Our intrepid reporter gets a birdseye look at the Iowa Caucus experience
I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker. I don’t make eye contact with strangers as I walk down the street. I lived in the same apartment building for decades, and couldn’t tell you my neighbors’ names. And when it came to voting, I’d usually cast an absentee ballot, in the privacy of my own home, and then refuse to disclose my vote to even my closest friends (and never to my parents).
This year, for reasons unfathomable to many of my city-slicker friends, I left New York City and moved to Iowa City. And all of a sudden, my life has become public. Folks stop and say hi to me on the street, my neighbors organized a block party to welcome my husband and I, and tonight I’m going to stand in the cafeteria of a local high school, raise my hand and be counted in the Iowa Caucuses.
Leaving the world’s capital for…fly-over country? Yeah, yeah, that was supposed to be a culture shock, I know. The move hasn’t been the problem—I like it here—it’s the public nature of voting here in Iowa that has me reeling: Everyone will see who I vote for on Thursday night.
What if my neighbors don’t like me anymore because I’m not on their team? I probably should put on some makeup in case the TV cameras show up, but what will my Mom say if she sees me on CNN supporting someone she hates?
Politics and Religion
Traditionally politics and religion are the two things you don’t talk about in public. While I’ve gotten comfortable wearing my faith on my sleeve, I’ve shied away from disclosing my political beliefs. But now I’m in the center of it all, so as your on-the-scene Busted Halo® correspondent for the Iowa caucuses, I’ll share my experiences, my fears, my confusion and a faithful record of events here in Iowa City as the 2008 presidential race kicks off.
Have a particular question about the caucuses? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll answer them in Friday’s column, where I’ll tell you what happened on the ground in Iowa, what the after-parties were like, and whether 15-degree-below-zero wind chill put a deep freeze on any particular candidate.
But first, some confessions…
pushed in to listen.”
Public voting makes me uncomfortable. I like the freedom to flap my left wing with my Democratic friends and my right wing with my Republican buddies. In previous elections I’ve been a people-pleaser: Once I figure out what side you’re on, I’ll discuss the pros and cons with you and never take a position myself.
But here in Iowa, you can’t do that. On caucus night, Iowans must first declare whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and sign in with their party. Then, Iowans physically stand with others who support their candidate. Privacy be damned: In this state, you vote with your feet, and everyone knows about it.
This encourages voters to get caught up in the groundswell of opinions on their block, in their neighborhood. If everyone on your street is voting for Mike Huckabee, and you’re voting for Ron Paul, people will know. Will they talk? And do you feel pressure to change your vote because of that peer pressure?
Caucuses have a long history in Iowa, dating back to the early 1800s, even before Iowa became a state. In fact, the Larrabee, Iowa caucus precinct was in my mother-in-law’s living room in the 1970s: Six other farmers would come by to chat with her Dad, and that would be that.
Tonight in Iowa City, we’re going to gather alongside our neighbors in school gymnasiums and public buildings. The Republican caucus nominates a candidate via a straw vote of those attending. The Democrats vote by getting into groups under a banner for their candidate, or by a show of hands. The group elects delegates and those delegates all come together on a statewide level to be counted.
The details of how all this happens are confusing enough for the Democratic Party to compile a 13-page instructional booklet, but here are the basics: Each candidate needs a certain number of supporters to be
“viable.” If you are supporting someone who isn’t all that popular, you’d better have a second choice in mind, or your vote won’t get counted.
After all the dust settles and all heads and hands are counted, the caucus elects a certain number of delegates in favor of each viable candidate (the more people who support the candidate, the more delegates they’ll get), and that’s what gets counted all over the state.
Other than that, I just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s grassroots politics at its best—which translates to, it’s a down-home, old-school and confusing process.
What I do know is that people like me who fear confrontation must go into caucus night with their mind’s made up. Because if you are undecided, you’ll have perfect strangers up in your grill all night long, trying to lure you over to one corner or another.
I find this terrifying. High-school cafeterias have enough bad memories associated with them. But several friends of mine say they’ll hold out as undecideds for as long as possible just to learn more about each candidate’s views. These are the real Iowans, I guess.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve shaken hands with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I’ve taken a half-dozen phone-polls about whether I’d vote for Mike Huckabee if only I had a bit more information about him, or how my opinion of George W. Bush will affect my choices for the next president. I’ve received canvassers at my door, tripped over lawn posters mostly buried in the snow and learned to TiVo everything, lest I have to sit through another campaign ad for either party in real-time.
I left the media epicenter of New York City, but several of my journalist friends have come to visit as they followed the candidates and reported on stump speeches in small towns like Homestead and Swisher. I left the “star-sighting” mecca of downtown Manhattan, but a recent lunch at a local hamburger joint was a-flash with cameras and news crews because Mitt Romney wanted a burger, too, and my afternoon coffee break yesterday was an opportunity to chat with John Edwards while reporters pushed in to listen to his last-minute pitch for my vote.
So maybe I’m not as shy as I thought. C’mon Iowa, show this New Yorker what you got.