The Iowa Caucuses will be held tonight. I was a caucus voter in that state one presidential election, in 2004, so my experience that long-ago January night can perhaps illustrate what we will see unfold.
Certain rules are different this caucus night compared to that one a lifetime ago, but the core principles inside the experience remain the same: 1. A caucus is not a primary, in which one votes with a ballot; it is an hours-long town meeting, and, 2. Caucus night is the climax of a year in which there are more presidential candidates in Iowa than Iowans.
Return with me to 2004, when TV was in black and white, movies cost a nickel, and a Republican president was up for re-election: George W. Bush.
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In 2004, the Democratic Party, my party, offered a buffet of candidates, many of them U.S. senators, like this year. I did not plan to take action or even speak at my caucus, but history forced my hand.
A half-hour into the caucus, matters were dire: Rep. Richard Gephardt was down. He was not going to get a vote from our precinct. Not even one. In the game of three-dimensional chess that the Iowa Caucus can be, I could see how this was bad for my candidate, who was not Rep. Richard Gephardt. The congressman needed a vote, because it would help my candidate, and, even more important, that vote needed to not be me.
Anyone beside me at that moment would have heard the audible whirring sounds my brain produces when it confronts math. I reviewed the options.
Every four years, we elect a President, and through a combination of luck and lobbyists, voters in two small-population states—Iowa (pop. 3,155,070 and New Hampshire, pop. 1,356,458)—start the process. Through the spring and summer of election years, voters in state after state who are registered with a specific political party vote for the person whom 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. That last part is on TV! In 2004, I was a person who was elected by my local precinct on caucus night to go to my state convention that year. This was a surprise to me.)
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. This year, well, the Republican slate is already settled. 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 on February 3.
Further, each precinct is granted in advance a certain number of “votes” to report out at the end of the night. This is the number of delegates the precinct will send to the state party convention. My precinct, back in 2004, had four votes/delegates. 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/delegates. This happens across the state in almost 3400 similar meetings. In 2016, each party had about 1700 meetings, so this meant that there were 3400 caucus meetings that night. For the Iowa Democrats on February 3, there will be 1681 caucus meetings, with satellite meetings for out-of-state Iowa voters to participate.
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 ended quickly. This might happen in some precincts tonight. My precinct would have reported to the state Democratic Party a result of four votes/delegates to zero for that victorious candidate, and four of us would have been selected as those delegates to attend the state party convention.
This did not transpire 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. (The typical caucus can look like a cocktail party that is about to break out into a PTA meeting.)
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 2020, we will see which candidates have spent their funds behind this effort. The Kucinich voters in my caucus joined the voters at other tables, their “second choice” tables. Will supporters of Senator Amy Klobuchar (currently running in fourth or fifth in the polls) find a similar situation on Monday night? Word is that Sen. Klobuchar has an organization in place in Iowa tonight.
(Twice that political season, once at a coffee shop and once on line at an airport newsstand, I waited behind Dennis Kucinich himself as he dithered over his coffee selection. No assistants were present to handle his menial tasks for him, and he handled them as if he was someone else’s incompetant assistant. Ah well, the Fox News personality’s heart is in the right place, his skull, which is most of what 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 Democratic voters will face Monday: more candidates than delegates to be reported out. At precinct meeting after precinct meeting, a first vote will be tallied and those candidates with the fewest votes face elimination … unless.
Unless. My brain kicked into actiom. 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. If this sounds like fun to you, it is fun.
This year, viability has been given a firm number: 15%. Any candidate under 15% will be eliminated after the first tally and voters must move their support to their second choice. Another difference with this year’s caucus: first preference raw numbers will be reported, not only the end-of-night delegate results. Thus, one of the Democratic candidates tonight might be able to claim a “victory” if their raw numbers were close to 15% but not enough to get delegates.
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 an hour 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. The Gephardt supporters needed to move to their second choices. I did not like this. 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 in Iowa 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 once:
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.
Back to the next day and my caucus. 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/delegate 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 his campaign had started to catch fire, 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, came in third, and his campaign ended soon after. (A month earlier, Gov. Dean would have won in Iowa. The moment in which fatigue towards a candidate hits the voting populace can be palpable, and his moment came before the new year that political season. Polls do not always capture these moments.)
The Edwards campaign workers were outside the caucus room. They retrieved their now-useless signs and pamphlets, learned what I had done and thanked me with a campaign poster signed by the senator. The precinct chose me as our Edwards delegate for the Iowa state convention, but by the time that meeting was held in the summer, my life had changed and I could not attend. My adventures in politics began and ended that one January night.
Scenes like this one will play out across all 99 Iowa counties on tonight, in 1681 meetings.
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