Life in the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucus was still regular life. It was just life with wall-to-wall political ads on television, online, and even in the Yahtzee-knockoff app on my phone (where Tom Steyer had blanket coverage in hopes of winning the dice game demographic). We also received enough junk mail to wallpaper a room as well as regular visits from campaign volunteers, so we weren’t lonely. This all seemed like overkill to me, but I knew there were plenty of people who didn’t pay much attention to the campaigns until the eve of the Caucus, and there were no small number of undecideds, particularly with a field this large. It made sense for campaigns to come on strong in the end.
However, because life was still regular life, the night of the Caucus was a busy one for us. I was cooking dinner while Devin was having her piano lesson and Ian was taking a shower after track practice. Julie had to leave early because she was volunteering to help the Warren campaign at the Caucus site, so she was eating in the kitchen and we discovered that one of the cats had thrown up on the stairs while Nic had just gotten back into town for the Caucus and wanted to go early with Julie. So, yeah, a lot was happening.
But eventually, I was ready to go with Devin by my side. We bundled up and headed outside. As we headed out onto the street, I realized that my neighbors’ garbage cans were lining the street, and I would have to remember to put mine out as well. Devin noted that the route we were taking to the Caucus was the same that she had walked for the first six years of her life as a student, since our Caucus site was, in fact, her old elementary school. It was a place we knew well, having had at least one child in it for 15 years straight.
When we arrived, we could already see that parking was tight, and I was glad we had walked. At the school, there was as much happening in the lobby as on a student-teacher conference night. We got in the line heading toward the gymnasium, which was for our precinct. A parallel line headed for the cafeteria. I recognized the person behind us in the queue. Like a character from an early chapter of a novel who returns for the climax, it the owner of the local bar where I had earlier gone to see Montana Governor Steve Bullock. I found out that he was still undecided. I noted that he was running out of time to make up his mind. He agreed, but we realized he was also in the wrong line, so he left for the cafeteria.
Another returning figure from an earlier chapter was the t-shirt I had bought when I saw Colorado Senator Michael Bennett at a Raygun store in Cedar Rapids. I had finally found the perfect event to wear it to, though throughout the night a couple of people told me that another version of the shirt had been released crossing out the names of candidates who had dropped out before the Caucus. It is very difficult to keep on top of fashion trends.
The line moved slowly but steadily until we got inside the gymnasium where I had been dozens and dozens of times for music performances, talent shows, and assemblies. In fact, I immediately noticed that the chairs were set up exactly as if this was to be a 3rd grade chorus concert. We snaked our way toward the check-in tables where we were double-sided given Preference cards, which were designed to make things easier this year. I took mine, but I remained skeptical.
And then we were in, but I knew nothing would be happening for a while. Around the gymnasium, I was surrounded by people from the neighborhood: friends, colleagues, former students and plenty of people I somehow had never seen before in my life even though we all live within walking distance of each other.
I should point out that one of the ways in which caucusing is nothing like voting is that most people were wearing stickers indicating which candidate they supported. I couldn’t help but walk around the room sizing up my neighbor’s decisions— She supports Klobuchar; that makes sense. I can’t believe he’s with Warren; I thought he was a Republican.— I’m sure people thought the same about me.
This is probably the point at which I should spill the beans as to how our family’s support broke down. There were some twists and turns throughout the process. Nic had been an intern for Harris’s campaign before she dropped out. Julie was a strong Booker supporter, and she was sorry to see him leave the race. They both wound up in the Warren camp, as did Devin who had been leaning her way since the very first political event we attended this season. Conversely (ironically?), I had been in the Warren camp for much of the fall and winter, and then, for reasons not even clear to me, I realized I would be supporting Sanders again, as I did during the 2016 Caucus. There was no epiphany moment for me, and Warren remained my number two, but I felt I had made the right decision, even though it meant I had to gaze across the full length of the gymnasium to see the rest of my caucusing family members. We were a house divided.
To capture the effect of my forlorn gaze across the room, I should explain how the gym was set up. While the center of the floor had chairs lined up and facing the stage, along the walls each campaign was given a small piece of real estate next to random gym class equipment that had been pushed up along the wall. Here’s a little tour I put together:
By this point, half an hour after the announced start time, I had run out of things and people to photograph, and I realized that all the many hours I had spent waiting for tardy candidates to show up for their events was merely training for this moment. I was in Caucus-shape. When everyone finally was checked in, the doors were closed and the Caucus was ready to begin, as the temporary chair called the event to order. He immediately and without opposition was elected permanent chair because, really, who else would want such a lousy gig for the night? Rules were announced, a letter from the state party was read and a call went out for representatives of each campaign to give a short speech on behalf of candidates. Though I suspected this was more a measure of organization than viability, six campaigns were represented: Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren and Yang. I was grateful that the speeches were sincere and short.
I thought we were ready to caucus, but no. Now, they had to count how many people were in the room. Why wasn’t this done earlier, say, when people were checking in? Good question. I had estimated there were around 400 people in the room, though I’m not good at judging crowds. After longer than one would think was necessary, we were told that there were 361, which meant that the magic number for viability was 55.
Wait, what, you ask? What does that mean? Ah, now we get into the weeds. To get delegates in this year’s Iowa Caucus, a campaign had to have the support of at least 15% (55 people) of the total number in the room (361). Through some formula that doesn’t fully make sense, we were assigned 15 delegates to the state convention at the start of the night, and we weren’t going home until they were all assigned. If a campaign fell short of 55, it would be considered non-viable, and that candidate’s supporters would have the option of supporting another candidate during a process called realignment. Simple, see? Just stay with me. It will become more clear as we go along.
Once the magic number was announced, the dance began. Attendees were told to take their Preference cards and go to the section of the gym assigned to their chosen candidate. We stood up out of our chairs and shuffled along the floor, dividing by our allegiances. So, even though we had our Preference cards, we weren’t supposed to fill them out yet (for reasons that will soon become clear). Organizers for each candidate began taking a count. This involved pushing everyone into a corner as close together as possible while someone stood up and tried to count the group. The Bernie supporters were a large enough group that that wasn’t going to work, and we soon had to all raise our hands and each shout out the next number in the sequence when we were pointed at. It felt like the beginning of a gym class, which means that the setting was appropropriate at least.
Looking around the gym, it soon became clear that the viability threshold of 55 was going to be more than could be met by most campaigns, even those with organizers in the room. Only the Sanders and Warren groups, stationed kitty corner across the gym from one another looked easily large enough, and the Biden section seemed surprisingly small. Both Yang and Klobuchar seemed short of the number needed as well. It was hard to tell if a mother with a young child standing in front of the Bennet sign was supporting him or just an adjacent Warren supporter trying to give her kid a little room to roam.
Suddenly, there was drama! The count for Buttigieg came up a handful of people short of viability. But because no one had filled out their Preference cards yet, a quick act of negotiation took place and some Klobuchar supporters agreed to cross over to Buttigieg. A cheer went up to greet the converts. Meanwhile, a woman standing next to me in the Sanders group tried to woo members of the Yang gang, who were positioned next to us in the gym. She first made note of the candidates’ shared support for Medicare For All, and then playfully offered hugs. The Yang organizer scowled at all of this. Even if a candidate was not going to be viable, the initial number of supporters would be recorded, and organizers for three non-viable candidates, Biden, Klobuchar and Yang, were like sheepdogs trying to protect their lambs.
I may not have all the details right in the next part of this because it was pretty confusing. At some point, people were told that now they could fill out the #1 side of their Preference cards. So far, so good. Sanders-supporting parents of young children began asking if they could leave now. Apparently not, because the initial hand count for viability had to match the number of cards. This was almost impossible to ensure, because we’d been in the gym for over an hour by this point and some people clearly began slipping away, or they just got tired of standing at some point and went back to the middle of the gym. At one point, a woman with a bright clean Klobuchar shirt handed me a preference card from a Biden supporter and asked me to walk it over. Why me? Why was the card not handed in earlier? I don’t know. Still wearing my Bernie sticker, I walked the card over, doing my part for party unity.
Eventually, the cards got turned in for the official count, and I finally saw the logic of the Preference cards. In the past, even after the first alignment count, people could flip candidates. Now, if your candidate was viable, your written down first preference was official and could not be changed. It also meant that if you were paying for a babysitter and your candidate was viable, you could go home. Plenty of people did as we all milled around waiting for the count. People broke out of their preference groups and began chatting again. I found myself standing with a Political Science professor as we teamed up to try and explain the impending realignment process to a journalist from the Netherlands. We did what we could. Meanwhile, people were getting texts from their friends in the adjacent precinct a room away in the cafeteria. They’d already finished up for the night and awarded their delegates (Sanders 5, Warren 4, Buttigieg 3, Klobuchar 3). It felt like we were in the class that got into trouble and had to stay after school.
Finally, the official first round count was announced. This was the initial tally of supporters (we weren’t even close to assigning delegates yet) from our precinct:
Only three candidates had reached the viability threshold (Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg), which meant that they would be the only candidates getting delegates from our precinct tonight. But, that didn’t mean we were done. It just meant it was time for realignment, and the fun was just starting.
For the next 15 minutes, supporters of non-viable candidates could choose to support someone else. Meanwhile, other people began putting away chairs as if the 3rd grade chorus concert was over. As organizers zipped around the gym, I heard a rumor that now-released Biden, Yang and Klobuchar supporters were going to try to join forces and create an Uncommitted group that could be viable, and, if it worked, that they apparently would arm wrestle over who got which delegates later. This was a terrible idea but not an impossible one. If you added up all the round one supporters of those candidates, that came to 69, which would have been enough to reach viability. However, these weren’t sports teams with uniforms and managers. They were caucus goers that would have to be persuaded rather than ordered.
Nevertheless, the Uncommitted group made a run at it, while a chant of “make your vote count!” went up to discourage them. In the end, only about 25 people initially joined this action, and when it became clear that it wasn’t going to fly, people began drifting away. My sense was that the Yang and Klobuchar supporters realigned elsewhere, while the Biden supporters were going to take their ball and go home.
Toward the end of realignment, I went back over to the Sanders section and sat next to a friend who started with Klobuchar, came over to Bernie briefly when Klobuchar didn’t appear viable but stuck with Amy through the first count. Then she joined the Uncommitted group as part of that attempt. When it failed, she came back over to Bernie, but mainly she just wanted to sit down by that point.
Now, people who had realigned themselves were able to sign the #2 side of their Preference card, and they could go home as well. I saw the wisdom of this model, as it locked in support without making people wait around through all the counting. However, it also meant that most people went home without knowing the results. All that remained were the organizers (one of whom I was worried about because she hadn’t eaten dinner and was clearly low blood sugar) and “there until the bitter end” folks like me who were going to stick around for the results.
As the realignment card count took place, the tone of the event changed. The gym had largely emptied out. No one needed to stay with their candidate group any longer. The time for political allegiances has passed. Now we were just shooting the breeze. The reporter from the Netherlands has been told about every Dutch person living in Cedar Falls. We shared stories of caucuses past. We caught up with neighbors and friends. We talked about our childhoods.
Somehow I failed to record the vote tallies from the second round. I guess maybe I was a little low blood sugar as well. But when the numbers were official, the calculator apps came out and people crowded around a table at the front of the stage to work out the delegate counts. There was some confusion as the coordinator said he couldn’t get the app to work on his phone to report the delegates but he had someone from the state party on speakerphone and they were trying to figure things out (clever readers among you will recognize the foreshadowing in that last sentence). There was notable tension in the air as it all came down to how the 15 delegates were to be awarded. Similar math was happening or had already happened in every precinct in the state.
When they had finally figured it out and all the organizers agreed with the chair that the rules were being followed correctly, the final results were announced: Sanders 7, Warren 4, Buttigieg 4. It was a good night for Sanders. He held the precinct he had won in 2016 as well. Biden’s lack of viability was somewhat unexpected. But the real surprise was that after just barely hitting the initial threshold, Buttigieg had tied Warren with four delegates each. Through some combination of realignment from the Biden and Klobuchar camps and rounding up, Buttigieg did better in our precinct than I would have expected.
But don’t leave yet. The organizers went into sheepdog mode and rounded up all the stragglers so that we could officially vote for the delegates and alternates to the county convention where they would vote for delegates to the state convention where they would vote for delegates to the national convention. We cast our lots again, this time with a small group of hand raisers and unanimous votes. By this point, Julie and Devin had already gone home. Nic and I stuck it out, and I got to take a picture of us in the elementary school gym he had run around in as a little kid. But when they announced to the shrivelled crowd that they would now begin accepting resolutions, even we had had it. We bundled back up, walked home, and you’ll be glad to know that I remembered to put the garbage can out.
That’s where things were supposed to end, but as you now know, they didn’t. Problems with the vote reporting app were compounded by the failure of the back-up phone reporting system (a secondary failure which was partially due to pro-Trump internet trolls clogging up the phone lines). We stayed up watching and waiting, but there were no results that night. There were no results the next day. And when there were final results, people still had questions about them.
What does this all mean? Well, the cliche has always been that there were “three tickets out of Iowa,” and it was less about who won then about narrowing the field. But no one dropped out before the New Hampshire primary. Even though the results could be claimed as a victory by Buttigieg (most delegates) and Sanders (most votes), the results seemed unsettled enough that all candidates were able to spin them. The perennial complaints about the Iowa Caucuses gained traction, and as I write it is by no means impossible that this was the last Caucus.
In the aftermath of Caucus Night, “Iowa” became a term of derision in the national media, and terms like “chaotic” “meltdown” and “disaster” were tossed around freely. I found myself wondering if that was what it was like to be a Floridian during the “hanging chad” and “butterfly ballot” controversies of the 2000 Presidential election. As I followed my Iowan friends on social media, I noticed that we all got our hackles up a bit. It’s hard to find anyone here who doesn’t think the caucus process is kind of weird, and in this blog I’ve noted some inherent problems in the system. However, lost in all the hubbub is the fact that a couple of the changes in the system—the Preference cards, and locking in first round support for viable candidates—were big improvements and ensured that there was a reliable record of the vote in a way that didn’t exist before. Sure, the caucus system is screwy, but it makes way more sense than the Electoral College.
But all that will likely be lost in the shuffle about the malfunctioning app, and it remains to be seen if that app will be the straw that breaks the Caucus’s back. As I write, there is good reason to wonder if this will, in fact, be the Last Caucus in Iowa. If so, I’m glad I had a chance to participate and have this unique experience. As quirky as it was, I took it seriously, as did many of my friends and neighbors. Of course, that’s not to say a different state, a state with a more diverse population, couldn’t do the same. Iowa Caucus, glad to have known you. If you come back, I’ll be there to greet you.
But let me end by addressing you, my ideal reader who has read to the end of this long blog post. I want to let you know that it doesn’t end here. I will be developing this blog into a book to be published in the summer of 2020 by Ice Cube Press. I’ve got a lot more to say, and hopefully by the time the book comes out, we will know who won the nomination. Thanks to all of you who have followed me this far. Contact me if you’d like to find out more as the book nears publication.