Observing Iowa

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.

— Hornseth

2 thoughts on “Observing Iowa

  1. Hillary Exit Imminent?! says:

    Mon Jan 07 2008 09:46:28 ET

    Facing a double-digit defeat in New Hampshire, a sudden collapse in national polls and an expected fund-raising drought, Senator Hillary Clinton is preparing for a tough decision: Does she get out of the race? And when?!

    “She can’t take multiple double-digit losses in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada,” laments one top campaign insider to the DRUDGE REPORT. “If she gets too badly embarrassed, it will really harm her. She doesn’t want the Clinton brand to be damaged with back-to-back-to-back defeats.”

    Meanwhile, Democrat hopeful John Edwards has confided to senior staff that he is staying in the race because Hillary “could soon be out.”

    “Her money is going to dry up,” Edwards confided, a top source said Monday morning.


    Key players in Clinton’s inner circle are said to be split. James Carville is urging her to fight it out through at least February and Super Tuesday, where she has a shot at thwarting Barack Obama in a big state.

    “She did not work this hard to get out after one state! All this talk is nonsense,” said one top adviser.

    But others close to the former first lady now see no possible road to victory, sources claim.


    [The dramatic reversal of fortunes has left the media establishment stunned and racing to keep up with fast-moving changes.

    In its final poll before Iowa, CNN showed Clinton with a two-point lead over Obama. Editorial decisions were being made based on an understanding the Democratic primary race would be close, explained a network executive.]

  2. Bruce Benidt says:

    Hornseth, did you make enough in tips at the coffee shop to get yourself to New Hampshire, or should we all pitch in to send you?
    Love the first, first-hand report. Get thee to Dixville Notch and give us another one.

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