An Iowan ex-pat on the Iowa Caucuses

I grew up in Iowa– Davenport in much of grade school, but mostly in Cedar Falls. I don’t want to sound like an old man, but I just don’t remember the caucuses being that big of a deal when I was a kid.

I did go to a debate of Democratic candidates in Des Monies in 1984, the first year I could vote (I picked Mondale), and I think I wrote an article about it for my high school newspaper. When I was in college during the 1988 presidential year, I lived with some folks who were very active in working for Paul Simon and Mike Dukakis (I ended up voting for Dukakis). I moved away from Iowa after college, meaning that I haven’t had a lot of first-hand experience with the process since (and it also means I’ve lived outside of Iowa more than I’ve lived in the state). And while my parents and sisters and in-laws will talk politics at family gatherings on occasion, no one in my family is especially politically active. My parents have caucused before (I haven’t), but that’s about it.

So with all that in mind, it’s kind of interesting for me to watch the process this year.

First off, it’s a weird way of electing potential candidates for office. The way that it works, basically, is you go to a precinct of some sort– a school, a church, sometimes even someone’s house– and you chat with folks, have coffee, etc. Then you go to a corner of the room with your candidate– Obama folks here, Clinton folks there, Dodd folks over there, etc. And then, if you are in a group that has less than 15% of the folks there, your candidate is not considered “viable.” So, if you are for Christopher Dodd or Joe Biden or whoever, you basically have two choices: either you stick by your guns and your vote is irrelevant, or you get persuaded to go to a more viable candidate’s corner. Oh, and this whole thing takes time– no just going in to vote and leave. So, to sum up: your vote isn’t a secret, you are being lobbied all the way through the process, and it’s a pain in the ass.

Second, the ads out there have been something else. Usually when I’m back in Iowa, especially in spring or summer, I am routinely amused and perplexed by the advertisements for farm seeds and herbicides. But when I was back for Christmas this year, I was startled by the wall-to-wall political ads, crowding out pretty much anything and everything else, four or five 30 second spots for different candidates all in a row. It started to bug me after about three days; I cannot imagine what it would be like to live with this for months and months.

Is this a way to nominate presidential candidates? Probably not. Much of what you’ve probably heard about Iowa in the national media is true. It is a very white state (though less than it was when I was a kid, especially with an influx of migrant workers from Latin America and Eastern Europe), it is more concerned economically with farming than most other states, and there aren’t that many people there, with more people living within 30 miles of my house than there are in the entire state. And like primaries everywhere, only something like 10 or 20 percent of these people actually participate in the process, and those people tend to be on the extremes on the political spectrum.

On the other hand, there probably isn’t any way to pick a candidate that would make everyone happy, so hey, why not Iowa? Iowans are a well-educated and thoughtful lot, so I’d rather have them making these early decisions than residents of a lot of other places. Because it is a small state, candidates really do have to do a lot of in-person contact with the candidates– my father told me that something like one-third of all Iowans have seen at least one of the candidates speak in some forum, and you can imagine that a lot of folks have seen many more than that. If you had the first test in a bigger state (like Michigan) or in a region of states, you wouldn’t get that sort of contact.

Anyway, we’ll see what happens. I’d be caucusing for Obama, personally. Instead, I’ll keep half an eye on the returns tonight.

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