Tuesday, January 20, 2004

An outsider's 12 hours in the Iowa caucus with the Kerry campaign

Last night in Community Room D of the Lifespan Center in Dubuque, Iowa, where the 4th precinct of the city of Dubuque was holding the Democratic caucus (separate by a blue wall divider from a square dancing class), one of the two middle-aged women who had worked to bring out Kerry supporters said to the other: “I’m glad all those kids didn’t show up.” The 15 Dean supporters, huddled in the far corner of the room, were faced with the glum prognosis of ‘not viable’ as they needed 19 caucus-goers to cross the 15% threshold and have the right to send a Dean-supporting delegate onto the county convention. The kids, who had spent most of the day holding up signs and banners by the highways in the vain hope of inspiring passing motorists to show up no later than 7:00 pm at their caucus that night and support Dean, did not show up at Dubuque 4. Or, as it turns out, in much of the state.

I spent the day in Dubuque, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day by participating in the Iowa caucuses. Since I live in Chicago, I couldn’t vote. But I could help to run the caucus, which somewhat surprisingly, I did.

My friend Jay Rowell had a buddy working on the John Kerry campaign. He needed bodies to work the caucuses. I’m a Dean supporter, but since I’d take any of the four leading candidates, and I’d never seen an Iowa caucus, I thought I’d take the ride with Jay in exchange for helping out his friend. With two other friends, the four of us arrived in Dubuque (just west of the Illinois border) about noon on Monday.

The Kerry campaign had rented out a storefront downtown, and the place had the lived-in feel of a campaign with a field operation. We were assigned a precinct, and our job was simple: drop off a reminder flier to the people who were already declared Kerry supporters or likely Kerry supporters. These people had already been identified by the campaign through phone banking, door-knocking or word-of-mouth, and the job on election day is to ensure that they actually show up. Lots of campaigns neglect this axiom: supporters who stay at home are useless. Election day is not a day for appealing to undecided voters. Election Day is the day to focus exclusively on getting the people who have already pledged their support for your candidate into the polling place. If a campaign doesn’t have a list of registered voters (names and addresses) who have said they will vote for the candidate the day before the election, the candidate has already lost. In Dubuque, it looked like only the Kerry campaign had such a list.

After driving around a residential part of Dubuque and dropping off flyers into the homes of supporters (generally about two homes per block), we checked back into headquarters. I was assigned precinct 4, where I’d be playing a supporting role to two good organizers. My job was to take the list of Kerry supporters in the precinct, check off people as they arrived, and call everyone else on the list with a cell phone to implore them to come out to the caucus. The pitch was to start off nicely at 5:30 pm (“come on out to a pre-caucus potluck we’re having”) and by 6:30 pm ridiculously ratchet it up (“this isn’t about 260 million people, this is about 6 billion people, because if Kerry doesn’t get the nomination, Bush is going to slaughter us in November, and we must stop him, so get to this caucus right now! Do you need a ride?”).

At 5:00 pm, the community center was deserted. There were no signs. There were no people in the hallways. There was no one in charge. One woman sat by herself in Community Room C with some snacks. Two other women were in Community Room B, a large rectangular room with 150 or so chairs lined up classroom style. One of those women was the precinct captain, and she was decided which campaigns would be assigned which corners of the room (Lieberman and Sharpton were given the back corners with Gephardt, since no one was probably coming for the first two). A Kerry woman wandered in with a bag of posters, tape and markers, and we put up Caucus for Kerry Here posters in our assigned corner. This room was to be assigned precinct 5, and for now, I seemed to be the person in charge from the Kerry campaign.

Mike Connolly, a soft-spoken man who looked like a nice high school chemistry teacher and who was partial to the phrase “Bless your heart” arrived. He also served as the state senator from the area, and was going to serve as the temporary precinct chair to get the meeting in order. And he was a Kerry supporter, so had worked the precinct and had a list of pluses.

People, mostly older than 50, began to gather. I conscripted Maureen, the only other under-30 person in the room (and as it turns out, Mike’s daughter), to help me cross off the Kerry supporters (easily identified by their willingness to affix a Kerry sticker to their chest) from Mike’s list. Once someone was in the room, there was no need to call them. This would target our phone calling to only those people who might actually need to be cajoled to come. And with the race in a statistical four-way tie, every extra body in the caucus that all translated to a 0.5% or 1% increase could mean the difference between a close second and winning the election.

We also had to set up the room to prepare for the caucus, so after putting myself in Mike’s direction, he had me cart out dozens and dozens of chairs to set up in a class-room style. As more early arrivals began to fill up the room, congregating into different tables based on their differing candidate stickers, about ten of the people started to form a structure, setting up a sign-in table, pulling out official Democratic Party forms and finding a completely-transparent plastic podium for the front of the room.

I was torn between the demands of getting the Kerry campaign rolling and helping to get the caucus set up. Someone had to put a sign on the front door announcing that this was a caucus location for precincts 4 and 5. Someone had to help get the chairs in order. Mike was largely directing the caucus set up, but the rest of the people all seemed to know what they were doing as well. By 6:00, I took Mike’s call sheet and set up shop near the front door with Maureen.

By 6:15 pm, there was a crowd. Most of them wandered over to Maureen and I first, thinking we were checking people in. I’d ask if they wanted a Kerry sticker (the easiest way to tell if they were on Mike’s list of Kerry voters or not), and if not, that they could sign up fifteen feet away where four volunteers had emerged to check in caucus participants. Maureen called the people who had not checked in, sometimes leaving a message on the home machine of the person who simultaneously approached us. There was no hostility or antagonism, and almost everyone had a sticker or two on their chest for one candidate or another. There was a bit of a mad rush until 6:40 or so, when more than 150 people had made their way into the room and settled in. Mike called the meeting to order, and asked for a permanent chair to take his place. No one offered to take the job off his hands, so after a long enough pause to ensure there wasn’t a shy participate ready to take the reigns (Mike emphasized “I’d be happy to give up the job”), it was moved and seconded that Mike serve as the permanent chair. I suspect the caucus was impressed with his easily mastery of parliamentary procedure, and almost all of the people in the room had voted for him for state senate.

The cut-off was 7:00 pm and Maureen called through every person on the list in those last 15 minutes. Another woman left to pick up a straggling Kerry supporter. More than a few old people reached on the phone weren’t feeling well enough to make it out; more than a few at the caucus had left their spouses at home and didn’t they could get them to come, despite our entreaties to drag them over.

Chairing the meeting, Mike explained that 11 delegates from the caucus were to be selected that evening, based on the relative strength of each presidential candidate. For every 1/11 of the vote, a candidate would send 1 delegate to the county convention in March, where a similar winnowing process would decide the delegates to send to the state convention in May, and where in turn a final winnowing process would send the delegates to the national convention in Boston in July. But in order to be ‘viable’ under Iowa Democratic Party rules, a candidate must earn the support of at least 15 percent of the caucus goers. With 167 people in the room for Dubuque 4, that meant the viability threshold was 19 people. If a candidate had less than 19 people, the supporters could either go home, decide to remain uncommitted or choose another candidate to support in the next round of preferences.

Mike called the roll of every person who had signed up, and the precinct secretary (a Dean supporter) frantically and methodically kept the record. A straggler arriving at 7:04 pm without any identifying sticker, who was technically not supposed to participate, was waved in by the check-in volunteers. “We don’t want to discourage anyone.from participating,” one explained. Finally, at 7:10 pm, we were ready to show our candidate preferences. Corners were assigned to each candidate somewhat arbitrarily, and the assembled throng of almost all-white, mostly above-50 Iowa Democrats pushed back their chairs and began to shuffle about the room. It felt like the end of a high school assembly for a few minutes: one moment the class was sitting in a packed audience in quiet attention, the next moment the room was full of chatting people in a crowded space walking in every direction.

Mike had neglected to find a corner for Lieberman, Sharpton, Clark or the undecideds, and a few people seemed lost. Having nothing else to do, since the caucus had begun and there was nothing left for the campaign to do but wait, I jumped to help. An under-21 wanted to caucus for Sharpton. An older woman wanted Lieberman. Two or three were undecided. We put them all together in a little bunch, waiting for further instructions or to see if 18 other supporters would wander over. As the candidate camps coalesced in their corners, the undecideds grew a bit antsy. Mike gave them their options, but stressed that they should really pick their second choice, since they weren’t viable. Most of them went to the Kerry camp, as that’s where the largest crowd was. The two or three Kucinich supporters went to the Dean camp, posters in tow (notwithstanding a rumor that Kucinich had agreed to send his supporters to Edwards).

That left four candidates in the running, but the Dean supporters had bad news: there were only 15 of them, 4 short of the magic number. And thus began a confusing ten-minute period of halting, public negotiations by a leaderless group. The Dean people had to decide whether to stick together and cut a deal with a different candidate and go together en masse, or whether to scatter to the other candidates based on individual choices. Kerry had 64 people, Gephardt had 28, Edwards just made it with 19 but Dean was short. At first, one of the Dean women appealed for 4 more people from each camp somewhat fitfully, but no one moving. Then the potential trade became apparent: the Dean people could join up with another camp in exchange for naming the additional delegate that the other candidate would be entitled to based on the Dean 15 from among the Dean camp. That Dean delegate would have to vote for the other candidate at the county convention, but at least the Dean campaign would have something for their efforts. Both the Edwards and Gephardt campaign appeared to offer that deal to the Dean campaign; it wasn’t clear whether the Kerry campaign did as well. There was no leader of any campaign, so no one could really speak authoritatively on any campaign’s behalf. But somehow, the Dean campaign accepted the offer from the Edwards campaign, and the Dean 15 marched over to join the Edwards corner.

This led to a final delegate distribution of 6 for Kerry, 3 for Edwards and 2 for Gephardt. One of the Edwards delegates would come from the original Dean supporters. And who would these delegates be? The unofficial body-counter of each campaign that reported the number of people in each corner then asked for volunteers to serve as delegates to the county convention. At first, they received mostly silence. But after some prodding, such as “I will put my own name in submission, but only if no one else wants to do it. Does anyone want to? Are you sure?” enough volunteers were identified from each camp.

That was the caucus. Everyone was friendly and it was fun to do. More analysis and description later – for now (4:30 am Tuesday morning), I’m going to bed.

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