For those of you unlucky enough to live outside of Iowa, I thought I’d share my experience of the 2016 Iowa Democratic Caucus.
To set the stage, imagine the gym of a local middle school, with royal blue bleachers … nowhere near enough seating for 420 voters (a record 62% of registered democrats in the precinct), plus assorted children, out-of-town observers, and photographers. The crowd was mostly white, a mix of ages, and included an impressive number of first time caucus goers (indicated by show of hands).
I managed to squeeze into a bleacher seat with a dozen or so of my neighbors … all of us checking to see which of our friends were caucusing for whom.
The gym had no sound system, so the chairman of the caucus had to shout over the noise. His first task was to count the actual voters, to confirm that voters in the gym matched the voters shown on the sign-in sheets. To accomplish this mundane task, the official “counter” walked back and forth along the bleachers and back and forth through the folks standing around the sides of the gym. He asked the first person to call out “#1”. Thereafter, each person he pointed to had to shout out the next number in sequence, until he got to the last person and also got to 420.
Amazingly, they got it right on the first try (Iowa’s been doing caucuses for a very long time) and announced that “viability” (at least 15% of the voters in the gym) was 63.
For the next few minutes, we listened to a representative of each candidate extol the candidate’s virtues, after which we all clambered down from the bleachers and moved to our candidate’s “wall,” where we arranged ourselves in parallel lines of ten. It reminded me of lining up for the bathroom in grade school. With three walls and three candidates, that left the “undecided” huddling on the midline of the basketball court.
Again, the count was done by having precinct workers for each candidate walk back and forth through the lines of voters, counting them one by one. When the count was completed, Clinton was ahead of Sanders, I think by 8 points. O’Malley, at 32, was out of the race. So were the undecided, all 13 of them.
The best part of the caucus was yet to come — the 30 minutes allowed to “persuade” friends, neighbors, and strangers to come over to your team. Could you persuade O’Malley supporters and the undecided to join with Hillary or Bernie? Good humored pandemonium reigned, with informed discussion of policies interspersed with promises to do neighborly favors like shoveling your driveway in the next snow storm (today).
Blessedly, we didn’t all have to return to our parallel lines. This time the counters matched up those still undecided, those still sticking by O’Malley, and those who switched to Hillary or Bernie. If you followed the math, there were 45 votes in play. When the count was done, Hillary was still ahead, but this time by only 4 points. For those of you who don’t do math, that was less a hair under 1% of the voters in gym.
We were only one caucus out of 1,681, but our paperthin margin reflected the ambivalence of Iowa.
If Iowa still has the first-in-the-nation caucus for the 2020 election, you should come to watch democracy at work. There aren’t many other places to see it in action these days.
My next blog, of course, will be back on matters of health and bioethics.