It’s fun to live in Iowa! Who knew? But every four years, we are the center of the political universe.
More than just fun, the Iowa caucuses have rebuilt my faith in American politics. They have transformed me into an interested, active participant. The allure is hard to resist. Beyond fun, it is the hands-on closeness, and the grassroots participation that buffed away my cynical tarnish.
Going into my first caucus, I was wary. Why not just let us go into the privacy of our own booths and cast our vote? But caucusing turned out to be a hoot. There is a lot of mingling, chatting, gawking, and smiling, almost a carnival atmosphere.
In a Republican town like mine, attending a Democratic caucus gives me a sense of what worship in the catacombs must have been like for early Christians. It feels like a subversive act. I look around the room and think “I didn’t know you were one too!” In seeing others like me, I am cheered and encouraged. Like some obscure beetle that is buried deep underground, we surface every four years, soaring with short-lived glory.
When the meeting is called to order, you literally have to stand up and go to the various corners of the room to be counted. No hiding your support. Although the candidates spar with each other, among caucus-goers there is little animosity or sense of “bad guys.”
At the Democratic caucuses, a candidate must receive fifteen percent support to be considered “viable.” If your candidate isn’t viable, you have to switch. This then leads to some impassioned speeches and horse-trading as supporters of other candidates try to woo those now without a candidate. These little speeches can be charming. American democracy at its finest: part colonial town hall meeting, part sermon, part oral report from your seventh grade Social Studies class.
Eight years ago, I watched history unfold before my eyes. The room was jam-packed with young people and first-time caucusers, all there to support Barack Obama. They overwhelmed everyone else and turned the establishment upside down. I was amazed and disbelieving. On the way home, I kept telling myself, “This has to be a local anomaly since we’re a college town.” I was wrong. It happened all over Iowa and eventually the nation.
This year, the chatter speculates that Sanders and his supporters may just be the same sort of phenomenon—rookies, true-believers, and outsiders who sweep away establishment expectations. On the Republican side, the chatter wonders if Trump supporters are simply fury and bluster, or actually have the organization and discipline to show up. We’ll know shortly.
“Why Iowa?” is a frequently asked question. What gives this small state such disproportionate significance? The short answer is “Jimmy Carter,” whose victory in 1976 in the previously unheralded Iowa caucuses catapulted him into national prominence. It is true that Iowa is not very representative of the country as a whole. One pundit quipped, “Iowa is whiter than an Osmond family reunion in Norway.”
The typical Iowa response to such complaints is that we are diligent and conscientious. Talk to Iowans about the caucuses and words like “duty” and “responsibility” are uttered in solemn tones. (Notice this ability to draw attention to our Midwestern virtues while at the same time sounding humble.) Our task isn’t necessarily to pick the eventual winner–we rarely do—but rather to winnow the field.
“Retail Politics” is how the Iowa caucuses are described. Up-close and personal. Gone are the days when a candidate might have coffee at your house with five other people. Now the venues are more likely to be a restaurant with 75 people, or 300 in a school cafeteria. Still, this gives amazing access to the candidates. I literally ran into Michelle Obama waiting at a restaurant counter. This was probably nine years ago—early enough that I recognized her as someone, but couldn’t place who. She reached out her hand to introduce herself and then came to our table and chatted a bit. My wife and I went to a Hillary rally mainly out of curiosity. Some staffer must have figured two local ministers were good optics and we were ushered up to seats on the platform—close enough that Sophie had little chats with both Hillary and Chelsea, as if we were old friends or big donors. This year, I had a beer with Martin O’Malley. I’ve seen members of my congregation on the national news, and quoted in the New York Times. Rubbing shoulders with prominent people, connecting with your neighbors, collecting pictures on your phone, feeling like you actually matter—all this is the joy of caucusing.
Next Monday night, I will trudge through the snow to do it again.