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.