How to caucus in Glasgow: Plan the politics, then figure out what to serve on a stick
The Des Moines Register follows six candidates over 10 hours on the presidential campaign trail in Iowa 16 days before the caucus on Feb. 3. The Des Moines Register
When you’re hosting a satellite caucus, there are a lot of questions to work out: Where to hold it? Who will run it? How will you designate candidate areas? Just how intense are you going to be when you coax others before realignment?
But it wouldn’t be an Iowa satellite caucus if you weren’t also talking about food: Do you serve pork chops? Turkey legs? Corn on the cob? Literally anything fried and put on a stick?
“We need to make it really Iowa,” said temporary chair Colyn Burbank (he stresses “temporary” chair because the people have to vote, you know). “But, yeah, we want to come together with our shared identity.”
“Maybe we’ll record the Super Bowl and have a Super Bowl party before the caucus,” he offers with a chuckle during a Skype conversation with his friends and fellow Glasgow caucusgoers, Taylor Vander Wall and Clayton Boeyink. “We could just make it like a full American holiday.”
They’ll have the menu, the entertainment and all the political framework figured out by the time Monday rolls around when Burbank and his five good friends — along with at least three Hawkeye expats living in England who signed up to participate in their satellite caucus — sit down to perform this most Iowa of political processes, six hours ahead of everyone in Caucusland.
Glasgow is one of three international satellite locations — the other two being Paris and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, country, not state — approved by the Iowa Democratic Party in December. After testing satellite caucuses at four locations in 2016, the party allowed for 60 in-state satellite locations and 25 out-of-state sites.
For Burbank, this entire endeavor started with a question: Why not?
Burbank and his wife, Hilary; Vander Wall and Boeyink; and another couple, Collin and Emily Bull are all friends from high school or college who, through weird twists of fate, ended up living within an hour of each other in Scotland as they pursued higher degrees.
Longtime political junkies, the six regularly stay on top of news back home through Twitter, podcasts, newspapers and, a favorite of Vander Wall’s, the Skim. And they are as politically involved as they can be considering their school and family obligations. In fact, Hilary is missing our interview to go to a meeting of “XR,” also known as Extinction Rebellion, an environmental activist sect, Burbank says.
Boeyink, 31, has caucused twice before, first for Barack Obama in 2008, he offers. Burbank, 31, has racked up two caucuses as well. And Vander Wall, 29, has two under her belt — once with Boeyink and once with Burbank, she says laughing.
So when Burbank’s mom — who is, you guessed it, also very politically active — sent him the application to be a satellite caucus, he, and his friends, felt like it would be irresponsible not to fill it out.
“I really care about politics in the U.S. and having lived in the U.K. for some time, we both just have an appreciation for how much better the quality of life is here because of the really progressive policies,” Vander Wall said. “When I think about moving home, I actually dread a lot of the costs that are associated with living in America and the state of social injustices. So just being able to vote and partake in really making a stand for who I would want for the party, it's important.”
And, Burbank adds, they want to encourage the Iowa Democratic Party’s goal to make the generally exclusionary process of caucusing as inclusive as it possibly can be.
With at least his five friends, Burbank thought he had enough people to form a good caucus. It was a total surprise when other Hawkeyes living abroad pre-registered for his site, which will be in the flat he rents with the Bull family.
“One’s from Iowa City, another is from Pella,” Burbank said of the other Iowans. “I wasn’t expecting that. I honestly thought we’d be the smallest caucus, so it’ll be fun to have them over.”
(He breathes a big sigh of relief when I tell him that he is far from the smallest, a superlative we won’t officially know until caucus night. But the honor, so far, is expected to go to Tbilisi where a freelance journalist is expecting two others, for a grand total of three.)
Burbank’s satellite experiment has been “garnering buzz” in Scotland. He’s been interviewed by a Scottish TV internet station and will have Edinburgh University media observing their caucus Monday night.
“I was just at work today trying to explain the caucus process to three Scottish people who, I mean, just the word ‘caucus’ is a funny word,” Burbank said. “They just have no idea what it is.”
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“And I have to explain where Iowa is because it’s always confused with Ohio or Idaho, or, you know, the stereotypes,” Burbank said.
“We usually just say it's by Chicago,” Boeyink added as the other two laughed and nodded in agreement.
While Vander Wall, Burbank and Boeyink all agreed that Europeans generally are more abreast of American politics than Americans are of European, the particularities of the United States’ democratic processes are still foreign to most in Scotland.
When he starts explaining the caucuses, he finds himself describing the entire American political system, Burbank says (i.e. you aren’t voting for a party, but a person; and that person will run against the president; and on and on.)
“I tell them that I have just as many questions as I do answers about the American political process,” Burbank says.
Despite keeping up on political matters, the friends haven’t had the classic Iowa experience of retail politicking with candidates at the farmers market or the fair or a random encounter at a Casey’s. While they live vicariously through their friends’ selfies with the possible next leader of the free world — and Burbank did get to meet U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren when he was home for the holidays — they don’t believe they’re missing out by not being able to shake hands with whomever they caucus for.
“I stay pretty engaged, and I'm not sure how much I have to learn from people’s physical presence or how much I’d be swayed by it,” Boeyink said. “I don't try to be so personality-driven but more policy focused on who I want to support, anyway.”
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So far, the process has been really simple for the Glasgow caucusgoers: An online application led to an online approval, which led to an online caucus training and a packet incoming from Iowa that will have official party paperwork. Their site will run just like all the caucuses in Iowa, Burbank said, starting with party business, then passing that hat to raise money for the Democrats and then the voting. Once the dust settles, their site will have four delegates to elect, he said — though all satellite caucuses will be treated as one big county, so results won't be known until all 88 non-precinct locations report.
If all nine caucusgoers show up, a candidate will need two people in their group to be viable. That means there could be a realignment process, which could be…. awkward, Boeyink says.
“I’ll have to bite my tongue to not heckle strangers,” he said. “Because in the caucus there’s still a few hundred people, so there’s some anonymity to it, whereas it's like if there’s eight people around, you don’t want to be a jerk. … So we’ll play nice.”
The friends have talked about who they want to caucus for, of course, and joke with one another about their choices. On Monday, Burbank is excited to find out who all the “closet (Joe) Biden supporters are,” he says smiling.
Vander Wall likes a lot of candidates, Warren and businessman Andrew Yang, especially. Burbank is all in for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Boeyink, who works with refugees and is interested in big structural change, is also a Sanders fan.
“But, I mean, early polls are never accurate,” Burbank says.
Now, don’t get Burbank wrong, even though they are definitely leaning into the kitsch of all this — and who could blame them? — they are taking their role in this first-in-the-nation say seriously. As proud Iowans temporarily away from home, they still care about the policies of their state and their nation and are glad to have a voice in the issues that will affect them when they have an American ZIP code again.
“Iowa is in a really unique position to have some major influence on the world, and we're in a unique position to influence that,” he said. “We’re going to be caucusing six hours ahead of you all, so you’re going to know our results beforehand and that puts us in a very special position to see who is electable.
“Iowa gets to write that narrative," he added, "but it's like we get to like write the first chapter.”
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's never been to Glasgow, but is excited to stay on a fellow Hawkeye's couch if she ever makes the trip across the pond. (That's cool, right guys?) Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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