Among the Caucus-Goers

Two Firsthand Views from Iowa

Christopher Budzisz, from a Republican Caucus Site

There’s a long line of traffic outside Dubuque’s Eleanor Roosevelt Middle School, cars and pickups moving slowly toward the Republican caucus site. Packs of caucus-goers shuffle through dense fog across ice-slicked sidewalks; the school grounds look like a Scottish moor. As I approach the shrouded building, the PA system crackles to life, informing us that the fire marshal has shut down the main auditorium due to overcrowding. Anyone else coming will need to go to the school’s gymnasium. The line only grows as 7:00 p.m. approaches. Conversation consists mostly of trying to remember what precinct people live in and commenting on the size of the crowd. Republicans use a secret ballot, so the politicking seems subdued.

Inside, a group of gray-haired Republican women sit behind a folding table halfway down the main corridor. They are selling elephant-shaped sugar cookies. Business appears slow, but they seem to be enjoying themselves anyway: What will prove to be a record turnout gives them a good show. As I wait to check in, two men behind me are trying to figure out what state Chris Christie is from. After a few minutes they conclude that they don’t really know, but that they’re pretty sure he’s “from the East Coast somewhere.” Their tone makes it clear that this is shorthand for being a squishy moderate establishment type. I want to turn around and let them know he is the governor of the fine state of New Jersey, but that might label me for suspicion as well.

As I walk past the packed auditorium and into the gym, I see a few people wearing t-shirts for candidates. All the chairs and bleachers are full, and people are sitting on the floor around the basketball court. The center of the court is kept open for a party official to come out and announce the beginning of the meeting. He takes the microphone, admits he has never participated in a caucus before, and calls things to order with the Pledge of Allegiance. But as I put my hand over my heart I realize there’s no flag. The party official asks us to pretend that there is a flag. Agreeing on where our imaginary flag is, we all stare at a point about halfway up the blank wall behind a set of crowded bleachers and recite the familiar words. The sight of people in the bleachers craning their necks to salute a flag that isn’t there is a bit comical, but no one dares laugh.

Next come the speeches on behalf of the candidates. This drags on for longer than usual as the chair wrestles with the microphone and the rules. The problem is that the surrogates are over in the main auditorium. The party official in the gym proceeds anyway. The first request is for a speaker on behalf of Jeb Bush. This is met with silence, followed by more than a few laughs when no one volunteers. After about a minute, an elderly man rises from a chair and gives an impromptu speech. Next, a call for Jim Gilmore; unsurprisingly, no one rises to speak. A few audible remarks of “who?” can be heard, as well as a few chuckles. No one comes forward for Chris Christie either—not surprising given my experience in line a few minutes before.

The speeches mostly repeat the talking points of the campaigns, and the audience responds with polite applause. Most speakers are nervous in front of the crowd. Trump’s name is called; at first, no one comes forward, but then a woman who appears to be in her sixties rises and takes the microphone. A woman in the crowd can be heard saying: “I can’t [expletive] believe a woman is speaking for him!” The Trump speaker wears a large Trump 2016 button and proceeds to extoll the advantage of his being a billionaire—it means Trump will not be beholden to anyone. She also notes Trump’s support for veterans. With that, a man from the fringes of the gym asks sardonically why Trump petitioned for deferments during the Vietnam War. The Trump surrogate embellishes a bit on Trump’s signature tagline, in a very Trump-like fashion, reminding us that Trump will “make America so great again.” Real affection for Trump is on display in the applause she receives, but as she heads back to the crowd, someone in the bleachers shouts: “Can I get time for a rebuttal?”

After the speeches everyone sorts themselves into specific precincts. Paper ballots are distributed, but the record turnout means that ballots are in short supply. My precinct official improvises, handing out sticky notes. The scene grows a bit chaotic as people scramble, albeit politely, to grab a ballot or sticky note as they are passed through the crowd. Everyone is on the honor system with the ballots as no one is really monitoring things. After marking their ballot or sticky note, people deposit them into a manila envelope and then head for the exits. The stacks of ballots are laid out across the bleachers. While the sticky notes seemed to be a good improvisation at the time, the small yellow slips of paper prove tricky to count. Some fall out down into the bleachers, and others get stuck to other ballots.

As I leave the building, I notice that the now-empty main auditorium has a big beautiful American flag on stage. I assume people there said the Pledge to a real flag tonight, and that they didn’t vote on a sticky note. How boring it must have been.


David Carroll Cochran, from a Democratic Caucus Site

The Democrats in my precinct caucus at Happy’s Place, a bar and reception hall on the southern side of Dubuque. We arrive around 6:30 p.m. and wait only a few minutes to check in. My wife and I are caucusing for Hillary Clinton. My two teenage sons, too young to vote, come along; the older one would love to back Bernie Sanders.

The center of the room is staked out by Hillary supporters. The Bernie contingent fills up one side, while a bar runs the length of the other. A single table with an O’Malley sign is against the back wall, and another labeled “Undeclared” is sandwiched between the Hillary section and the bar.

The chief advantage of caucusing at Happy’s, of course, is the bar, which remains open during the proceedings. I get a beer and wait for the room to fill up. There’s a lot of neighborly back-and-forth among the Clinton and Sanders camps. The differences between the groups are not huge, but the Bernie side seems a bit younger and features more hats and beards, while the Hillary side looks more like Bingo night at my parish. My oldest son joins some friends in the Bernie camp who will be eighteen by Election Day in November and are therefore eligible to participate.

Our Hillary precinct captain checks us off her list. With what seemed a mere ten thousand phone calls, flyers, and knocks on the door in the past few months, the campaign confirmed that we would attend tonight and caucus for Clinton. I’ve long been comfortable with my choice to support her, but I do feel a pang of regret when I see a group of Sanders supporters passing around a huge tray of turkey dressing sandwiches, a Dubuque delicacy of turkey chunks in stuffing served on white dinner rolls. The tray does not leave the Sanders side of the room.

As our 7:00 p.m. start time approaches, it appears there are around a half-dozen people at the O’Malley table and a similar number at the undeclared table. The people just sitting at the bar easily outnumber both contingents.

We officially get underway when a local party member—a substitute for his wife, who couldn’t make it at the last minute—calls the meeting to order. He has a large envelope that he asks we pass around to collect cash donations for the party. We elect him caucus chair by acclamation and his daughter caucus secretary the same way. This is when any local elected official can address the meeting. There are none present, to the evident relief of the crowd, so we move on.

The number of people present and eligible to participate is 219, meaning preference groups must have at least 33 members to be viable and win delegates. “Undeclared” counts as a preference group and, if viable, it can win delegates too. We begin getting a count of each preference group, which is a bit of a challenge in a crowded room that also includes some people who are not eligible to participate—kids, a few Happy’s regulars who may have forgotten it’s caucus night, and a guy who looks suspiciously like the writer David Maraniss. My older son, still sitting with his friends, is initially counted as a Bernie supporter until, as the product of good parenting and a Catholic education, he tells the precinct worker to remove him from the count.

As the tallying goes on, the Sanders and Clinton camps go to work on the O’Malley and undeclared tables, slowly at first, with a person or two stopping by, but then with more vigor. It is clear neither of these groups will be viable when the count comes in, so their members can be picked off by the two larger groups. Indeed, by the time the count is complete, O’Malley’s support has melted away entirely. The numbers are Clinton with 125 supporters, Sanders with 88, and Undeclared with 6.

This triggers a more intense battle for the undeclared. The only thing stranger than six Iowans sitting at a table claiming they still need to know more about the candidates is three times as many Clinton and Sanders supporters standing in a circle, basically talking to one another over the heads of the undeclared.

In the meantime, however, some folks have done the math and determined that the undeclared are too few to make a difference anyway. Even if they all join one camp, the other, or neither, the delegate allotment is going to be the same. Pursuit of the undeclared comes to an immediate halt.

Our caucus chair announces the final outcome: five delegates for Clinton and four delegates for Sanders. Applause from both sides. The chair directs each group to pick its allotted delegates and alternates to go to the county convention, where delegates will be selected for the district convention, then the state contention, and finally the national nominating convention. Someone asks when the county convention is so people can check their schedules. Nobody seems to remember. The smart phones come out, and we soon get an answer.

Still cut off from the turkey dressing sandwiches on the Bernie side, we at last get a plate of cookies from a Hillary supporter, much to the relief of my younger son. His older brother is still with the Bernie group, where a few of his friends have been selected as delegates or alternates.

The chair gets a few more volunteers to serve on various party committees, and we turn to the final order of business: the consideration of written resolutions about party positions and platform language. This process can sometimes this can get contentious, with factions getting very particular about wording. But the chair proposes we submit resolutions en masse without comment and leave it to the county convention to sort out—a suggestion met and passed with great enthusiasm.

As people begin to gather their things, someone realizes the cash envelope never made it back around. After some worried searching, it turns up safe and sound. So then, having done our part for American democracy, we spill out into the night, happy to see that the forecasted snowstorm has not yet started, though my kids remain ever hopeful for a day off school in the morning as life—in Iowa, at least—returns to normal. 

Published in the March 11, 2016 issue: 

Christopher Budzisz and David Carroll Cochran both teach in the Politics Program at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

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