A Night at the Caucus



A caucus-goer in training

A caucus-goer in training

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.

The Undecided's

The Undecided’s

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).

IMG_2615Blessedly, 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.


  1. Mary, how fascinating to see this grass roots process at work. Thanks for sharing. I felt like I was there.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Glad you enjoyed it … it feels a bit chaotic, and some folks want it way more automated and 21st century … but it feels right to me.

  2. Sharon Lippincott says

    What fun to be able to do this. I’m envious.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Hi Sharon … you would have enjoyed it … perhaps next time, you can come and be an observer. Sorry we’ll miss you in Chincoteague!

  3. Your precinct was managed differently than mine. We had 108 voters who sorted immediately into candidate camps as soon as they walked into the room. Our counting was complicated by having so many adult non-voters in the room. Your approach to lining people up would have helped. We only had 2 undecided voters and 1 for O’Malley, so we were finished comparatively quickly. Great fun, though.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      We couldn’t “sort” right away, because there were just too many people. On the first count, they made the non-voters stand on the O’Malley wall. Then when we were ready to vote, the non-voters got the bleachers and the voters went to their respective walls. There’s been some comment this morning about the caucus process in general being “too” chaotic, but I thought it was great.

  4. Caucus is a word that has existed in my mind with fuzzy borders. Thank you for showing us how the democratic process can unfold as an activity in a middle-school gym, which is where I spent my entire day yesterday, though obviously not at a caucus.

    This year’s political cycle has seemed more like a circus than a caucus, yet your description helped me envision government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” if only for an instant.

    • The girl in the little red dress is adorable. I notice she is not wearing rose-colored glasses – ha!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Hi Marian … apparently a lot of observers thought the caucus process generally was chaotic as well … I know ours would have been better if someone had thought to bring a microphone or sound system, but otherwise it worked pretty much as it has in past caucuses I’ve been to. And it does give you a sense of what democracy might look like if we still had one.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this, Mary. It’s not unlike Vermont’s Town Meeting Day, first Tuesday in March, when we also hold our Primary. Some voting is byAustralian ballot (the more typical format used around the country), some by voice vote, and some by walk up ballot. And there’s LOTS of attempts at persuasion, just not after we’re lined up to vote. Democracy is messy, and time consuming, and rather inefficient. But it is effective.

    I’m reminded of Winston Churchill’s comment, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

  6. Thank you for the eye-witness account, Mary! So interesting to read this. There was an episode of “The Good Wife” a few weeks ago that involved a candidate for president (the main character’s husband) traveling through all the counties of Iowa and then focused on one caucus. It seems like the writers were pretty accurate about the caucus, as you describe it.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Gerald … thanks for another perspective on the Caucus. You raised an interesting point about “registered democrats” … I saw how many people were first time caucus-goers, but assumed (perhaps inaccurately) that the percentage of registered democrats was based on people registered before the caucus. Hummmh.

      I’ve also been struck as I’ve read about other caucuses that night, that the unstructured, sometimes seemingly chaotic character of the caucus is great fun when there one obvious winner. It’s a bit more problematic when the vote is so close.

  7. Antigoni Ladd says

    Fascinating! Thanks for making this process come alive with your description. Sounds like a lot of noise and crowding, but all for a very good purpose.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Antigoni … thanks for stopping by … glad I could share a bit of Iowa … looking forward to your sharing more than a bit of Gettysburg!

  8. I. Am. Jealous! I’ve never attended a caucus, and no state in which I’ve been resident held a caucus. But thanks to you, Mary, I have now vicariously enjoyed (or not) my first caucus experience. It is amazing the degree of efficiency in play on the court that evening. Thank you for sharing and for returning to the blog. I see I have some catching up on health and insurance to do!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sherrey … I loved every moment of it, but as I read the press in the last few days, it is much more satisfying experience when there is a substantial gap between the winner and the loser … it feels less comfortable with the ever so narrow margin in our caucus . ..and in so many other caucuses …and statewide. I have always the messiness of “counting noses” but I do wonder.

  9. As a Vermont who has never attended an Iowa caucus (but plenty of Town Meetings), I found your report very interesting–thank you!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks Sara … I have always loved the caucus process, but it’s a bit touchier when the outcome is sooooo close.