Say what you will about the justice and propriety of Iowa’s perennial first-in-the-nation shot at naming presidential front-runners, the state’s caucuses have a lot going for them as democratic experiences. Compared with a typical primary process that involves stepping into a booth, pulling a few levers, and walking away in anti-climax after a few minutes of voting, the caucuses are prolonged and social events. They allow citizens to engage, lobby, and persuade one another. Participants gain a direct glimpse into the machinations of party politics—seeing how local officers and delegates are selected. They debate proposed resolutions to be sent to the state party conventions. They hear speeches in favor of different candidates. And, in many cases, they compare notes with their fellows when deciding their final votes—allowing peer consensus to play a role.
The neighborly good cheer and democratic bonhomie of the caucus I attended was almost enough to make me forget, at least for a few moments, that I was sitting four rows up in a set of bleachers packed full of rabid conservatives.
Approaching the caucuses, #OccupyIowa and progressive community groups promoted a variety of tactics for individual activists. One option was to register as a “Republican for a Day” (Iowa allows same-day registration) and to support “uncommitted” delegates to the state convention. This was essentially the equivalent of voting “none of the above” for the conservatives in the running. Some on the left did the same thing at the Democratic Party’s caucuses, issuing a symbolic vote of no confidence for President Obama.
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Others focused on introducing progressive resolutions for the state party platforms—for example, proposals to repeal the Citizen’s United ruling, to defend Medicare and Social Security, or to provide relief for homeowners in danger of foreclosure. Former Democratic State Representative Ed Fallon, a veteran activist, told me that he successfully sowed some mischief along these lines. Not only did he register as a Republican for the day and attend a precinct caucus, he got himself elected caucus secretary for the event (apparently, there were no other volunteers for the position), and then he managed to get a resolution passed in support of a marriage equality amendment for gay and lesbian couples. (It was a narrow vote, and the crowd leaned toward Ron Paul libertarians, but still…)
Nothing so unusual happened in the precinct caucus I attended, where appeals to extreme conservatism carried the evening. In the gymnasium of my former middle school (which I had not set foot in since escaping the eighth grade), I watched a speaker promoting Newt Gingrich vow that his candidate would lower corporate tax rates and repeal Sarbanes-Oxley, the regulatory law enacted in the wake of Enron and other corporate accounting scandals.
Shortly thereafter, a Texan volunteer imported to campaign for Rick Perry lauded his candidate’s advocacy of a flat tax, called Perry “America’s most pro-life governor,” and celebrated anti-Planned Parenthood legislation passed in Texas that defunded the group and “closed twelve of their clinics.”
Rick Santorum was represented at the session by his former Senate chief of staff. The man, dressed in jeans and a blue v-neck sweater, explained, “What we need is not to compromise; we need a warrior.” He then awed me by beginning a sentence, “Rush Limbaugh said it best when…”
In the end, only the Romney spokesperson addressed the issue of electability: “We simply cannot have four more years of the current administration,” he said. “Everyone in this room knows that.”
“Everyone in this room” exempted me—and no doubt many of the dozens of other reporters and photographers who swarmed about the event, including members of the press from Sweden, Japan, German, Italy, Belgium, and France. The day before the caucuses I had attended a Ron Paul campaign appearance at the Marriott in downtown Des Moines. A camerawoman from the local ABC affiliate was standing near me. “There’s no real people here,” she whispered to a newscaster colleague in precise make-up. “I know,” the other woman said, “it’s all press. No Iowans.”
Back at the middle school, when the votes were being counted, caucus officials had to repeatedly implore news cameras to step back and give tally-takers room to breathe. Despite the commotion, after ten minutes, the count was in. Romney had steamrolled through the neighborhood, gathering 105 votes to Paul’s forty-seven and Santorum’s seventeen. Of course, this was in the state’s largest city. Social conservatives in rural precincts voted in much greater numbers for Santorum, giving him his unexpectedly strong overall finish.
After my caucus was done, I drove downtown to OccupyDSM’s semi-industrial “East Village” workspace to hear the activists give a closing statement for their week of action. They celebrated demonstrations that had produced more than sixty arrests and captured significant press attention. They reiterated their call to oust corporate money from our politics. And they celebrated the ability of grassroots movements to outlast the insanity of the caucus season. (“The circus is taking down its tents,” said one spokesperson of the impending exodus from the state.)
I also stopped by Mitt Romney’s Des Moines headquarters. The mood—at least an hour or so before the candidate came to speak—was subdued. A Fox News reporter got laughs from Romney supporters when he announced on air that their candidate, after going head-to-head with Santorum in New Hampshire, would face a “pig pile” of still-unvanquished rivals in South Carolina.
Perhaps a hard-fought primary will weaken the ultimate Republican nominee enough to give President Obama an easy reelection campaign. Yet after the Iowa caucuses, I am less convinced that a Democratic win will be so simple. The week’s protests included not only actions at Republican campaign headquarters, but also denunciations of Obama for the National Defense Authorization Act’s assaults on civil liberties. Disappointment abounds. Meanwhile, when passing the hat to raise money for the Republican Party at the caucus I attended, the precinct leader argued with a straight face, “This is probably the most important election in the past 100 or 125 years.”
None of those who were Republicans for more than just a day seemed to disagree.
Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.