield could safely be called Obama country, ever since he spoke in the town square on a balmy July night, drawing an unprecedented crowd of 2,000. It was probably the largest political event the town has ever seen. Still, would that energy, like Dean’s, actually translate into votes?
When I arrived at the caucus on Thursday night, I began to realize that Obama’s campaign had fulfilled the promise of Dean, particularly with regard to getting younger, first-time voters out to the caucus. At Pence Elementary School, in Fairfield’s Ward 2, the Edwards and Obama sections were largely the same size, ten rows each. But while the Edwards supporters quietly filled their chairs, Obama’s area soon began to overflow, with supporters forced to cram standing on both sides. Friends with whom I’d never discussed politics before showed up with their parents. A 16-year-old neighbor, too young to vote, volunteered. His friend, who still sported braces and would turn eighteen by Election Day, was one of Obama’s precinct chairs. Another precinct chair, a young girl in a blue Obama shirt, was hardly any older. Across the way, the half-filled Hillary Clinton section, populated by elderly women, felt like another universe.
The mystery and misconceptions surrounding the caucus made the record level of turnout even more remarkable. In the week before the caucus, I was bombarded by questions from first-time caucus-goers, along the lines of “Do I have to drive to Des Moines?” “Will it last all night?” “Do I have to make a speech?” I explained that no, they just needed to show up at their local precinct and stand in the section of their favored candidate. The question of why Iowa has such a bizarre process–and why we get to pick a president first–was more difficult to answer.
Before Iowa was even a state, back in 1846, local political leaders adopted a caucus system, preferring to vote in the company of their friends and neighbors. In 1916, Iowa flirted with moving to a primary, but when only a quarter of registered voters participated, the state went back to the caucus. They were particularly uneventful until 1968, when the Democratic Party, beset by divisions, adopted a series of reforms overseen by Iowa Governor Harold Hughes. By virtue of an accident of history, Iowa became the first caucus in the country. Four years later, Gary Hart, the ambitious young campaign manager for George McGovern, took the unprecedented step of organizing in Iowa, boosting McGovern to a surprise second place finish behind Maine Senator Ed Muskie, who then imploded in New Hampshire, handing McGovern the nomination. The New York Times wrote a series of articles popularizing McGovern’s Iowa strategy. By 1976, Jimmy Carter had all but moved to the state, using Iowa as a springboard for an upset victory. The state’s political power has been immovable ever since.
Yet its national reputation seems downright peculiar when you attend an actual caucus. It feels like you’re stuck in a time warp. On the Democratic side, delegates are confronted by a complex formula that even many precinct captains don’t fully understand. The total number of attendees must be multiplied by 15 percent to see if a given candidate has enough supporters to qualify for a delegate. In caucus parlance, that’s known as “viability.” To figure out the number of delegates, the number of supporters of candidate X is multiplied by the number of delegates in the ward and then divided by the total number of caucus attendees. Confused yet? The Republicans simply gather in a room and count the votes straight up. But I guess complexity is built into the Democrats’ DNA.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Once a candidate has been determined viable, the floodgates open and the top campaigns are given thirty minutes to court the supporters of the “second-tier” candidates. If ever there was a time for bribery, it is now. At my caucus, the supporters shifted rather effortlessly. Biden’s group of ten went to Clinton, impressed by her experience. The twenty-five pro-peace Kucinich supporters flocked to Obama, the only major Democrat to originally oppose the war in Iraq. The nine backers of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson dispersed between Edwards and Obama. Poor Chris Dodd didn’t even have enough supporters to be courted.
And when all is said and done, how does one determine the number of supporters for a given candidate? By a hand count. After millions of dollars had poured into the state targeting voters, I couldn’t believe how unscientific the actual vote count was. The Obama precinct chairs had to count and recount a show of hands at least five times to get an accurate tally. “Isn’t there a better way to do this?” I asked the local Democratic Party secretary. “That’s what I say to myself every four years,” she responded. The final result, in case you’re curious, was 192 for Obama, eighty-three for John Edwards and fifty-five for Hillary Clinton. Even though Edwards had thirty more supporters, he and Clinton received only two delegates apiece, thanks to the caucus formula. Obama won five. If I were an Edwards supporter, I would’ve been hopping mad.
I walked out of the caucus bewildered by its complexity but comforted by the old-fashioned ritual of voting with your friends and neighbors. There are no secret ballots, hanging chads or malfunctioning voting machines. The caucus is deliberative democracy at its freewheeling finest and most absurd. I got home at 9 pm expecting a long wait for final returns. It turned out both races had already been called, by surprisingly large margins for Obama and Mick Huckabee. Suddenly, it was all so simple.