I had suspected – or perhaps hoped – that the nation's Democratic primary voters would take to Senator Barack Obama the way that Illinois' primary voters had four years ago in his first statewide race. Tonight in Davenport, I found it to be true.
The Iowa caucus is a rather unique expression of self-government. This is how we begin to select the leader of the free world: in the cafeteria of a local high school, 200 people show up and without anyone from the government in charge (no police, no government-printed ballots or government-authorized election official), they try to be fair and give everyone a chance to publicly say who they believe should run the country. In 1750 or so different public locations around the state, all following the rules and regulations issued by a non-government organization (the Iowa Democratic Party), anyone who wants to show up can come and caucus.
(Consider how Pakistan, a nation in a lot of trouble right now, just picked the leader of the perhaps the largest political party. Shortly after Ms. Bhutton was assisinated, her husband and son were selected by a very small group of party leaders to run the party – and thus the government if their party is victorious in the next elections (if any are held). Quite a contrast to the hyper-democratic caucus in Iowa).
Barack Obama won the caucuses because a lot more people showed up. Usually about 150,000 or so people caucus. This year there were almost 240,000 people. And most of the first-time people were there for Barack Obama.
To caucus, one has to show up by 7:00 pm. This caucus meeting is the local Democratic Party. Funds are raised, absentee ballot applications are circulated, petitions for primary campaigns are circulated, resolutions are debated and most importantly, delegates pledges to particular presidential candidates are selected. This last bit is what the presidential campaigns have been about: earning delegates. Remember, the nominee of the Democratic Party is selected by a majority of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer. There are lots of ways that the 4000 or so delegates are picked, and the first very public way of getting picked as a deleage is the 1750 Iowa precinct caucuses.
In Davenport's 33rd precinct where I was assigned, the line for people who needed to register to vote was almost as long as the line for people who were just checking in and already registered. The people in the first-timers line were predominantly young, multi-racial and wearing an Obama 08 sticker. The Edwards and Clinton supporters were there early as they had all seemingly caucused before.
No one seemed to be in charge, because no one really was. There was a temporary Chair and a temporary Secretary with the authority to run the meeting at first, but one of the first orders of business was to select a permanent Chair and Secretary. Our particular leaders were not blessed with an air of authority about them, and so while they and the 8 or 10 other people who were checking in caucus participants or registering new voters were figuring out the party paperwork, the people separated into different groups based on their candidate support. It quickly became apparent that the Obama group was at least twice as large as either the Clinton or Edwards' groups. A few lonely Richardson and Biden supporters looked for allies. Meanwhile, a bit of a controversy emerged as it became apparent that some people were in the wrong precinct. At least half a dozen people came to caucus in an adjacent precinct – and it wasn't clear whether the temporary Chair was simply going to strip them of their vote or try to send them to their correct precinct. But would the temporary Chair in the correct precinct accept them as a voting member? The 7:00 pm deadline to arrive had come and gone. What would happen to these would-be voters?
No state law controlled the question. It was up to the volunteer leaders of the private organization – the Democratic Party – to make a decisoin. This was at once ridiculous and uplifting. How can we select the leader of the free world by the capricious whim of a neighborhood guy? But then again, if we can't count on average Americans coming together for the good of the Republic, then what can we count on? Corporate America? Utlimatley, all we've got is each other and it's inspiring to see that yes, we can citizens can figure this out with good will and patience. In a sense, the successful caucus of simultaneous gatherings of volunteers to fairly and inclusively collect the preferences of regular people to change the government is at the heart of the appeal of the Obama campaign: we can do this together. As he said in his victory speech: “ordinary people can do extraordinary things.”
The precinct captains and volunteers in charge took their time to come to an agreement while the 190 or so others patiently waited for their decisions. They finally concluded that the 5 or 6 people who weren't technically in the precinct could still participate and vote, since they lived on the border and it just wouldn't be right to exclude them for an honest mistake. No one seemed upset.
During the quiet discussions among the leaders on the residency problem, one caucus participant introduced by reading out loud a pro-immigrant (or anti-anti-immigrant, if you will) resolution pursuant to the rules and asked for the body's approval. An older woman stood up and pointed out all the jobs that the immigrants were taking from the rest of us. A middle-aged woman made a plea to consider her family – her mother served in the U.S. military for 10 years and raised a hard-working family, even though she was undocumented. Her plea carried the day as almost everyone raised their hand to support the resolution (only two older women voted against it).
It wasn't nearly as structured or regulated as government-run primary elections, but the caucus brought the neighborhood together to openly discuss how to improve the government. That's a valuable culture to cultivate.
When it came to voting, it was done largely by a head count. Almost everyone had a campaign sticker on and were sitting with their respective supporters. Each precinct captain (essentially the volunteer leader from each campaign) simply counted the number of supporters and reported it to the secretary. When the numbers added up to the number of registered caucus-goers, the vote was accepted. Since there were 5 delegates from the precinct to allocate, any 20% of the vote got a delegate. There were more than 100 Obama supporters and about 30 supporters each of Clinton and Edwards, so Obama got 3 delegates while Edwards and Clinton each got 1.
The entire caucus lasted two hours and potentially changed the course of history.
Here's how Barack Obama explained it in his victory speech:
In lines that stretched around schools and churches, in small towns and big cities, you came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents to stand up and say “We are one nation. We are one people. And our time for change has come.”
Part of Obama's own analysis for the huge victory in Iowa is that Democrats, Republicans and independents came together to call for change. It isn't obvious what Republicans might be doing in a Democratic Party Caucus. But there was something to it. The four men and women whom I drove home after the caucus are a nice symbol of the Obama coalition. A sixty-year old white physician who is a little disappointed in Obama for not fully supporting single-payer health care. An eighty-something retired black woman who hasn't been back to her high school since 1946. A twenty-something black man who just moved to Iowa and first heard about the caucus three days ago. And a forty-something white man who had served on the Republican Central Committee for at least a decade and switched over to the Democrats because he likes Barack's optimism.
The Obama people were ultimately the idealists. They were younger, they called themselves organizers with pride and they believed in a better world to come because of their work. They were elected officials – the mayor-elect of Davenport, an under-35 state rep from outside Davenport and an under-35 state senateor from Champaign, Illinois -- who were in the business because they believed in a better world to come because of their work. They were a multi-racial crowd, and that in itself helped inspire belief in a better world. It has much less of an institutional feel than many other campaigns. The Davenport headquarters felt more like a warm community center than the sales conference room lots of campaigns can feel like. No one was there because they had to. And the place exploded in joy during Barack's victory speech. I'll close with some excerpts.
We are sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.
In the face of impossible odds, people who love this country can change it. I know this because while I may be standing here tonight, my journey began on the streets of Chicago organizing and working and fighting to make peoples' lives just a little bit better. I know how hard it is. It comes with little sleep and little pay, organizing and working on campaigns. There are days of disappointments.
Sometimes there are nights like this. A night that years from now when we've made the changes we believe in: when more families can afford to see a doctor when our children – when Malia and Sasha and your children inherit a world that's a little cleaner and safer, when the world sees America differently and America sees itself as a nation less divided and more united, you'll be able to look back with pride and say that this was the moment when it all began.
This was the moment when the improbable beat what Washington always said was inevitable. This was the moment when we tore down barriers that have divided us for too long. When we rallied people of all parties and all ages to a common cause. When we finally gave Americans who had never participated in politics a reason to stand up and do so. This was the moment when we finally beat back the politics of fear and doubt and cynicisim. This was the moment.
In this moment, and in this election, we are ready to believe again.