Friday, January 4, 2008

The Iowa Caucus

I’m sitting at a VW dealership this morning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I’m getting the car checked out before we return to Rhode Island, a two day-drive that begins tomorrow morning.

That’s not very interesting, and I know that. But last night sure was.

You see, the Iowa caucuses took place last night, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Not even in Slovakia, where demonstrators pelted the prime minister’s residence with eggs after he unilaterally voided a referendum to join NATO. Not even the protests that accompanied the abduction of the Slovak president’s son (He was stuffed into a car allegedly by goons affiliated with the prime minister, forced to down a fifth of vodka and was found days later in Austria. I’m not kidding.)

I don’t want to get weepy-eyed or go 2000 Bush-Gore on you, but this story is how about one vote did count.

Being from Rhode Island and generally law-abiding citizens, my wife, Michelle, and I couldn’t vote. So, we joined a couple of friends who were voting in the Democratic caucus. They live in Bertram, a tiny settlement outside Cedar Rapids. It’s a hilly, woody area, with no stoplight and no stores. The downtown, if you can call it that, consists of one church and two white clapboard buildings – one is the old city hall, called Township Hall, and the other is the new city hall.

Michelle’s friend, Laura, gave us directions. “You get into town and there’s a stop sign. The railroad tracks are in front of you. Don’t cross the railroad tracks. Follow the street and it takes a turn, but don’t cross the tracks. It turns again, and you’ll see a playground on the right. Yeah, and don’t cross the railroad tracks. There’s another stop sign, and, uh, I think you go straight. Keep the railroad tracks on your right. Don’t cross them. You’ll take a left and we’re up the hill on the right.”

She paused. “Did I tell you not to cross the railroad tracks?”

We arrived about 6:30, a half-hour before the caucus was to begin. Already, a line had formed outside the door. I peered inside, and the place was jammed. The mood was festive. All you needed were some balloons, horns and booze, and it could have been a New Year’s Eve party.

“Wow! Way to go Iowa!” a woman yelled as she stuck her neck out the door and scanned us shivering in line.

Laura and her husband, Dave, were waiting to enter. Their son, Davey, was with them. Davey is a very involved 9-year-old. For weeks, he liked Chris Dodd, mostly because he had gotten his picture with him. But his allegiance now wavered between Joe Biden, who had posed for a picture with Davey the other day, and John Edwards, whom he had seen recently – alas, with no picture. None of this would matter except that Davey’s father was following his son’s orders – and it could all boil down to who had the best photo.

We inched closer to the entrance. An Obama supporter turned to Dave and said, “Guess you guys will get pretty neighborly tonight.”

“Yeah,” Dave said, “maybe a bit too neighborly.”

Township Hall is a one-room affair with cream-colored walls and a hardwood floor. The only decorations were 8” X 11” pieces of paper taped to the walls with the candidates’ names printed in black. It’s very crowded and stuffy inside.

Michelle and I waded through the crowd to the observer area, a raised platform that looks like a long coat rack that’s been turned on its side. From this corner of the room, we have a great view of the scene unfolding before us. The Obama supporters are massed in a corner near the entrance. Edward’s supporters clog another corner, blocking any possible access to a hall leading to the restrooms. Clinton’s supporters are mostly in the kitchen, but they spill out in the main room, overwhelming the space reserved for Biden and Dodd. Richardson’s group is wedged between the observer platform and registration for new voters, which is doing great business this evening. It’s a madhouse, and if there were fewer white-haired folks, you’d think you were in the midst of a mosh pit at a rock concert.

There’s one exit, so far as I can see. My wife leans over to me. “The Rhode Island fire marshal would be shitting bricks,” she says.

The precinct leader yells to get our attention. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

It feels strange to recite the Pledge. I’m pretty sure I haven’t said the words “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all,” since grade school. Yet as we ramble along, speaking in a clear, unified voice, I feel a surge of pride and patriotism. Pride in being part of the first official stab at nominating the person who may be the next president. Patriotism in the zeal by which we’re reciting this oath to nationhood. America’s founders would have been proud.

There are 270 people in attendance, a figure arrived at as each person yells a number sequentially, like playing tag. “We just had 75 people in 04,” a Hillary supporter says.

The attendance number is important, because it determines whether a candidate will be “viable.” What that means is a candidate must receive 15 percent of the total present to move into the next round. In Bertram, the magic number is 41. If a candidate doesn’t have that number, there is no way he or she can grab any of the precinct’s eight delegates.

This is where the caucus gets complicated, yet exciting.

The counting begins. It’s clear the Clinton, Edwards and Obama camps have met the threshold. It’s also obvious that Obama has the most of the three, because the group has to go outside to do a headcount. The others are murkier. A woman heading the Richardson camp is counting heads in front of us, and she’s stopped at 19, less than half needed to move into the next round. There are some puzzled expressions from some in the group, as if they’re thinking, “What now?”

“If we’re not viable, you don’t have to join anyone else,” Richardson’s group’s leader tells them.

What she means is that anyone allied with candidates who didn’t meet the viability number (41 in this precinct) can be wooed to join those candidates who did meet the threshold. Or they can remain uncommitted. They are now free agents in a sense. They can elect to join up with another candidate or go home.

Like stuffed animals at a carnival, they are the prize of the moment. You see, the candidates still in contention now want to add as many of these free agents they can, to augment their total and thus to give them a better shot at obtaining more of those eight delegates.

Confused? You’ll see.

The Biden and Richardson supporters are now the most popular folks in the room. Dave, wearing a Biden sticker, is one of them. The courtship begins.

A cry of “Hillary, Hillary!” erupts in the room. The Obama supporters react quickly, drowning the Hillary chant with shouts of their own candidate’s name. Not to be outdone, the Edwards supporters begin yelling. It is bedlam.

As the chanting continues, a white-haired lady with an Edwards sticker on her red sweater has snuck in among the Biden/Richardson supporters. “Go to Edwards, go to Edwards,” she says in her best sweet-old lady impression.

Meanwhile, a Hillary supporter with a rounded face and wearing a Green Bay Packers coat is yelling at the top of her lungs, and for just a moment the place falls quiet.

“Don’t you realize ¬– you’re going to give it Obama if you don’t join one of the two other groups!” she screams, desperation in her voice.

“Better than giving it to Clinton!” a Biden man fires back.

The persuasive arsenal exhausted, the group acts. Dave and about nine of the other newly undecideds shuffle over to Edwards, to roaring applause from his camp and dejected looks from Clinton’s side of the room.

It’s time for the final count. The announced tally is Clinton, 66; Edwards, 85; Obama 112.

If this were a popular vote, Obama would have won decisively. But since the eight delegates are calculated on a percentage basis, he gets three. Clinton gets two delegates, even though she had 46 fewer supporters than Obama.

Edwards is the big winner this night in Bertram. His total works out to 2.51 of the eight available delegates. The number gets rounded up, and he nets three delegates.

So, in other words, if Dave or one of the other undecideds, just one of them had gone to Obama or Clinton, or had remained uncommitted, Edwards’ percentage would have slipped below 2.5, and he would’ve gotten two delegates, same as Clinton. Instead, he got three, same as Obama.

Dave’s vote really did count.


Leeann said...

Okay, so this was really interesting. And if you can get *me* interested, that is really saying something!


Lou said...

I am both intrigued and, I admit, energized by the high voter turnouts so far. The level of voter apathy over the last few elections has been sad; maybe we're finally finding an election that will bring the people back to the table...