The Culture of the Caucus: Count, Court, Repeat
A first-time caucus-goer learns the ropes in a rural Iowa county, where voters are on a first-name basis with their candidates and democracy requires a little extra shoe leather – and tolerance at home. Julianne Couch reflects on her first Democratic caucus, held in Jackson County.
On a wintery Monday evening in Iowa, more than 350,000 registered Republicans and Democrats headed to schools, diners, or libraries to express their opinions about the 2016 presidential candidates. While that number was considered strong, many more of the 1.9 million registered voters in Iowa stayed home. I, like thousands of others across the state, caucused for the first time.
My first opportunity to caucus in Iowa could have come in 2012 had I been a registered Republican. At that time, I could have gone to the Bellevue Community High School and visited with like-minded neighbors, chewing over the merits of Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney or Michele Bachmann, then eating cookies, casting a secret ballot and going home. But with a Democrat running for re-election, 2012 was not my year for this new experience.
Caucusing always sounded like a strange way to spend a Monday night in February. Especially the way the Democrats do it in Iowa. You mean you want me to go and literally stand under a sign with my candidate’s name on it and be counted? You mean if the person whose name I stand under isn’t viable enough to earn a delegate, I’ll be worked over until I go stand under the sign of a more popular candidate? I was nervous.
Yet, I didn’t have to think hard about whom to support. I’d supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 and was even more determined to back her this time. When a friend came by my house to say he was part of Hillary’s support team, I said I’d caucus for her. Before I knew it, I was on Team Hillary. I received frequent emails, requests for donations, requests for time. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t contribute money. I did volunteer to help get out the vote, and before I knew it was I making phone calls to residents of Jackson County, attending meetings, and being given an official duty for caucus night. I was named Preferences Captain of Bellevue Precinct #1.
Jackson County is a rural place of just over 19,000 people, where the majority of voters are registered Democrats. The number of Bernie Sanders supporters among this group surprised me, as it did many observers. It certainly surprised me that one of those supporters was my husband.
As Preferences Captain, it was my job to be sure none of the Hillary supporters drifted away to Bernie’s end of the bleachers. I thought of myself as the border collie, keeping everyone rounded up.
On caucus night, after months of political TV ads and suffering spotlight fatigue, 140 of us headed into the gym at Bellevue Elementary School. The modest stand of bleachers had been opened full, and a line of folding chairs set up in front of them. As we sat, we all faced a single microphone in the middle of the tip-off circle on the gym floor. Behind the mic stood Dave Kunzweiler, Jackson County Democratic party chair, instructing us in a laconic manner on various aspects of party business and the specifics of the caucus process. The Bernie crowd sprawled at one end of the bleachers. The Hillary supporters filled the center section. The last section of the bleachers was nearly empty, with one single O’Malley sign as an indicator to the few people assembled under it that they were in the right spot.
I refer to these candidates by their given names, as does almost everyone in the nation, including the campaigns themselves. At one point as I was greeting people at the gymnasium entrance and hoping to direct them to the Hillary portion of the bleachers. A person I greeted said she was caucusing for “Sanders.” “Who is that?” I wondered, if only briefly. It seems that no one refers to Martin O’Malley as anything but just O’Malley.
The first order of the voting portion of the evening was for each group to count itself. Our Hillary for Iowa coordinator was a young man from Connecticut who’d deployed to Jackson County last spring. He had us all raise our hands and as he counted aloud, and once we were counted, we lowered our hands. Team Bernie did something similar though they did not have an official campaign organizer present. After the first count, Hillary had 72 supporters and Bernie had 66. As I recall, there were two undecided and four for O’Malley, not close to the 21 he needed to be viable.
That meant it was time for the realignment process. This is something that does not happen in the Iowa Republican caucus format in which secret ballots are cast. To start the process, three individuals approached the mic in turn, and spoke briefly for their candidate. The man who spoke for Bernie knew both the candidate and his wife, and judged them to be excellent and worthy, smart and caring. The second man spoke for Hillary and explained that when his wife had cancer, they were grateful for affordable health care and they didn’t want “Obamacare” to be dismantled. The third man said he supported O’Malley because O’Malley understood that we are a nation of immigrants and was not “angry.” When that speaker said that as a Democrat he’d support any of the three, that was the applause line of the night.
After those public affirmations it was time for the O’Malley supporters and undecideds to realign. As Preferences Captain, it was my job to be sure none of the Hillary supporters drifted away to Bernie’s end of the bleachers. I thought of myself as the border collie, keeping everyone rounded up. On the other hand, it was the Persuasion Captain’s job to be the bulldog, I’d assumed, although it was not bullying that took place. Folks just moseyed over to the undecided/unviable area and visited. The woman member of the undecided couple soon strode past the Hillary area straight to the Bernie section, where she was greeted with cheers. Then a few O’Malley supporters drifted to the Hillary area, and we cheered. This took as long as it took, until everyone picked themselves a team.
After realignment, another round of `counting revealed that Hillary had 76 supporters, and Bernie 68. But it was then time for “caucus math” which precludes delegates being split in half but has no problem rounding them up or down. In the end, after a caucus process that took a little more than an hour, the top two candidates were declared to have tied. Each will have four of our precinct’s eight delegates at the county convention in March.
Just hours after most statewide caucuses were wrapping up, O’Malley bowed out of his campaign and a winter storm blew in, from southwest to northeast. Most news media and campaigns scampered out ahead of it or in between its outbursts. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the long Iowa winter shut down like the white lid of a box. In the calm that has followed the storm, it is now Morning in Iowa. Split households can talk politics again without wondering how they married such a dope. Iowans can watch television commercials for diamond rings and mattresses and don’t have to hide when they see someone approach their front door. They can answer the telephone. Whereas Iowa has the first caucus, New Hampshire will hold the first primary, on February 9. Hang in there, New Hampshire. It’ll be over before you know it.
Julianne Couch is the author of The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twenty-First Century.