Iowa Caucuses: A Personal Tale

IA Caucus 2016We all talk about the caucuses – who will attend, which party the caucus-goers will choose, who will win what percentage of the vote. But you don’t often hear about what it’s really like to attend one.

I attended a caucus in Iowa in the 1980’s. Being from New York and having worked campaigns, petition drives, and for the party, I had this arrogant view that the caucuses would be “quaint”. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Pre-caucus thought: gentle people having somewhat informed conversations over tea and cookies.

Reality: these people are serious, informed, and support their candidates with a passion it’s hard to find elsewhere.

As someone relatively new to Iowa who hadn’t done any political work in that state, I wasn’t informed about the caucus. It took a number of phone calls to find out where, and at what time, the caucus would be held. This is very different now in the age of 24/7 media and the internet, but the point is that 30 years ago, caucuses were for those political types “in the know.”

When we all arrived at the church basement, there were rows of metal folding chairs and we were told to take a seat and wait for instructions. It took about 15 minutes for the leader to explain the system and answer all the questions. Around the room were signs representing the different candidates. We were to take our chairs to our first choice candidate and sit while a count was taken. If no one candidate took a number of votes about a certain threshold, there would be action and another count. First, within our candidate’s group, we discussed the level of enthusiasm for our candidate, and who would stay and who would venture out. Then, one person from each group went to each of the other groups and tried to convince people to move to another candidate. This went on several rounds. When a candidate would fall below a certain number, those people would have to move. Otherwise, the talking and convincing continued until the group came up with the final decision.

After the caucus, there were countywide caucuses and finally the state convention. The people originally chosen at the precinct level to represent a certain candidate vied for position at the latter meetings and eventually the final group of convention delegates would be chosen.

This is how it works on the Democratic side — it’s a little different on the Republican side.  They walk in, vote privately, someone adds the votes, and then lie about it.    decide what’s best for the party. Oh just ask Rick Santorum what happened to him in 2012.

This Democratic-side process is good in the sense that the people who attend really know what is going on, are well-informed and dedicated. It’s bad because first, it’s really cold. And no one wants to go out if it’s really cold, especially if it’s icy. Then, it takes hours. If you leave partway in, your voice and your vote is lost. Also, this is 2016 and something is going to be new at the caucuses: cell phones. It’s not just the pictures people will take, but the Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Peaches communication BETWEEN caucuses. Friends who live in different precincts….could hoard mentality change the outcome? Remember, there are 1,681 precincts.

And anything could happen. Tomorrow: predictions for Iowa and what that might mean for New Hampshire.

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2 thoughts on “Iowa Caucuses: A Personal Tale

  1. tmess2

    I remember back in 1992 when Missouri was still a caucus state and we were early enough to matter. The sorting out (and there is no other way to describe it) of which caucuses will be viable and the final splits between the viable candidates was, to say the least, a convoluted back and forth process. Depending upon how close the candidates were to being viable, the effort to persuade the attendees to change their preference (to give a not-quite viable candidate enough votes to get delegates or to get the supporters of that candidate to give up and move on before they could get those extra votes) was interesting to say the least.

    If the Democrats had five or six candidates running, I could easily see smart phones being used to make deals across precincts (e.g., in 2024 Castro supporters agreeing to help Cuomo get to 15% in some precincts in exchange for Cuomo supporters doing the same for Castro). Not sure it will be as significant this time.

    On the Republican side, with the votes actually counting this time (as opposed to their non-binding nature in 2012), you have to wonder if the results will get even closer scrutiny this time.

  2. DocJess Post author

    I found the back and forth interesting, too. A childhood friend of mine lives in Texas and she said that going to the Texas two-step caucus really makes her feel part of the process. Personally, I like primaries better because it is easier for more people to partake. (And yeah, I want those primaries and election day to be as inclusive as possible!!!)

    The Iowa GOP? I think they’re as divided as the rest of the GOP so they may actually be watching each other closely as they count. No honour amoung thieves.

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