Critics can say that Iowa isn’t representative of America as a whole, and that’s true. Its almost 95 percent white, largely rural, and doesn’t even have a pro-sports team. People say there’s too much money flowing through the Iowa caucuses, and that’s probably true, too. Candidates spent millions of dollars over the past few months, trying to sway the opinions of a few hundred thousand voters. No matter what the critics say, however, on Thursday night in the cafeteria of the Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa, grassroots democracy was hard at work.
The Republican caucus was nearby, but I attended the Democratic side. The evening began when the chair, a man with a long pony tail, mustache, and a t-shirt reading “God Bless Union People, America Needs Us” (seen right), called the meeting to order. “We have some rules for the media,” he said, and the caucus goers responded with thundering applause.
There were 372 people gathered with me in the cafeteria to make their voices heard. There were another dozen or so media correspondents who came out to cover the affair. The “Meat and potatoes” of the evening, the chair said, began when everyone physically separated themselves into camps representing the candidate of their choice. Each candidate needed 15 percent of the group, or 56 people in the Merrill Middle School cafeteria, to remain “viable.”
Here were the initial results:
Senator Barack Obama : 155
Senator Hillary Clinton : 77
Senator John Edwards : 67
Governor Bill Richardson : 47
Senator Joe Biden : 34
Kucinich, Dodd, and Gravel: 0
Due to a mathematical error, few noticed that the crowd had grown by eight votes.
After the initial counting, the real politicking began. Speeches were made by representatives, extolling the merits of each candidate. Men and women stood on chairs, read letters from candidates, and pumped their fists in excitement. The Obama speech was delivered by a fiery black woman who said that America didn’t need any more “Clintons, or Bushes.” Unfortunately for her, the attack on the Clinton camp was met by a volley of boos.
Once the speeches ended, the Obama, Edwards, and Clinton caucusers went to work on the Richardson and Biden camps. The crowd had 20 minutes to realign, and if any candidate couldn’t get the minimum 56 votes, the caucusers would be asked to join another candidate.
The harsh words by the Obama representative hurt her cause, as many Iowans detest negative campaigning. One Biden supporter said, “I liked Obama until about five minutes ago,” when the campaign went negative.
My uncle, with whom I went to the caucus, was the first Biden supporter to switch over to the Edwards camp. He had planned to switch from the start, if Biden couldn’t garner the needed votes, and a pretty, young blond girl enticed him to change.
The Bill Richardson camp eventually gained viability, and probably legitimately. The group had at least 55 of the 56 people needed, when the representative pointed over his shoulder and asked, “we’ve got one over there?” He then threw up his hands, and declared that they had succeeded. You can watch the video on YouTube at the bottom of the post, or by clicking here.
When the Biden camp realized their efforts were ill-fated, the campaign representatives unveiled specific instructions on where to send their constituents. The campaign didn’t want anyone going to the Richardson camp, for fear that he would steal some of the Biden's media coverage. Deals were made between representatives, sending constituents to different camps in exchange for other promises. Eventually, one of the leading voices in the Biden camp said, “Alright, so how many of you are ready to hold your nose and go over to Hillary?”
In the end, when time was called, the final tally was this:
Senator Barack Obama: 156
Senator Hillary Clinton: 89
Senator John Edwards:73
Governor Bill Richardson: 56
Biden, Kucinich, Dodd, and Gravel: 0
There were 2 votes too many. The chair realized it was incorrect, but no one really cared.
Nationally, the outcomes were fairly similar:
Senator Barack Obama : 37.58%
Senator John Edwards : 29.75%
Senator Hillary Clinton : 29.47%
Governor Bill Richardson : 2.11%
Senator Joe Biden : 0.93%
The processes wasn’t perfect: There were voting irregularities, backdoor dealings, and irrational people. When the national voting ended, and it came time to elect local delegates, most of the room quickly cleared out. The people of Iowa, though, know and feel passionate about their presidential candidates. They should. They've spent the past few months bombarded with campaign literature and ads. And as David Yepsen, the political correspondent at the Des Moines Register told me this afternoon: The race for the next president of the United States “has gotta start somewhere.” Tonight, it started in Iowa.
For all the posts from the Iowa Caucuses, read the Utne Politics blog