Undecided Iowa Man
The gold dome of the Old Capitol Building in Iowa City is now part of the University of Iowa campus, where I work. It sits in state above the Iowa River, where bald eagles soar and dive. And there I was, running and stumbling through the snow because I was late for the Democratic caucus and had been been told repeatedly the doors would close promptly at seven o’clock. With a touch of Midwestern disdain for the tardy, a precinct volunteer told me I was ‘not going to make it’ as I pushed through the door and sprinted down the stairs. But I did make it, with time to spare. The weird mix of decorum and chaos continued through the night.
We gathered in the lecture hall of the university’s Pappajohn Business Building, a shrine to capital, where throngs of Bernie Sanders supporters huddled under an electronic stock ticker, and the paltry, ageing Joe Biden contingent staked out the highest, loneliest corner of the room. The room’s official fire capacity is 387, but it was filled with nearly double that number, including screaming babies, hyper-organised Elizabeth Warren staffers, a pocket of Andrew Yang faithful dressed for a frat party, and my friend Alex, a historian who had driven down from Madison, Wisconsin, to observe. Anyone with a job in the retail and service industries couldn’t be there because they had to be at work, so the crowd was older, whiter and more affluent than the people it was supposed to represent. As we packed in, someone kept bumping into the light switch, plunging the room into darkness.
At a desk at the front, someone who announced himself as the ‘temporary precinct chair’ played out one of my recurring teaching nightmares as he struggled through a PowerPoint presentation of the 15-step process, which included collecting a card, NOT writing on it, aligning with a candidate, determining viability, picking a second candidate if your first wasn’t viable, electing precinct delegates, approving the results, and many other steps that I couldn’t hear or remember. I looked for the exit signs.
And then the whole room was in motion. We were asked to approve the nomination of the precinct chair and secretary, which, having no alternative, we unanimously did. We were asked to collect our presidential preference cards from the front of the room, and filed down the rows of the auditorium like passengers getting off a plane. One of my former students, wearing a Warren sticker, was visibly irritated that his wife was in the Pete Buttigieg corner. We had been at the caucus for almost an hour. A representatives from each campaign made a brief speech. The lone Tom Steyer supporter said she had never heard of him before yesterday, but had since met the billionaire hedge fund manager and found him ‘nice’.
To be viable, a candidate must have at least 15 per cent support: in our caucus, that meant 78 people. This is determined, awkwardly, by the supporters of each candidate grouping together in a corner of the room. Without enough chairs, some elderly people sat on the floor. The room was technically accessible to people with disabilities, but the overcrowding meant it wasn’t really. Children were squirming and crying. Still, it was immediately clear that Sanders and Warren would be viable, that Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar would be close, and that Biden and Yang hadn’t chance in hell.
I would like Sanders to be president, but had agonised over my vote, telling myself that ‘Bernie can’t be elected, he’ll wipe out the party, the responsible thing is to choose Joe.’ It suddenly occurred to me that I was that highly sought after creature, undecided Iowa man. As I looked at the Biden corner, I saw several of my neighbours beckoning to me. Sure that Biden wouldn’t get over the line, I realised I had an opportunity to appease the nagging voice in my head, keep on good terms with my neighbours, and still ultimately cast my lot with Sanders. Once it was clear that Biden wasn’t viable, I also had the sweet, sweet thrill of saying no to Buttigieg’s supporters.
Although he was only an observer, my friend Alex began circulating between the campaigns, urging Klobuchar people to poach the Biden contingent, who were ‘incredibly demoralised’. Any campaign, we realised, could potentially infiltrate the caucus with paid ‘observers’ to run sneaky pressure campaigns.
We won’t have the full results for days, but in my precinct the final tally, after two and a half hours of wrangling, arguing and passing procedural motions, was Sanders 168, Warren 166, Klobuchar 89 and Buttigieg 88. It was a messy, flawed process, and the dynamics of privilege and power were on full display. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it, waffling over where to bequeath my precious vote. But I also think the obviousness of the problems with such an openly shambolic democratic process may be where the caucuses’ real value lies. The same dynamics are at work in other elections, but they’re less visible, shrouded by the rituals of privately marking a ballot and dropping it in the machine that tallies it and presents the results as an objective, scientific fact. I don’t feel too good about the Iowa Caucuses. I don’t think anyone does. But even as we push to reform them, that may be just the reason they’re worth keeping around.