The Caucus

Wherein I spend a weekend ruining my shoes, knocking on doors, and witnessing a debacle.

To briefly summarize a prior entry on these pages, my sister is working for the Pete Buttigieg campaign, and based on her strong support and my own analysis, I am strongly supporting his candidacy.

Last month, my sister, who works policy but was also helping out in Iowa, asked if I would join her to knock on doors, turn out likely caucus-goers, and serve as an observer at one of the caucus sites.  I booked myself for a long weekend, and flew to Des Moines.

As you might imagine, in the days before the caucuses, Iowa is drowning in political ads.  Every billboard, every commercial break, and every residential street features flashy ads for the half-dozen or so viable candidates.  I use the word viability on purpose: it has special significance in the caucus system.

My first impression of the campaign was that it was obsessively well-organized.  From headquarters to the staging areas, from office fronts to volunteers’ homes, the Pete for America team was more than ready to compete.  I received my training alongside Steve Adler, the mayor of Austin, Texas, who gave me pointers on how to engage effectively with voters.

It was the first time I have knocked on doors for a candidate since 2004.

In an interesting coincidence, one of my cohorts from those days of campaigning in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004 is now serving high up in the Pete for America organization, and he provided training for the caucus observers.  There were easily a hundred people in my training session, one of several.  Once again, the campaign showed its ability to organize its volunteers and deploy them where they were needed.

Knocking on doors in Iowa was a revelation.  Almost everyone who answered the door was friendly, politically-aware, and willing to engage, even if they were inclined to support a different candidate.  A surprising number were still undecided, but not out of apathy: they were more knowledgeable about the issues than most people I have encountered, and were balancing several factors that would determine their preference.

Because of the way the caucuses work, even a non-supporter could help us out if they would consider Pete as their second choice.  A corollary of this: it’s a bad idea to bad-mouth the other campaigns, because we might need their supporters on caucus night, and beyond.

My canvassing took place in Huxley, Story City, and Ames.  While all these locations are within Story County, a liberal bastion where the university vote tends towards the most progressive candidates, they were very distinct.  Huxley was a moderate district, about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.  Story City appeared quite conservative, with only every fifth or sixth house registered for the Democratic Party.  Ames was full of students, a large number of whom were not planning to caucus.

On the caucus night, I went to my assigned location, an auditorium on the ISU campus.  The major campaigns each had precinct captains, who are locals in charge of mustering their supporters and persuading undecideds.  My role was to ensure that the rules were being followed, the playing field even, and to provide any support I could for the precinct captain.

Within minutes of my arrival, I was called upon to act.  One of the campaigns had begun putting up dozens of yard signs around the caucus location.  I spoke to the precinct chair, the person in charge of running the proceedings, to see if that was allowed.  If it were, I would drive to headquarters and pick up some of our own signs to post.  The chair decided it was not, and asked the other campaign to take down the signs.

I did my best to support our captain, fetching supplies from his car and lugging palettes of bottled water into the auditorium.  When the actual caucusing started, all observers had to retreat to the orchestra pit, which was my vantage point for most of the process.

Here’s how the caucus worked in my location: since it was an auditorium, certain rows were reserved for the various campaigns.  Caucus-goers registered, and then gathered with their preferred candidate’s supporters.  Undecided voters walked up and down the aisles, asking questions, as the various campaigns tried to win their support.  Once all attendees had been registered, each campaign was given one minute to speak, giving an elevator pitch for their candidate.  Then, everyone was told to go to their preferred area for alignment.

In the first alignment, a head count was taken of the total attendees, and the number caucusing with each candidate.  The goal was viability: for any candidate with more than 15% of the total attendees, those votes were locked in.  Groups of less than 15% were considered non-viable, and their voters could change their minds and go to their second choice, either joining a viable candidate or creating a new viable group.

My precinct was deeply liberal.  The two most liberal candidates took a great majority of the vote.  At the first alignment, the Buttigieg supporters were between ten and fifteen percent, just shy of viability.  Most shocking, the Biden support was under 5%, plainly not viable.

During the realignment process, I watched from the orchestra pit as the Yang and Buttigieg camps discussed possible alliance.  I learned later that the Yang folks had been instructed not to join any other campaign, and to continue caucusing with Yang even if he was not viable, in order to register their support, even if it wouldn’t result in any delegates.  Most of the Biden folks, deflated, just left after the first count.

In the end, my caucus did not produce any delegates for the Buttigieg campaign.  I left dejected, feeling like we had blown it, and that our high hopes of winning in Iowa were doomed.  I did not know it at the time, but my caucus was an outlier: all across the state, Mayor Pete was winning delegates and pushing his campaign to the front of the pack.

I drove from Ames to Des Moines for the victory party.  It was in a small gymnasium, crowded with volunteers and precinct captains.  Everyone compared notes, and I learned that our results had been very positive in other caucuses.  A large television streaming CNN announced that there was some unknown delay in posting results; it soon became clear that we would not receive any actual numbers until the following day.

I pushed my way towards the podium, and was about fifteen feet away from Mayor Pete when he came out to speak.  It was the first time I had seen him in person.  I tried to take a few pictures and record him speaking, but soon had to stop.  He is an electrifying speaker, and his speech was so well-received and so optimistic, I listened transfixed.  I left feeling good, not just about the campaign, but about our country.  It was a feeling I haven’t had in several years.

I flew back to New York in the wee hours of Tuesday, without sleep.  Over the next three days, results trickled in, showing that we had, in fact, won the most delegates in a nail-biter with the Sanders campaign.  It was a stunning result for a political upstart.  The establishment candidates got trounced.

After the debacle of releasing the results, there has been a lot of talk about whether Iowa’s caucuses should remain first-in-the-nation.  While I was extremely impressed by how knowledgeable the voters are about the issues and candidates, I can’t defend the caucus system.  Many people I spoke to while I was canvassing didn’t feel up to attending because of their health, or inability to be out for several hours just to vote.  The accessibility issue is a big deal, and disenfranchises people who really need their voices heard.  I spoke to a fire fighter who would be on shift during the caucus; his vote would not be considered.

If Iowa switched to a primary election instead of a caucus, I think they could make a case for retaining their early slot in the process.  They really do provide a good chance for campaigns to showcase their organizational efforts, though I have major concerns about the lack of diversity, and the out-sized role it gives their voters.  Until they abandon or majorly reform the caucus system, though, I must register my opposition to their primacy in the primary elections.

Overall, attending the caucuses was a positive experience, delayed results notwithstanding.   The degree of organization by the Pete for America campaign was just incredible.  I came back to New York with a fire in my belly for the long election, that is just now underway in earnest.


Published in: on February 7, 2020 at 10:21 am  Leave a Comment  

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