I Caucused in Iowa and Everything Was Fine, Until It Wasn’t
You never would have known that night was going to end in disaster from inside that room
In a high school band room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, two women sit behind me. They are my neighbors. One woman goes to my gym. I don’t recognize her until she pulls her hair away from her face and says, “Now imagine me sweaty!” Both of the women are both wearing puffy black coats. “Every candidate is so nice,” says the first woman. “Very nice,” echoes the other.
I nod and agree. “Yes, very nice.”
We are in this room to caucus. Every four years, it’s what we do here in Iowa. It’s our Olympics. A sport only we participate in, and even then not very many of us. And it’s got its problems. Iowa is one of the few states that still hasn’t given votes back to felons. It’s hard for parents to be here although many are, with babies in pajamas and toddlers with iPads. People with disabilities have an incredibly difficult time getting here.
It’s hard to be here, to sit in a seat in a room that gets stuffier and stuffier as the night goes on and watch as one by one we count everyone in the room. A headcount. It’s not a metaphor. Then we have to watch as a group of grown adults do some complicated math.
We count. We get up and move chairs to sit in a group for our candidates. We count again.
The Iowa Caucuses Are Going to Be a F*cking Nightmare
There will be new rules and new confusion for America’s favorite insane democratic process
And all of this after more than a year of mailers, phone calls, and commercials showing candidates begging for our votes. Iowans get coy. We make them beg for it. We make them pay obeisance to the gods of soy and ethanol. We make them stand on bales of straw and sweat and deep throat corn dogs. We like them desperate. We call it retail politics.
But it all comes down to a night. Where we sit in a gym with our neighbors. Asking after each other’s children. Oh, Cadence is in high school? I remember buying Girl Scout cookies from her.
It’s not always so polite.
First of all, not everyone has chairs. And not everyone has Monica Vernon as a precinct chair who keeps things moving along with gentle efficiency. She has firmly suggested we not allow speeches. Normally, campaign proxies give speeches. But not in this precinct, not while Monica is in charge.
“We’ve all heard enough over the past year,” says Monica. People nod and laugh. “We want to get out of here.”
We barely even want to be here.
I know Monica. I know her in the way we all know each other in a town of 130,000. She’s run for city council and mayor and Congress. Over the holidays, she sent in an op-ed to the newspaper where I work as a columnist, talking earnestly about how a section of our town, known as Czech Village, looks like a Hallmark Christmas movie set. I joked for weeks that I was going to go there and fall in love with a carpenter who’d convince me to give up my big-city journalism ways.
This is how we know each other: Intimately, but also not at all.
But we are all here. Trying to make this happen. Trying to make democracy happen. It’s not always this nice.
In 2016, a Bernie Sanders supporter screamed at me, trying to get me to caucus for Sanders. “How can you vote for a candidate who is owned by the big banks? How can you vote with your vagina?!”
I stuck my hand out in response. “Hi,” I answered, “I’m your neighbor.”
He calmed down.
This time around, Monica is not allowing any raucous discussion. Some people are disappointed. But she won’t let this devolve into chaos.
It’s futile. A caucus is chaos.
Friends text me updates from their precincts. Someone yelled, “Go back to your wine cave!” at a Pete Buttigieg supporter. My sister texts to ask me if I heard about the woman who snuck wine into her caucus and spilled it all over the gym floor. She lives in Denver, but apparently the mishap went viral. Everyone is watching us.
This is how the night goes:
We sit. We count ourselves off. There are 243 caucusgoers here. We aren’t counting the observers who can’t caucus.
Then, we are told the rules. The rules are serious. We will get up and go to the corner where our candidate’s name hangs on the wall. If the number in our groups amounts to 37 (which is 15% of the caucusgoers in our precinct), we are done. This is called the viability rule. Our candidate is viable. We will fill out ballots that we don’t call ballots, we call them presidential preference cards. We cannot move.
This is different from previous years. In previous years, there was no viability rule. People are confused, you can hear the murmuring and shushing echoing through the room.
We will get into groups. If your group is viable, you sit there, you are counted, you fill out your card.
Other groups, not viable, will get the chance to move then. They get to fill out their card on the front and back. Monica is very serious when she tells us not to fill them out too soon. Fudged ballots will cause Monica trouble. They will have to be destroyed. Papers will have to be signed.
We have 15 minutes to get into groups. We all settle in. I hold a baby and make faces at him while the mom tells me she’s worried he’s going to melt down.
Finally, we set the baby down on the floor, and he plays with another baby also on the floor. A woman I do not know looks at the baby. “Do you think Republican babies share toys so nicely?” We laugh. It’s a joke. A dumb joke, but we are bored.
Once in our groups, we have to count again. We raise our hands and count off our numbers. The groups for Sanders and Biden and Elizabeth Warren are all viable. The group for Amy Klobuchar is begging for people to join them. They scramble in another supporter from the Yang group just in time. They are viable. They cheer.
We all cheer and applaud whenever a group is viable.
I can’t stress enough how boring this is. I’m just standing in a band room, sticking my hand up in the air and counting off. Then, we do math together on large pieces of paper.
To decide who gets the five delegates from our precinct (you know, the ones who go to the convention to cast their votes for the candidates) we take the number in the group, multiply that by the number of delegates, then divide it by 247. The number of people here.
So for Sanders the math looks like 65X5, and that number is divided by 247. Got it? It will vary from precinct to precinct, but that’s the base. Monica makes us all do it out loud and makes sure everything happens.
I keep waiting for something to happen. Something big. But it’s all procedure. It’s all rules. People get frustrated. A man tries to leave the Biden group to caucus for Warren, but Monica won’t let him. Biden is viable; the man can’t move. Many people just start leaving.
And then, it’s over. We’ve filled in our cards. The math is done. We have five viable groups, and each one gets a delegate.
I get back to the office, grab some leftover taco pizza, and turn on the TV. I didn’t realize Iowa was on fire. But there it is, CNN hosts are panicking about the lack of results. There are no results. The Democratic Party isn’t releasing results. New system, new rules. The phone app for reporting results isn’t working. TV anchors are speaking of the death of the caucuses like a foregone conclusion. They might not be wrong.
At least everyone was so nice.