Editor’s note: UNC professor Jonathan Weiler, an INDY Voices columnist, headed to the soon-to-be-frozen tundra of Iowa this weekend to be the INDY’s official Iowa Caucuses Correspondent™. His final dispatch comes from caucus night—when everything went to hell in Iowa, but not in one high school cafeteria.
I spent Monday night at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, observing the proceedings of Precinct 43, one of over 1,700 sites where Iowans were caucusing. As you’re probably aware, we wouldn’t learn the results of the caucuses for nearly 24 hours, owing to a string of tech mishaps and general incompetence. (In case you missed it: Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg did well, Elizabeth Sanders came in a decent third, Joe Biden, well, not a good night for him.)
I arrived an hour before the scheduled 7:00 p.m. start time, and the room—the high school cafeteria—was already filling up. The crowd tilted older, but there were plenty of younger folks, including parents with small children.
When the precinct secretary began, shortly before 7:30, reading announcements and reviewing the revamped and very complicated rules, the cafeteria was crowded and bustling.
The first order of business was to figure out how many participants were there, in order to establish the viability threshold—15 percent of the total participants. To do so, each participant had to walk dutifully past the secretary and her husband to receive a two-sided presidential preference card. Twenty-five minutes later, the secretary’s husband wrote two numbers in magic marker on a piece paper tacked to the wall—473, the number of people there. And 71, the number for viability.
After that, every participant returned to their caucus group so that precinct captains could count their support. After this first count, Elizabeth Warren was the big winner in the room, while Sanders and Buttigieg easily crossed the viability threshold. Biden and Klobuchar fell a handful of votes short.
This is where things get interesting. The secretary granted 15 minutes for non-viable groups to try to make deals—in other words, to persuade individuals to join their candidate. When a Klobuchar supporter first walked over to the Biden caucus to see whether anyone might be interested in moving, he was greeted with an emphatic no. But a couple of minutes later, to loud cheers from the Klobuchar group, a couple of Biden supporters did just that.
Meanwhile, some members of the Yang group, which, at 16 votes after the first count, was far short, were cooking up a deal with Biden supporters and others. At the end of the bargaining window—think a much friendlier, more civic-minded version of the floor of the New York Stock Exchange—the Yang group struck a deal to stay where they were through the first alignment, in order to have Yang’s 16 votes recorded as his. But they were now free to move to another candidate where a “second alignment” would be recorded.
After the first alignment was over—Klobuchar squeaked over the line before it ended—every person whose candidate was viable turned in their now-filled-out presidential preference card to the precinct secretary, where they were sealed into envelopes. Those whose candidate did not make viability could stay where they were or move to another candidate and fill out the other side of their presidential preference card before the second alignment was counted.
It was at this stage that Biden finally crossed the finish line, with 73 votes in the precinct. With that—and a bit more friendly chaos—the presidential caucus in DsM 43 came to a close, a mere two and a half hours after it was scheduled to begin.
All of this, as a reminder, is just to pick delegates to the state convention, which will then nominate Iowa’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee this July. So all that time and effort resulted in Warren winning three delegates, with Biden, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Buttigieg securing two each.
There are good reasons to end the caucus system itself, as it restricts participation in problematic ways. And Iowa’s outsize role in influencing the nominating process, given that it is a small, disproportionately white state, is arguably long past its expiration date. The disastrous failure of the vote reporting system last night may seal Iowa’s fate in that regard.
But for all that, there’s something extraordinary about what I witnessed. A cold Monday evening when hundreds of citizens came out because of a sense of civic duty to participate in the political process and to try to engage one another in friendly persuasion.
There aren’t that many opportunities in life for such interaction, and the exercise itself surely gives many people at least a modicum of a sense of agency, if only briefly. That’s not a defense of the caucus system. Just a brief homage.
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