What we lose if we lose the Iowa caucuses
Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Troy Price addressed caucus results at 4 P.M. CT Tuesday. Des Moines Register
The Iowa caucuses, the quadrennial presidential nominating process widely known as an exercise in retail politics, seemed to be on life support this week after pundits declared a technical glitch as the resounding takeaway from this year's more than 1,600 events.
The caucuses' failure, as announced by talking heads far and wide, came as the perfect punctuation mark for the cycle-long question of whether Iowa should be first. This delay in getting results, which stretched into Tuesday afternoon, was proof againthat Iowa can't handle this awesome responsibility.
“This should be the end of this nonsense with Iowa,” political commentator Van Jones declared.
“This state had one job — one — and they blew it!” CNN anchor Chris Cuomo proclaimed.
But a movement without the mouthpiece of mass media swelled throughout Iowa, in-person and online, late Monday, reviving the moribund caucuses. As of Tuesday, the Iowa caucuses remained in a sort of stasis, a long-term prognosis unclear, though it remains under close observation.
Despite the host organism’s uncertainty and the 2020 caucuses’ limp toward the finish line, the packing up of campaign offices and relocating of field organizers allows us to predict this cycle’s ultimate end.
The 2020 cycle began nearly three years ago with a campaign announcement from former U.S. Rep. John Delaney. Growing from its infancy of candidates keynoting county soup suppers to the rallies of its nascent adulthood, the cycle gained new faces and lost others in the ensuing months.
In the ramp-up to Monday, a woman got her ranch dressing, a governor donned bike gear to ride across the state, a senator had a heart attack, a millionaire gave away $1,000, and a little-known representative pushed an Iowan’s car out of a snowbank. Iowans traveled through and stood in frigid cold and sweltering heat to see the candidates, making lists of favorites, then ordering and reordering them (over and over).
On Caucus Day, the 2020 cycle had its first in-state test in Ottumwa, a blue-collar town buoyed by an influx of immigrants working, buying property and starting families. There, in a union hall, a group of Ethiopian pork plant workers were the first Iowans to make their selections for the Democratic nominee for president. Sporting smiles and signs, the caucusgoers gathered in the corner dedicated to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign had been canvassing outside JBS Pork during their shift changes between midnight and 2 a.m.
Six hours before Iowans in Caucusland would make their choice, a group of ex-pats in Scotland chomped on home-baked cookies and popcorn as they gathered under signs celebrating Iowa: “Third state to declare same-sex marriage constitutional,” and “No other state had a higher percentage of men serve the Union in the Civil War.” Started by six friends, more than a dozen others joined the satellite caucus, including a woman who flew in from Germany and a man who came from Italy. They may have been strangers when it began, but they left as friends, one of the Hawkeye Scots tells me.
At a “Dessert Caucus” at the Downtown School, fourth- and fifth-graders relished the process of convincing friends that their sweet treat was best. After “ice cream” locked in two delegates, the contingent from pie lured all the non-viable cake, cheesecake, cookie and Rice Krispie Treats constituents to their corner. A show of hands revealed most of the kids planned to attend caucuses with their parents that night. One student asked me if U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was going to become the “first girl” president on Monday.
Not Monday, I said, but maybe in November. She looked at me, tilted her head so her ponytail swished to the other side, and said: “I really hope that happens.”
A miscommunication led to a late accommodation request for 700 chairs with arms for local caucus sites. Over the weekend, Maryfrances Evans and a handful of friends spent three hours “jamming” to get them put together and sent out. As caucus leader at her small precinct that night, she planned to throw some camping chairs in her car — just in case, she told me.
At the South Suburban YMCA, Latin music greeted hundreds of Latinx Iowans filing in for a bilingual caucus. “The more people come out today, that vote and participate, the better things will be for us,” said Ana Correa, 18, a first-time caucus participant.
In a different bilingual caucus where Sanders dominated, a Warren supporter decided not to use his time to win over caucusgoers, but instead to thank his Latinx community for participating “in large numbers.”
Earlier that morning, the “Today” show broadcast from West End Salvage, strengthening a friendship that began four years, or one cycle, earlier. The night before, the West End owner rented out a space at a local restaurant so NBC’s 375 reporters, producers and camera operators could enjoy the Super Bowl. Before NBC officially rolled out Monday afternoon, they booked the space for 2024.
In the lobby of the downtown Hilton Hotel, Iowan Chris Taylor talked about the caucus tour he created for his cousin, Amy Tish, of Maryland. Along the way, they saw seven candidates — changing flights and driving from Chicago when a layover threatened their plans — laughing, debating and growing closer as a family on the road.
Removing their shoes as they entered the worship space at the Bosnian Islamic Center mosque, caucusgoers found a diverse precinct with neighbors from Bosnia and Bhutan or of Mexican or Asian descent. After a language barrier was identified, one of the gathered Iowans, Deven Sapkota, volunteered to translate what the caucus leader was saying into Nepali, so more people could understand the process.
At an early satellite caucus sponsored by the Central Iowa Center for Independent Living, Carol Schroeder, 65, of Des Moines reveled in a site that was truly accessible to people with disabilities. As someone who uses a walker, concern over what caucus sites might look like make it really easy to stay home. But, with free pizza, gender-neutral bathrooms, a lactation room, a quiet room and a kids area, the organizers had thought through everything, she told me. "They're listening," she said.
Also at that caucus site was Aidan Zingler, 35, of Des Moines, who has panic attacks in large crowds. Zingler had never managed to make it past the first alignment, but, after a trip to the quiet room, their vote was counted for the first time.
In the media filing center, more than 2600 journalists — a 2000-person increase from 2016 — gathered to deliver reports to far off places. The Iowans working behind the scenes set up a special social media team this year to monitor concerns and offer suggestions, sometimes literally tracking down journalists via geo-tagged posts to lend a hand.
At one of the largest precincts, Scott Matter, a precinct chair for Pete Buttigieg, almost cried after his crew was able to give Pete a win. A lifelong Republican who worked for Chuck Grassley and Bob Dole, Matter changed his registration after he says the GOP abandoned the ideals he fought for.
In that same precinct, almost 300 people registered to vote. In Iowa City, 100 people registered. The Dallas County Democrats registered 2,000 new voters. And in a rural northwest Iowa precinct, where blowing wind pushed the thermometer down to 18 degrees, almost a third of their caucusgoers were new — and young — voters.
And a truly historic first amid a night of firsts: the inaugural American Sign Language caucus. There, in a nondescript room, 18 Iowans discussed, debated and caucused in their own language.
Never has silence spoken so loudly.
“Coming here, I just felt it was so important to be a patriot, to support America, to be involved in this discussion so we have a nominee who we can look up to,” Vania Kassouf, 42, who drove from Cedar Rapids to participate in her first caucus, said through an interpreter.
“It feels so empowering,” she added.
Across the state, people gave up their time and their energy to abandon echo chambers and discuss topics and pick nominees in public. They didn’t passively engage — just writing a check or signing a petition or snarking on social media — they spoke with their feet and their hearts.
Run almost entirely by volunteers, the caucuses are politics at the lowest common denominator.
They are a moment when policies are drafted by the people, for the people and of the people. They are a time when individuals can be included in the bedrock of our American culture; a time when their choices can be seen and their voices heard. They are a process meant to form a powerfully connected community, not to satisfy the insatiable need to bet on the next horse race.
And in this globalized, digital world, they seem a reminder that there really is more uniting us than dividing us.
So as pundits declare Monday as the last of the first, these are the moments that will be indelible in my mind. Remember, in the Midwest, we survive the long winter, and somewhere deep in my soul, I don’t think this is goodbye.
“This state had one job,” Cuomo said. “And they blew it!”
He’s only half right. We did have one job: for the citizens who left each gym, church, auditorium and local hall to be more engaged and more connected than they were when they went in.
Results or not, that happened Monday night.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's a parallel parking master acquainting herself with gravel roads. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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