It’s just a month away, but 3 February can’t come soon enough for most Iowans inundated by presidential campaigns for close to two years – even us political junkies. We’re anxious for the first-in-the-nation caucuses, one of the more confusing curiosities in politics that shapes the race by shaving the field.
They started combing the far-flung reaches of the Tall Corn state in the summer of 2018 –Eric Swalwell and Julián Castro were among the first to stump with JD Scholten, a Democrat in north-west Iowa waging a quixotic bid against the incumbent congressman Steve King, a Republican. John Delaney and Cory Booker camped out early. Elizabeth Warren came calling last January. Joe Biden’s bus rolled through a couple weeks ago. And there’s Amy Klobuchar in her bus right on his tail. Mayor Pete has a bus too. They motor into towns of 1,000 offering cups of hot chocolate along with a plan, a pledge and a plea to please print your name and cellphone number here so we may call you on Sunday, 2 February. The ads just intensify along with the noise among friends on Facebook.
The polls say that the field, pared down to 10 from 25, is fluid. Some three-fourths of likely Democratic caucus-goers have not made up their minds but they are starting to. It feels like 2003, when Howard Dean lost a lead among a crowded field to John Kerry in the final two weeks. We are almost at that point in this cycle. Pete Buttigieg had the lead in the last Iowa Poll from the Des Moines Register. That’s been an eternity ago of over a month. Bernie Sanders has rock-solid support. Warren and Buttigieg have robust organizing webs in every county – the factor that polls cannot fully account for.
Caucuses are not elections. They are exercises in party-building at the precinct level where delegate selection to the national Democratic convention begins. Iowans will ford the cold on a Monday night to arrive at a school, fire station or library in the tiniest burgs to hash out their choices and identify their issues for the county party platform. Precinct captains for each campaign will give speeches. Citizens will sort into preference groups. A campaign must garner 15% of the caucus attendance to remain viable. When lesser campaigns don’t meet the threshold, the horse-trading begins – come on over and we’ll elect one of your people to the congressional district or state conventions. This can go on for hours. It is a turn-off for some who would rather be at a basketball game, but for others is the ultimate grassroots dynamic of self-governance. Because of accessibility issues (night shift workers, the disabled) and impatience issues (Why do we have to listen to a speech from that neighbor I don’t like?) the caucuses are always under assault, and our pre-eminent status is in quadrennial peril.
It all goes by way of saying that caucuses can be unpredictable and messy affairs where counting heads can turn to chaos.
The saying goes that there are three tickets out of Iowa for New Hampshire. There might be four or five, if the each of the leading candidates comes in just over 15% as current polling indicates.
A few things to keep in mind as the days race by this month:
Iowa Democrats are populists at their base: Henry Wallace (Franklin Roosevelt’s vice-president and key participant in the New Deal), Harold Hughes (truck-driving, recovering alcoholic governor and senator) and Tom Harkin (former congressman and senator) are among their lions. Their hearts may be with Sanders or Warren. But often their heads turn to pragmatism and electability that bode well for a Biden or Klobuchar, as Kerry and Hillary Clinton nods indicate. They wonder how well Buttigieg will do in a general election in swing state Iowa, given a homophobia that lies just below the surface. (Three Iowa supreme court justices, including the chief, were voted off the bench in 2010 after legalizing gay marriage.)
Almost every Iowa Democrat I know is willing to caucus for Felix the Cat if it means that Trump’s jowels no longer will fill their television screens. That is their chief concern. It makes them think twice about Tom Steyer, who has about a billion dollars to dump in to his crusade, but they don’t think about Michael Bloomberg at all because he is flying over us and not landing for hot chocolate.
Caucus-goers also are furious with Trump and, as always, frustrated that Iowa’s economy never spreads the wealth that its rich land affords. If they think it’s a wave, they might nominate someone improbable like Barack Obama who offers fundamental change – something short of a revolution. They are gun-shy about having been gun-shy with Hillary Clinton.
Mainly, we just want to get on with it. While we appreciated the opportunity to kick the tires and ride on the bus, the intensity of the anticipation drives us to beg for calling the question. This is an unprecedented time with an impeached president and the largest field in caucus history, basically evenly divided. We take this business so seriously it will come as relief when the last bus rolls out for New Hampshire and we can recoup for November. Enough is enough, for now.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in north-west Iowa, where he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He is a columnist for Guardian US and author of the book, Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland due out in paperback next month from Penguin.
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