It seems paradoxical that sea-change events in American politics might hinge on a small cluster of people standing in the Bruce Coville and Beverly Clearly section of the Hillside Elementary School library in West Des Moines. But there is much that is paradoxical about the Iowa caucuses, the kickoff event of the presidential nominating contests every four years.
Unlike their cousin, the New Hampshire primary, the Iowa caucuses are not the clear-cut electoral processes voters have come to know in states like Michigan, New York and California. The caucus process makes Iowa the famous political battleground it is — a place where candidates and campaigns are forced to adjust their strategies, placing their strengths and weaknesses in stark relief and creating a level of drama unsurpassed by that of other contests.
“The biggest difference [between a caucus and a primary] is that every vote matters because turnout isn’t that high,” said Yale College Democrats President Eric Kafka, who spent part of his winter break volunteering for Senator Barack Obama’s campaign in Des Moines. “If your goal is to maximize turnout, you don’t have a caucus.”
Turnout this year shattered records, but the caucuses still only drew 16.8 percent of Iowa’s registered voters on a night that also featured college football’s Orange Bowl on FOX. Therein lies the greatest strength and harshest criticism of the caucus.
Voters in Iowa love the fact that their state goes first in the presidential selection process. But every four years they have to put up with questions about why Iowa’s “archaic,” “unrepresentative,” or even “undemocratic” process has such a disproportionate influence in selecting the next commander in chief.
The critics’ complaints are not completely baseless. The general processes used to conduct the caucus have remained relatively unchanged since the first caucus in 1846, Iowa Republican Party Executive Director Chuck Laudner said in an interview the morning after the caucus. And demographics don’t lie — Iowa is number five on the list of the whitest states in the Union.
“Now we’ll have an election where people who work at night can come out to cast their ballot,” Senator Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 said as she left Iowa for New Hampshire.
But the overcompensation of the Iowa voter is remarkable. Taking a page from George McGovern’s insurgency in 1972, former Senator John Edwards handed out an 80-page booklet at each campaign stop, outlining in detail his policy platform on virtually every issue that could concern an Iowa voter. One Edwards supporter at a Des Moines rally proudly claimed he had read every page.
Sarah Coleman ’05, taking time off from Senator Joe Biden’s Washington Senate office to work for his presidential campaign in Iowa, said she was amazed at how seriously Iowans take their politics.
“Everyone here is so informed,” she said. “It’s great — they’re asking you questions you don’t hear anywhere else, like ‘How are you going to pay for that?’ ”
Sam Schoenburg ’11 thinks that’s one of the strengths of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status.
“Because [Iowans] take this so seriously and because they’ve been exposed to personal politics for months and months at a time, they can’t be fooled. Every [Iowa caucus-goer] becomes a political reporter — they’re incredibly well-informed,” Schoenburg said.
The Silliman College freshman worked for Obama in Des Moines over the break and returned with “mixed emotions” regarding the caucus process, especially the actual mechanics of caucus night, which Schoenburg termed “very quirky.”
“In the caucus I observed, you had a husband for Biden and a wife for Hillary, and you had the wife screaming, ‘You better come over to Hillary’s side or you’re not going to get spaghetti on Sunday!’ ” he recalled. “It takes a lot to stand in front of your friends and neighbors and say, ‘I’m for this person.’ ”
Culinary threats and other criticisms aside, Iowa voters contend they are simply better at what they do — determining presidential mettle — than people in other states. And no politician is willing to say otherwise.
“Thank you for continuing to make this a level playing field. The great thing about Iowa is you take a hard look at each of the candidates and nobody tells Iowa how to vote,” Biden said at a Dec. 30 rally.
In today’s age of celebrity candidates with tens of millions of dollars in campaign warchests, Iowa offers a chance to beat the media buzz and defy the odds. Exhibit A: Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s astounding, under-funded rise from statistical zero to a winning 35 percent of the Iowa vote in less than four months.
The variables of population and distance in Iowa shift the equation for campaigns. Ground games — going door to door with volunteers — and turnout operations became vastly more important in a contest in which, this year, each candidate had nearly a year to inundate every county in the Hawkeye State with ads and campaign literature.
Which brings the entire process back to the library at Hillside. The 264 Democrats who participated in this year’s caucus represented a 90-percent jump in turnout from 2004, when turnout reached what were then record highs. Part of that spike is the result of volunteers like Gabe Goffman ’10 — young college students who showed up in droves at campaign offices to help with door-to-door canvass activities or phone banking.
“[Going door to door] is pretty important because it’s a caucus. It’s not at their usual voting place, it’s a big time commitment and it’s kind of unusual,” Goffman explained. “I was in a pretty working-class, predominantly African-American neighborhood, and there was a lot of support for Obama. But they had a busy life schedule, so it was like a new commitment. You have to constantly remind people: one, to go, and two, that [caucusing] is a worthy cause.”