hadn’t even planned to attend my caucus here in Iowa this year. But when a sudden change in my travel schedule put me at home Monday night it seemed like a good way to spend the evening. Driving to a local elementary school I was stuck in a stream of cars coming out of my neighborhood, all heading to the same place. (No, we don’t all live on farms contrary to what CNN might have you believe.)
There’s a lot about the Iowa caucuses that doesn’t quite match up with what you see on television. While a lot of people attended, more chose to stay home. For those who went, reasons range from dyed-in-the-wool activists who support a particular candidate to people who think it might be fun to bump into their neighbors on a mid-winter night because they haven’t seen them outside since Thanksgiving.
Each party has its own caucus location in the precinct. Blue with blue, red with red. Even among Iowans there is confusion about what’s going on. You mean we have to elect a delegate to the county convention? Who is willing to do that? You can propose a platform plank? Sorry, I didn’t think to bring one. A chairman is elected, and he drones from a prepared script. There is some effort to follow Robert’s Rules. One woman leaned over to me and said, “I went in 2008 but it didn’t take this long.” A few unfortunate children, dragged along by their parents, toss a sibling’s hat around. Coats become hot inside. Our caucus sends a young woman covered in campaign buttons and tattoos to the county convention because she wanted to go. We cheered because it wasn’t us. She had registered to vote 15 minutes earlier.
Then it comes time to form “preference groups.” This is no secret ballot. Candidate X people, stand over by the lunch tables. If you support Y, go to the other end of the room. There is some curiosity about who stands where. Who knew that the gruff old guy a couple of blocks over was a closet fan of Bernie Sanders? “Oh look at that,” a woman standing by me said. “That group brought cookies to try to get people to join them. I should have thought of that.” Our group stared at them longingly.
Have you ever tried to accurately count 198 people who are milling around in a room? Good luck. It took our caucus three tries to get the numbers to come out right. Several people had various ideas on how to make the count involving arm-raising, pieces of paper and groups of ten. “Bob! Stop standing over here and get back in your group or we’ll be here all night,” said a frustrated spouse. When the totals were finally announced, the winners cheered. Now can we please go home?
If there is any political arm-twisting done it is so low-key that you might miss it entirely. A woman told her friend that a neighbor asked this week if the contest came down to Trump versus Sanders, who she would vote for. “I just stared at her,” she said. “Is she nuts?”
Iowans understand that their first pass on candidates isn’t perfect. It’s not some kind of divine soothsaying, which makes the glitzy graphics and hours of punditry and polling on television sort of laughable. Some people attended a caucus out of civic duty. Some wanted to send a message that they didn’t like a certain candidate. Others wanted to see what all the fuss was about and why candidates would spend millions of dollars to get them there.
This morning the network crews are packing up. That sound you heard was the high-priced talent (and the candidates) taking off for New York, Washington and New Hampshire before a blizzard hit this morning. For Iowans, it is safe once again to watch television because all the nasty political ads are gone. Car dealers and convenience store pizza is back on the air. And for Iowans, that seems normal. When it comes to politics, don’t think about it so hard and try to see something that isn’t there.
Now it’s up to the rest of you to sort it out.