I happened to find myself in Iowa City for a few days last week, which afforded this Minnesotan the chance to have a first, first-hand look at the Iowa caucuses. I didn’t realize it before, but the caucuses themselves are open meetings — if you want to attend as a non-participating observer, you may. To the rolled eyeballs of those around me, I leapt at the chance. At 7 p.m. on the day, I found myself leaning against a blue-painted, cinder-block wall of an elementary school gymnasium.
Earlier in the day, I’d just missed a Chris Dodd rally at the WiFi-equipped coffee shop in which I was working (Edwards, Biden and Bill Clinton had also stumped there, according to the barista — “great for business”). Edwards and Richardson were bouncing around town somewhere doing their last-minute thing. People everywhere seemed to show the weary signs of message pummeling (my hosts, for example, unplugged their phone after getting as many as 15 calls an evening).
The caucus itself, a Democratic one, was literally packed — with more than 600 people cramming into the modest-sized room. By chance I found myself wedged in a corner, behind the soon-to-be-declared-unviable Dodd contingent. A bit of space opened up as the Obama crowd agreed to relocate to an adjacent hallway.
“So, what are you here to observe?” asked one friendly Dodd supporter with a smile after asking what I was doing there. “You,” I said, eliciting a laugh from the Doddites.
The potential for irritation-driven chaos seemed high. It was congested, warm and loud. It was difficult to hear the chairman with his weak, feedback-prone speaker system. There were long, dull stretches of time during which the organizers sorted through administrative stuff. Almost everyone there stood in one place for nearly two hours. But there was a productive and easy vibe to the thing that made it all work out somehow as the room lurched from agenda item to agenda item in relatively good humor.
Some consider the caucus system to be a strange contrivance, but there was something undeniably cool about seeing a roomful of neighbors gathered into groups with hands in the air to be counted. College kids, suit-and-tied dads with sleeping babies on the shoulder, grey-haired folks who were doing this for the umpteenth time — quite a cross section. If it was at all representative of what happens statewide, the cliche is correct — Iowans do take this very seriously.
In the end, my Dodd friends walked over to the Clinton, Obama or Edwards camps and the results mirrored the statewide results. I sensed that most people came with a clear #1 and #2 in mind — there wasn’t much persuasion happening on the caucus floor despite some failed efforts to create some Richardson support by getting the also-rans together.
By the time I got to a TV, the massive media abandonment of Iowa was already underway and the networks were calling the results. The last image I saw that night was a lingering, stray TV spot for Chris Dodd, who’d dropped out a few hours earlier.