Pundit hands have been wringing over the question of whether an expected surge in first-time Iowa Caucus participants would be offset by the much-earlier-than-normal timing: January 3, just after the holidays and long before college students returned from winter break. Barack Obama had made a point of reaching out to students, asking them to come back early to caucus, and the call came the day before: my son and three of his pals from Chicago, now all freshmen at the University of Iowa, wanted to go, and could I rent a car and drive?
The road from Chicago to Iowa City is not without its political landmarks, most notably the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum in West Branch, Iowa, and Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon, Illinois. Dixon also boasts a Culver’s ButterBurger outpost, making it a natural pit stop for four students and their driver on a road trip. The Reagan house is closed for the season, but a road-trip photo op like this can’t be missed. The boys line up out front, when a wiry fortysomething, sporting a single earring and a day or two’s holiday from shaving, ambles by and quips, “He’s not home.” I apologize on behalf of tourists everywhere for the monotony of our undertaking, and he accepts this as an invitation to converse. “The sad thing is, his [Reagan’s] beloved high-school principal put him through college and there’s not a damn thing in this town named after her.” Encouraged by our continued presence, our erstwhile tour guide—who, it turns out, is just staying with someone on the street while visiting—goes on to describe Reagan’s father as a “drunken shoe salesman.” We pile back in the car, telling our new friend that we’re off to Iowa for the Caucus. Out here, I have him figured for a Giuliani guy or maybe a McCain man. His eyes light up and he passionately exclaims, “Barack Oh-baaama!” This would be but our first brush with Obama mania today.
Iowa City precinct 5 is the state’s largest student precinct, occupying the vast ballroom in the Iowa Memorial Union. With the notable exception of Hillary Clinton’s precinct captain, a union employee who rankles the audience with his “unlike most of you I work for a living” comment, virtually every participant is a student, most casting the first vote of their life at ground zero of what threatens to become a bona fide political happening. Students wear Obama T-shirts in place of their favorite bands: “Obama08”; “Fired Up!”; “Barack the Caucus” and so on. The enthusiasm is palpable: your vote, your presence, it matters. At least tonight.
The huge ballroom’s fifty or so chairs, lined up neatly in the center, are filled with students, who also splay on the carpet around the room. The media, rather lightly represented here away from Des Moines’ epicenter, stays in back, while a “rope line” defines the seating area for observers. Along the walls around the room’s perimeter, the candidates have staked out their caucusers’ gathering spots.
Hillary Clinton’s volunteers had arrived first and grabbed a prominent spot in the corner. All the way across the room, in the other corners, stand the John Edwards and Barack Obama spots, with a comparatively lonely looking Bill Richardson outpost between them. Next to Clinton, Christopher Dodd on one side and Joe Biden on the other. Clinton has the only prominent third-party endorsement on display, with “AFSCME for Hillary” signs in her corner.
The Caucus was scheduled to begin at 6:30pm but at 7pm it’s still getting organized. The room buzzes; “caucus” is used repeatedly as a verb, as in: “Are you caucusin’? I’m caucusin’.”
Among the observers: another dad driver from Chicago, a young coed from the University of Wisconsin who’s accompanying her boyfriend and other friends who attend the University of Iowa, an Iowa student from Malaysia who can’t vote but wants to see the process, an older PhD student from Iowa who’s photographing the proceedings for friends in Egypt (“this is full-contact democracy,” she says) and a campaign volunteer for Obama who’s texting details repeatedly. He’s a student at Penn, and drove in from Maryland on his break to work for Obama for a week and a half; his friend, the other end of his text, is doing the same at another precinct gathering upstairs.
Soon, Atul Nakhasi, president of the University of Iowa Democrats and described by the Wall Street Journal as “Iowa’s campus kingmaker” enters the room, announces that “the door is closed” and directs observers and the media to their stations outside of the fray. Anticipation builds until he announces, “just a few minutes till we get organized.” He then proceeds to hang up posters, including “Caucus Mathematics” and “Blue on White: Caucus Night Agenda.” A survey is passed out, hoping to recruit candidates for the Democratic Party.
Nakhasi reads that letters from some of the candidates have been placed on the table if anyone wants to read them. No one will. Contribution envelopes are passed around for both the state and county party. Both move quickly through the student crowd, though Nakhasi panics and holds up the proceedings when one is not returned. You can almost see the “oh, the scandal” running though his head. (It’s eventually found.)
Nakhasi is charmingly bumbling his way through the proceedings, but his lack of experience and confidence is offset by student voters’ equivalent inexperience: no one seems to mind how slow things seem to be moving along. Finally, he announces, “at this time we are going to determine viability” and a sort of roll call is fashioned to count the voters—133, er no, 134, Nakhasi forgot to count himself—means that twenty-one votes will be required for a candidate to be considered viable and be awarded one of the precinct’s six delegates.
First, the precinct captains for each candidate are called forward to speak for one minute on behalf of their candidates. “Barack Obama gives me hope,” his campaign leader enthuses and she fills up her minute, concluding, “And I hope everyone ate our pizza. We had volunteers get our food, not paid for by the campaign.” Edwards’ speaker equals her enthusiasm if not her limited eloquence: after describing his candidate’s “backbone to immediately take 40-50,000 troops out of Iraq,” he soon falters when discussing healthcare, “Whatever, I’m not a speaker.” Soon, he’s taking lines from a fellow student crouched in front of him. An AFSCME worker represents Clinton, describing himself as the representative of the campus workers. It doesn’t go over well, boding ominously for the candidate he’s supporting. (The perfunctory professional passionless support for Clinton’s campaign, waxed on ad nauseam by the national media, is visibly apparent tonight. It feels like she didn’t have student support, so had to bring in ringers. Biden’s guy says, “I know some of you might be ‘Joe Who?’” before going on to describe the Senator’s considerable experience. Meanwhile, someone steps up for Richardson: “I didn’t come here to speak but did come here to caucus and someone needs to speak for him.”
Soon an energetic young woman, sporting buttons for Edwards, speaks on behalf of Dodd, even though she’s working for his rival, “out of respect for a terrific man and a terrific candidate.” Jimmy Stewart, I’m choking up. Is this America?
At last, the precinct captains are directed to their stations and the caucusers are told to line up by their candidates. The moment has arrived and it’s over in a flash as a virtual mob rushes to Obama’s corner: it’s not even close. Edwards is a distant second with a quarter of Obama’s votes, Clinton even farther back with only two votes more than Biden. She won’t even be “viable” here, meaning all the delegates will go to Obama and Edwards.
But first, everyone gets another chance. One more round of one-minute speeches. Edwards’ representative, a different student, emphasizes his “electability” and that he’s a “very passionate speaker”; Obama’s rep: “This is amazing, I want to cry. Look at his signs. His name is small, the word “hope” is big. His campaign is about hope.” But the highlight of this round is a new speaker: a laconic student with a David Spade delivery who steps out for Kucinich: “Ummm, my name’s Dave and I’m for Dennis Kucinich. Did any of you ever read his Web site? Did you? It’s pretty fucking easy.”
For a half hour, volunteers scramble, some arguing with Nakhasi about procedure, some wrangling the votes of the “non-viable” candidates. At end of a half hour, only viable candidates will be supported, others need to join up or go home. Obama’s mass has simply sat down in place—they’re not going anywhere. Just before the end, a few TV cameras start rolling and Obama’s supporters are led in the cheer: “Fire it up/Ready to go” and then form a huge circle. The PhD student observer says, “I feel a Kennedy moment.” (Brian Hieggelke)
Final tally: Four delegates Obama, Two Edwards.