I’ll acknowledge at the outset: I know, understand, and accept all of the criticisms of the Iowa caucus.
But I still have a romantic fascination with this singular demonstration of grassroots participation in the electoral process. It seems to me the closest we get to ancient Athens, where the polis, or people, practiced unfettered democracy.
And the fact that Iowans take their role so seriously inspires me, as so many Americans either fail to vote or cast their ballots with indifference or cynicism—even spite. (“If my guy isn’t the nominee, I don’t care what happens; I’ll just vote for some third party candidate who can’t win but can sure gum up the works.”)
Spite—as in voting for Jill Stein in 2016—helped deliver Donald Trump to the White House. I fervently hope those inclined can forgo that negativity this year. (There will be a Republican caucus in Iowa, but the results are preordained.)
Iowans listen, read, think, examine, and weigh carefully before making their decision. Their experiences have made them unlike any other Americans.
One reporter said nowhere else can you go up to an ordinary citizen on the street, ask her a political question, and be told: “Well, speaking off the record…”
Polling in Iowa is all over the place because many Iowans still haven’t made up their minds.
They’re not being wishy-washy; they’re demonstrating their understanding of how high the stakes are in this election and how important the Iowa caucus winners may be in the 2020 election results. (I’ll explain that plural “winners” shortly.)
Because opposition to Iowa’s position as first on the calendar has been growing over the years, there may not be too many more election cycles in which the state plays such a pivotal role.
So I decided to interview (via email) two highly intelligent, involved Democratic caucus attendees.
I had the good fortune of meeting one of them, R., years ago, through my daughter’s excellent choice of a marriage partner—R. is his mother. R. was gracious enough to enlist her friend, J.
Both women were so efficient in responding to my questions that I’ve been able to write this post earlier than intended.
FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND
How did a small rural state achieve such prominence? Although Iowa had always had caucuses (except for one primary), they were held mid-season and controlled by the state party leaders, attracting little attention.
Significant changes began following the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which was marked by fighting about the Vietnam War both inside and outside the Convention hall.
Furious delegates and others throughout the country demanded that the party adopt national reforms so that voters, rather than party leaders, determined the winning candidate.
By 1972, Iowa had reforms in place: “Winner-take-all” had been changed to proportional representation. As an Iowa PBS program noted:
“That may have been more fair. Equally important, it gave the press the kind of numbers it needs to call a horse race.”
The new process took time, as the results were transferred from precinct to county to congressional district to state. That meant moving the caucuses further and further back—first to March, then to February. Chris Larsen, then party chairman, observed:
“We knew that we were going to be first or one of the first after we thought about it. As I always say, we had a slow mimeograph machine, but we weren’t stupid. We thought [being early in the process] was all right, but when…the national press showed up, we were totally amazed.”
Gary Hart, who managed George McGovern’s Presidential campaign, observed recently that caucuses reward little-known candidates at the grassroots, while primaries reward those who are well known.
Caucuses also give “real people a chance to get close up and personal.” (Hart was interviewed in the five-part Pod Save America podcast on the Iowa caucuses.)
In 1976, someone pointed out, the result was that “Jimmy Who?” became President Jimmy Carter.
New Rules With Uncertain Implications
This year, new rules will make it possible for multiple candidates to “win,” according to the Des Moines Register. Previously, Iowa never released its total popular support numbers.
But in 2016, the close vote between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders led to demands for greater transparency.
The new methodology is complicated and confusing. If you want a preview about how and why several candidates may claim victory by emphasizing how well they did according to one or more of the three different metrics that will be reported, I recommend this article.
Adding to the confusion, there will now be 99 satellite caucuses held throughout the world, thereby complicating the vote tally.
The process had once been referred to as “like trying to plan a wedding reception at 86 locations.” It’s more like 1,678 locations; that’s how many precincts there are.
So the momentum, press coverage, and dollars that normally flow to the winner are going to be part of a considerably more complex picture in 2020.
THE LONG-TIME CAUCUS PARTICIPANTS SHARE THEIR VIEWS
This is a condensed, lightly edited version of my exchanges with R. and J., covering what I felt were the most important points. Both women have been caucusing since 2008.
What is your primary motivation? Is this year any different?
R.: A sense of responsibility to engage in the political process. With all the attention focused on the first-in-the-nation caucuses, it would feel unpatriotic not to take advantage of the opportunity to have an impact.
There is a sense that this is a particularly critical year to caucus and to choose a nominee that can defeat Trump.
J.: I feel that as an Iowan, it’s my responsibility to attend the caucus–it’s a part of the democratic process, it matters, and we make history.
This year I am motivated by finding the right candidate who can beat Trump–we must get him out of the White House before he causes even more damage.
Is it fun? Exciting? If so, in what way(s)?
R.: It can be fun, especially after the first vote when people from various camps are trying to woo people from the camps of the unviable candidates (those that didn’t get 15% of the total number in attendance).
Also, it can sometimes be long and boring as well as pretty chaotic. You are usually packed in a school gym with a lot of people milling around not quite knowing what to do.
There are multiple votes to make sure of an accurate count. You can be there for hours.
J.: It is fun! I see many of my friends and neighbors, and although we may be supporting different candidates, there is good discussion of why we support our candidate.
And in the end, we are all looking for the Democrat who can win.
How many candidates have you met one-on-one? Under what circumstances?
R.: I can’t say that I have met any of them one-on-one. I think that happens more in smaller communities. I have seen Klobuchar, Warren, and Buttigieg at rallies here…
I could have stayed around last week when Warren was doing her “selfies” but the line was so long and I had already been standing two and a half hours.
The rallies can be exhausting. It makes you wonder how the candidates do it.
J.: I have never met a candidate one-on-one.
How do you respond to those who say it isn’t fair for a small state like Iowa to have so much political clout?
R.: They are right. I think the process would be better if the order in which the states caucus/vote were rotated among the states. Just because it has been this way for 50 years doesn’t mean it always has to be this way.
There needs to be discussion of a better way to start the candidate selection process. The tradition of Iowa going first evolved accidentally, and I don’t see that there is any good rationale for it.
J.: I’ve been doing some reading about the Iowa caucus and its place as first. I’m inclined to agree that it might be time to change things.
Do you think the up-close, retail nature of Iowa’s caucuses contributes something that would be missing if you switched to a traditional primary?
R.: Seeing the candidates up close and personal is definitely an advantage. You can gauge their level of enthusiasm as well as have the opportunity to ask them questions.
Somehow seeing them in person gives you a connection you don’t get watching them on a debate stage.
Certainly, we Iowans would miss our opportunity to get a close-up look at the candidates. But we would then be in the same situation as most of the rest of the nation!
The undue influence of the Iowa caucuses frankly makes me uncomfortable. A primary would be a fairer and more straightforward process.
J.: I think I get the chance to see many candidates in person because they understand the importance of the Iowa caucus and spend a lot of time in Iowa.
It’s always good to see them in person–they can’t edit their remarks or photo shop their looks.
So many Iowans are still undecided, and they come to the caucus partly to get help making up their minds! The conversations are important, and the caucus is great for that.
Are you concerned about a potential split between the “moderate” and “left” wings of the party—or do you think people will rally around whoever becomes the nominee?
R.: In the end I think most people will rally around whoever is the eventual nominee. Iowa Democrats are as determined to get rid of Trump as the rest of the nation.
I’m not sure about the Independents. Will Independents and moderate Republicans vote for a more “progressive” candidate? I think that is a real concern.
J.: People will rally around the nominee. As I knock on doors and have conversations with people, everyone has said they will support whoever is the nominee, whether it’s who they are supporting now or not.
Do you have any revealing anecdotes/stories about any particular candidate(s)?
R.: No, nothing revealing as I have not met with any of the candidates one-on-one.
I was amazed at how much Elizabeth Warren seemed to relish campaigning when I saw her last weekend. She was so passionate and engaged with what she was saying and looked like she was having great fun.
She was very respectful of the people asking questions, called them by name, and didn’t fudge her answers but got directly to the point.
Amy Klobuchar’s warmth really came through when I saw her in person. She talked a lot about her family and her midwestern roots.
Her emphasis on health care and climate change got big reactions from the crowd.
J.: Just the one [anecdote] that everyone knows, that Elizabeth Warren really will stick around and take a selfie with everyone in line, and she is just so nice and gracious.
To what extent does the President’s handling of the Iranian crisis—and national security issues generally—figure in your thinking re: candidate selection? In your neighbors’ thinking?
R.: The incoherent rationale for the assassination of Suleimani is frightening. It makes it even more evident that we need someone who has some experience at the national level. And someone we can trust to tell the truth and be open and honest with the American people. I’ve ruled out Buttigieg because of his lack of experience even though I find him very bright and like many of his policies.
J.: I want a candidate who will be more level-headed and think about consequences, so I have been following candidates’ responses to the Iranian crisis and what the US is doing in the world. It’s not something I have talked to my neighbors about.
Have you made up your mind whom you’ll vote for? What about most of the people you know?
R.: I plan to caucus for Klobuchar. If she does not get 15% of the vote in my precinct, I don’t know for sure who I will move to.
My heart says Warren but my head says Biden. I hope it doesn’t come to that. I say Biden because I view him as the most electable of the other candidates.
Many of my friends and people I have talked with at candidate events are still mulling over their decision. Everyone agrees it is a talented field and it is difficult to settle on a final choice.
Caucus night could bring some surprises as I don’t think the polls are really telling us everything. Like many people, I have my cell phone set to “do-not-disturb” and never pick up the seven or eight calls from random numbers I get every day. I am in no one’s poll!
People are so undecided I think some of them will pick a candidate that night after listening to pitches from their friends and neighbors.
I was encouraged that one of my book club friends, who I had assumed would caucus for Warren, says she will go with Klobuchar.
Two of [my husband’s] golfing buddies from Iowa City also said they plan to caucus for Klobuchar. A small sampling but encouraging!
J.: Yes, I’ll be caucusing for Elizabeth Warren. Many people that I know are still undecided, but I do have some friends who are solidly for Pete, and a few who are liking Amy.
How would you, personally, sum up the pros and cons of the Iowa caucus?
We in Iowa love getting up close and personal with the candidates, so it is good for us!
It probably helps the candidates hone their message and become better on the stump, so that is an advantage for them.
As has been discussed everywhere, Iowa is a small, predominantly white state that is not representative of the nation as a whole.
The candidates spend a ton of money here. Could that be put to better use elsewhere?
The caucuses are chaotic. They are led by local volunteers who may or may not know what they are doing.
It is difficult to get that final count correct, especially with a large crowd, and I think the numbers this year will be huge. A primary would be more straightforward and democratic.
As first in the nation, it can be sort of a measure of what people are thinking and feeling. It’s an interesting process, and there’s no anonymous vote–your neighbors know where you stand.
Iowa is such a white state; that lack of diversity is not representative of the US.
Like both my interviewees, I think the end of the Iowa caucuses’ outsized role in our election cycle is appropriate and inevitable.
But I wish there were some way that our political process could capture the grass roots enthusiasm and up-close-and-personal nature of the caucuses—allowing voters to see the candidates when, as J. said, “they can’t edit their remarks or photoshop their looks.”
More frequent, widely televised town meetings throughout the country may help. Does anyone have any other ideas? Uses of technology?
How about if we request that every Iowa caucus participant serve as a roving ambassador throughout the US—to show us how and why we must carefully focus on our Presidential candidates—no, make that all our candidates—and must take our roles as informed voters very, very seriously?