Iowa is, of course, famous for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, the subject of intense attention on the part of candidates and the media in presidential election years when multiple contenders are vying for a party’s nomination. Last year, when I accepted my current job at Grinnell, I realized I’d be an Iowan for the 2020 caucuses. And more generally, I’d be living in Iowa for the remainder of the presidential race.
Many candidates made campaign stops in Grinnell (and many downtown storefronts were converted to campaign offices), but I didn’t actually see any of them. Either I found out about their visit only when it was already happening (Pete Buttigieg), or I didn’t try to get into their CNN town hall on campus (Joe Biden, Tom Steyer), or I just didn’t try to go (Elizabeth Warren). Bernie Sanders came to our local coffee shop, Saints Rest, with Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal the Saturday before caucus night; I found out a few hours earlier on Facebook and later heard there’d only been room for 60 people inside. I kind of regret not seeing any candidate give their stump speech to an Iowa crowd, but ah, well.
I was looking forward to the caucus because I figured it was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could participate in a political event that the eyes of the nation were glued to! (For the record, I don’t think it makes sense that Iowa plays this outsized role in the presidential nomination process, but that’s another discussion.) At 6:30, I walked the few blocks to my caucus site. Now, it had already crossed my mind that I wasn’t temperamentally suited to caucusing (as opposed to voting in a primary). I don’t really like talking to people I don’t know, especially about my political views. Consider this: I had contemplated going into the caucus uncommitted. When I arrived, a young campaign worker in a Pete t-shirt asked me who I was supporting that night, and I demurred, partly out of that lingering indecision and partly because I was not there to caucus for Pete. He immediately asked me what I was looking for in a candidate, and I started looking for the quickest way out of this interaction. I mean, the whole point of caucusing is to talk to your neighbors about why you’re supporting who, but I am clearly not meant for this type of gathering. But I at least wanted to witness it and be in the same room as people having those conversations. (Also, as far as I could tell, nobody was uncommitted in the first alignment at our caucus, so if I had been, I’m sure I would’ve been swarmed by representatives from every other candidate’s huddle, and that would’ve been an introvert’s nightmare.)
There were quite a few other new faculty in my precinct, most, if not all, of us caucusing for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. It was gratifying that everyone respected one another’s choice. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about one’s vote being public; I mean, now we all know who supports who. I’m a pretty big believer in voter privacy. But respect for political differences is supposed to be a hallmark of the Iowa caucuses, I’m told, and I felt it was observed at my caucus. There were also some new faculty in the observer section; they must not be registered to vote locally. We were not in the same precinct as the college students, and I believe our caucus was smaller than at least a couple of the other Grinnell caucuses. I was definitely reminded I now live in a small town (like most Iowans): one of the check-in volunteers was a former president of the college who attends the same church I do and whose name is on the local public library, and I also saw my landlord. The other day, I stopped by the grocery store, and one of the clerks at my register looked incredibly familiar. I knew I’d seen her somewhere recently, but I couldn’t figure out where, until it hit me: she’d been the precinct captain for our candidate’s group at the caucus.
After the election of the chair and secretary, we all lined up to receive a preference card (and be counted). The chair announced that there were 132 of us caucusing, and so the number of supporters a candidate had to reach in the first alignment to be viable was 20. Looking around the room, only Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg looked to have that much support. Indeed, after the first alignment, they were the only candidates to have passed the threshold (Sanders: 48, Warren: 33, Buttigieg: 25). Next, each precinct captain made a one-minute timed speech in support of their candidate. They spoke for Sanders, Gabbard (literally one guy), Yang, Warren, Klobuchar, Biden, and Buttigieg. Then everyone whose candidate was no longer viable had to find a new group. People in viable groups were not allowed to change allegiances. I thought it looked like most people flocked to Warren.
After the second alignment and a little math, our caucus was ultimately to send to the county party convention 5 delegates for Sanders, 4 for Warren, and 3 for Buttigieg. The chair was pleased to report that exactly 132 preference cards had been collected. Precinct captains recruited actual delegates and alternates, and then after a little business it was over. The whole thing had taken a little over an hour. We new Iowans left the caucus feeling pretty happy about our role in participatory democracy.
Later that night, national news outlets began wringing their hands: where were the results from Iowa? I was puzzled and a bit worried. Our caucus had gone so smoothly, so what was going on? I wasn’t too troubled, though, and I went to bed assuming I’d learn who the winner had been in the morning. Well. We all know how that went. At least the part about there being a winner.
But here’s where it got interesting for me. Despite being an Iowan on paper, I don’t actually think of myself as an Iowan. But I did caucus in Iowa last week, and I do live here. And suddenly it was really weird to me to be seeing all these opinion pieces in The New York Times about Iowa, mostly written, I believe, by columnists who haven’t actually been here, at least not for this caucus season. I had a bit of a What do they know? reaction, which should probably make me think harder when I read those same columnists on other parts of the country they may not have been to (I read The New York Times a lot). The caucuses were being portrayed in the media as a train wreck, with talk of the “debacle” and the “fiasco”; #IowaCaucusDisaster was trending on Twitter when I got up the next morning. And it was just so dissonant with my own caucus experience of orderliness, efficiency, and clear results. I’ve heard other Grinnell folks emphasize that the caucus process itself did work, and a lot of volunteers worked very hard to make sure it did.
My initial take was that the caucuses had gone just fine and it was the reporting that was the problem: an app that crashed and swamped phone lines. (Trying to implement the app without adequate training and testing was clearly a mistake.) But I didn’t think the rest of the country was making this distinction; from the headlines in the papers, they were probably concluding that the whole thing had been a horror show. And I knew from direct experience that this just wasn’t true. Moreover, there was a paper trail, so we’d know the real results in the end. I did think the reporting issues and the fact that there was no winner to report to a nation on tenterhooks was very unfortunate. I think it will undermine people’s trust in our electoral systems and make people more skeptical of and cynical about our democratic processes. And the last thing we need is for people to be discouraged from voting because they don’t think their vote will be counted properly. I was chagrined that the optics were so bad for Iowa when my caucus experience had been entirely positive, and I knew the Democrats’ nomination process was off to a very rocky start.
Later, I read a more worrisome report (yes, in The New York Times) about caucus numbers that didn’t add up or were internally inconsistent. If this report is true, that is bad. (The New York Times has since reported even more.) Caucus officers did have to report more sets of numbers this year, and I can imagine how this might’ve led to confusion. As far as I know, the caucuses are basically run by volunteers, many of whom probably have years of experience and are very competent. I would hope that there’s careful training and built-in safeguards to ensure that caucus results are reported accurately. I hope that the final Iowa results will express what happened on caucus night because with all the other flaws in our electoral system, at the very least we need well-run local elections.