Why I Love the Iowa Caucuses
Written from my farmhouse in Eastern Iowa on February 5, 2020.
The first time I visited Iowa was in September of 2000, on my move from Seattle to New York City with Scott. We stopped in Iowa for a few weeks so Scott could star as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the Rocky Horror Show downtown Des Moines. He slid down a stripper pole from the catwalk for his entrance! Amazing. When I flew into Iowa, I was astounded. This was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Lush land with seemingly infinite shades of green. Oh, the lawns! And the people! His mother, born and raised in Iowa, had a “Different Drummer” poem in her bathroom - you have a beat - I have a beat - let’s enjoy the rhythm and not force conformity. I mean, let’s also remember that I had just sold most of my possessions and was feeling the creative force of freedom flowing through my veins. I was gonna love this journey no matter what.
It persisted. The more I visited Iowa and experienced Iowans, the more I fell in love. I was especially taken with their caucus system. A people with a cultural trend toward politeness and quietness getting into a room together to share and listen and move their bodies around political topics? Amazing. Selecting the candidate we want to move forward into the general election by engaging in conversations? Beautiful. Many Iowans spend the summer, fall, and into the winter listening to the candidates, sharing thoughts, and navigating choices. This brings us into communion with each other as we hear the issues that matter to us and the lenses with which we see the world. How often do we do that anymore? It is so delicious to have an excuse to talk politics, and boy do we need to cultivate that ability.
I persisted. Scott brought us to Iowa in 2015. I finally got to live in my dream state (who knew a California boy whose heart grew in Seattle, journeyed through New York City and Washington, DC, and found a home in Chicago would want to spend his last days in Iowa). And right before the 2016 caucus! I still remember sitting next to an old farmer, Clarence, who was hard of hearing. I spoke into his ear what the moderator was saying. He gave an impassioned speech for Hilary Clinton. We moved around, we settled, we elected our delegates, we reported our decisions. It was wonderful.
And this year, we had such a rich pool of candidates. I didn’t get to see them all. Kamala was my gal, and I saw her in rural Iowa in a factory with less than 100 people. Liz knocked my socks off and convinced me to caucus for her and her anti-corruption platform. Andrew really excited me that there was a new way to approach government - “Not right. Not left. Forward.” I waited to see Pete until the day before the caucus. I wanted to experience a bunch of Iowans cheering for a gay dude to sit in the White House. Come to find out a bunch of people didn’t know he was gay. Oh, well, whatever.
Then came caucus night! I was so excited. Scooty and I got ourselves together, ate a hearty meal, and set out for the high school. We go into the rural room instead of town. I love that. We had 112 people from rural Cedar County together. We went to our candidate’s corners. One representative from each corner got on the microphone to give a plea for why folks should move to their corner. We counted the people in the room and in each corner (that took MUCH longer than should have and really drained the energy - also may a root problem with the process). The candidates who were not viable (didn’t have at least 15% of the people in the room) and the undecideds then moved around. Amy was able to become viable thanks to Andrew and Mike’s people. That was some good organizing on the part of that precinct captain! Bernie, Liz, and Joe had good showings. Pete, though! He overwhelmed everyone. He earned two delegates outright, whereas everyone else qualified only for one delegate. Bernie and Joe were the highest count of that cohort, so there was a coin toss for which one got a second delegate.
Here is what it gave me: hope and connection. I have great hope that we have so many candidates that interest people, and we can likely rally around a candidate that can replace a frightening and destructive leader currently in the oval office. It gave me connection with my fellow Iowans all through the journey, getting to know them better and finding out what they value. I think there are things that need to change: 1) we need a way for people to participate who can’t dedicate the time or access the space; 2) we need to find another way to break ties than a coin toss; 3) we need to not release our results until the next 2-3 states have their primaries.
My take: Iowa should remain in the early states. It never gets any attention in this country but once every four years, despite the fact that it feeds our country. Also, Iowa’s culture trends toward curiosity and openness with a unique blend of practical and progressive thought and action. However, it is overwhelmingly white. So, let’s make the first in the nation more of a 3-4 state affair. I think Nevada and South Carolina provide a nice balance of diversity. I’m not sure Iowa and New Hampshire both need to stay in the mix. I just think if we had three states of focus, that would spread out the time the candidates spend and expand the diversity of influencers. Iowa’s caucuses should happen a week before the other two states, because they are not meant for a quick reporting process. They are meant to take time. This would get the hype started as the candidates turn their attention to the other two states, and they can all release results on the same day. Let that influence the direction of the primaries!