Confessions of an Iowa Caucus Voter

The Iowa Caucus will be held Monday night. I was a caucus voter one presidential election, in 2004, so my experience that long-ago January night can perhaps illustrate what we will see unfold next week.

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Gephardt was down. He was not going to get a vote from our precinct. In the game of three-dimensional chess that is politics, I could see how this was going to be bad for my candidate. I needed to act. Gephardt needed a vote, because it would help my candidate, and that vote needed to not be me. I sprung into action …

Every four years, we elect a President, and through a combination of luck and lobbying, voters in two small-population states—Iowa (pop. 3,123,899 and New Hampshire, pop. 1,330,608)—start the process. Through the spring and summer, voters in state after state who are registered with a specific political party vote for who they want to be their party’s nominee for President in the November election.

(For the sake of mind-numbing correctness, what happens is this: in the spring and summer we actually elect people, delegates, who go to local and then state-wide meetings to vote for a candidate to be the nominee, and then in the summer those delegates attend the national convention where they nominate a candidate for the national ballot. In 2004, I was a person who was elected by my precinct to go to my state convention that year.)

A primary is like every election one has ever seen in any municipality in any country: a voter signs in, is handed a ballot, goes to a private booth, makes selections, leaves, and watches the results on television. Iowa does not hold a primary. Iowa is a caucus state. A caucus is a town meeting at which voters state their preference out loud with their outdoors voices.

The Republican Party in Iowa treats the caucus more like a primary, in which voters make their preferences known, a count is taken, results tabulated, and everyone goes home. The results from that political party may be known more quickly this coming Monday night as a result. The Democratic Party caucus meetings are just that: meetings. Thus, it may take a little while longer to learn the results from the Democratic Party.

Further, each precinct is granted in advance a certain number of “votes” to report out at the end of the night. My precinct, back in 2004, had four votes to announce. I do not know how many Democratic Party voters lived in my precinct, but we had a few dozen voters in attendance that night. This few dozen people was worth four votes. This happens across the state in almost 3500 similar meetings. In 2012, each party had more than 1700 meetings, so this meant that there were 3400 caucus meetings that night. According to the Iowa Democrats, there will be 1681 caucus meetings this Monday night, with one teleconference for voters to participate from home.

In 2004, the main candidates on the Democratic side were John Kerry, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt. When I arrived at my local polling place, which was a cafeteria in a local high school, there were tables and chairs set up for each of those names. I signed in, was asked who my first choice was, told the poll worker and sat at that candidate’s table.

If all of us sat at that one candidate’s table, the night would have been over with quickly. The precinct would have reported to the state Democratic Party a result of four votes to none for that candidate.

Not at my caucus. Most of the voters that night were around the Kerry table, a few were at the Dean one, a few more at the Edwards table, and a handful with Gephardt. (A caucus looks like a cocktail party that is about to break out into a PTA meeting at first.) One or two came in and became perturbed that there was no table for Dennis Kucinich. There was not. This is what political reporters mean when they write or speak about the “get out the vote” effort in Iowa for caucus night: if Kucinich had been a legitimate candidate instead of an attention-getter on debate nights, he would have spent a couple bucks on signs for each of those 1700 precinct meetings. In 2016, we will see which candidates have spent their fundraising behind this effort. The Kucinich voters in my caucus joined the voters at other tables. Will supporters of Martin O’Malley (currently running in third in the polls) find a similar situation on Monday night?

(Twice that political season, once at a coffee shop and once on line at an airport newsstand, I waited behind Dennis Kucinich as he dithered over his coffee selection. No assistants were present to handle his menial tasks for him, and he barely handled them either. Ah well, his heart is in the right place, inside his skull, which is something he and I share.)

A key word with the Iowa caucus is “viability.” If there had been a Kucinich table available, it would have given us five tables but with four votes to report at the end of the night, which is the situation many Iowa Republican voters will face Monday: more candidates than available votes. At precinct meeting after precinct meeting, a first vote will be tallied and those candidates with the fewest votes face elimination … unless.

Unless their supporters are passionate about their candidate and also persuasive. If a second vote is needed, the caucus meeting turns into a meeting, a room-sized conversation at which people speak about the reasons they support their candidate. I do not remember if the party officials set a time limit on our discussion back in 2004; they probably did. My caucus meeting, at which two votes were taken, took about 45 minutes from beginning to end.

I gazed around the room. One of the party officials told me—I do not know why; I suppose I have always looked like someone who ought to be told official things in official ways—that it looked like our precinct was going to report two votes for John Kerry, one vote for John Edwards, and one vote for Howard Dean. I did not like that. I did not want John Kerry to win by a two-to-one (and one) margin. I sprung into action.

I was a supporter of then-Senator John Edwards, who is now an invisible and disliked man. For the previous three weeks, the crowds at his events had been growing, while the crowds at the Kerry and Dean events had been shrinking. The polls were reflecting this, too. I attended one of his events, which I wrote about last year:

Then-Senator Edwards was one of the few politicians I have ever heard speak about rural as well as urban poverty as a blight, a blight because it is a problem that can be easily tackled and quickly remedied if the country’s political will can be inspired. I was inspired. From 2004-’08, it could be said that he pushed the bigger-name candidates further to the left (some might think that a good thing and some might not), but from 2004-’08 it could also be said that he was doing some other (um, scandalous) things.
And I met him! Great. And my immediate, instinctual, in-person reaction to the man was: “I do not like him.” Oh, the inner conflict.
In January 2004, days before the Iowa Caucus, I saw him speak. He gave a great speech: People are poor. We must do something. Speech over. In the crowded room, we all discovered that that single-door entrance way over there that we all passed through was now the single-door exit for everyone, including the candidate and his handlers, who must hate situations like this when they come up all the time in Iowa and New Hampshire. Edwards had to leave along with the crowd of 500. No bodyguard. No announcement requesting that we wait for the Senator to leave first. I was next to him—pressed against him—for the five minutes it took us to traverse the ten yards to the door. He shook my hand; he shook everyone’s hand that was within reach.
I have met a few politicians, and I have met quite a few people who ought to run for office, but I have never been rendered invisible quite as quickly as I was by that man. It may qualify as the single most bizarre social encounter I have ever had: I have been dismissed mid-conversation plenty of times, even been made to feel that I offended someone simply by entering their consciousness, but I’ve never been looked at like I was the fog covering a man’s bathroom mirror and he was about to clear me away with his washcloth.

I sprung into action for my candidate. Gephardt was one voter away from “viability.” His voters were about to be asked to join other tables because there were not enough of them. If I could persuade one, just one, of the Dean supporters to become a Gephardt supporter, while at the same time hold all the Edwards supporters in place, our precinct would not report a two-to-one Kerry victory. We would have a four-way tie, one vote each for Kerry, Edwards, Dean, and Gephardt. I knew I could not swing the entire precinct over to Edwards—he had been there himself a couple days earlier and obviously had not swung it—so I aimed for the next best outcome: make Kerry look a little less strong and Edwards look like he was surging, which polls showed that he in fact was.

None of the Kerry supporters seemed to notice, or care, that I was talking to almost everyone other than them. Finally, with one voter, I revealed what my plan was: deny Kerry a two-to-one win. “You should have said that from the start!” she replied. I walked her over to the Gephardt table just as the party officials called for a vote.

In Iowa that year, Edwards finished in second, which historians say helped persuade Kerry to select him as his running mate that summer. Dean, who had been leading in the polls, ended in third, and his campaign ended soon after. The Edwards campaign workers, waiting outside to retrieve their now-useless signs and pamphlets, learned what I had done and thanked me by giving me a signed campaign poster. The precinct chose me as our Edwards delegate for the Iowa state convention, but by the time that meeting was held in the summer, I was in the process of moving from Iowa, so my adventures in politics began and ended that one January night.

Behind the scenes, this is what will be transpiring across all 99 Iowa counties on Monday night, in 1681 meetings.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 29 asks, “Tell us about the most exciting big night out you had recently.”

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  1. Leigh W. Smith · January 30, 2016

    Fascinating behind-the-scenes story. You’re more deeply involved with politics than I, Mark, although we might attend the straw poll coming up in a couple days. You also have confirmed what I felt, never having met Mr. Edwards. Keep that signed poster, though; maybe you can sell/auction it later! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · February 1, 2016

      Thank you, Leigh (I was away this weekend). I no longer have the poster; it’s among the many things I have lost or abandoned.


      • Leigh W. Smith · February 4, 2016

        Can’t like this comment about lost things, but I enjoy(ed) your writing, regardless. I could see it in my mind’s eye, and that’s good writing, because I’m not a highly visual person (I’m more auditory, I think). But, even now, I can see Edwards cavalierly looking through and past you to talk to other people. What a jerk he was(is)! Not one of North Carolina’s finest, along with Sen. Helms (I loathed him, back in the day), etc.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. abodyofhope · February 6, 2016

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing your adventures in the world of politics and in an Iowa caucus 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rogershipp · February 7, 2016

    Loved the behind the scenes look!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Today in History: June 10 | The Gad About Town

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