Caucus Night, or How Iowa Failed the Nation and Redeemed It Again

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Caucus Night, or How Iowa Failed the Nation and Redeemed It Again

This is the fifth and final installment of the Iowa caucus dispatches. Read an angry Q&A explaining the origin and function of the caucuses here. Read the writer’s thoughts on Bernie, Hillary, and a battlefield strewn with the bodies of American ghosts here. Read two interviews with University of Iowa political science professors waxing pragmatic about the caucuses here and here.

Deep breaths:

“You are SOooo RIGHT about the IOWA CAUCUSES DELEGATES ELECTORAL BULLSHIT!!!! – It is absolutely UNDEMOCRATIC COCKAMAMY CONVOLUTED KNUCKLEHEADED UNFAIR CRAZY BALONEY BULLSHIT!!!! – a true DISGRACE CORRUPTION of AMERICAN POLITICS and DEMOCRACY and should be ABOLISHED FOREVER!!!! ONE PERSON EQUALS ONE VOTE!!!! ONE PERSON = ONE VOTE!!!! WAKE UP STUPID GULLIBLE AMERICANS of AMERICA!!!! – ONE PERSON = EQUALS = ONE VOTE!!!!”

—Internet commenter Garyklara, sounding off on yesterday’s caucus Q&A

I’m not sure exactly how to feel, knowing Garyklara and I are on the same page, because I’m not a native speaker of that strident, glottal, lunatic language known as “Internet-English.” It’s the dialect of the chronically unhinged; a lingua franca uniting the deranged neural web of conspiracy theorists and raging liberals, all of them armed with smoldering persecution complexes, who occupy the nether regions of cyberspace like hysterical squatters. It is too far removed from the romance languages, as far as I’m concerned, and nothing but a shallow perversion of the already-unlovely Germanic tongue that was forced on me at birth. Sympathize with these people if you must—they live in the shadows, the dark corners, the holes-in-the-wall where you dare not stick your hand. But to my mind, they should be driven from their lands and scattered like rats. Repossess, rebuild, renew! Bulldoze the bastards!

But then again…when you’re right, you’re right. And my man Gary, bless him, grabbed the sons of the bitches by their starched lapels and nailed them right to the wall. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, and Gary is a bona fide seer. Facts are facts: Certain things should be simple, and transparent, and fair. Certain things should be treated with a little bit of dignity, and be rescued from our circus instincts.

I did my research, and I arrived in Iowa City already toting some righteous indignation about the Iowa caucuses. The philosophy behind it is deeply flawed, and the anemic turnout numbers make it a farce. Then, yesterday afternoon, I learned that one of the main reasons the state won’t switch to an ordinary primary is because the minute they do, New Hampshire will get pissed off and try to jump the line—they’re only holding back now because they have “first primary” status, which falls to the wayside if Iowa gets ride of the word “caucus.” And if New Hampshire gets upset, Iowa loses its precious first-in-the-nation status. You get it—this is how stupid institutions are maintained.

Then I actually experienced a caucus, and stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the results pour in. I saw at least six delegates decided by coin flip (all of which Hillary Clinton won, the lucky devil). I saw huge numerical advantages in the precincts reduced to ties because of pointless formulas. I saw a campaign plot to make a dead man viable in order to gain slight advantages.

I saw a candidate who almost certainly won the popular vote narrowly lose the delegate count. At least as far as we know, anyway, because I also saw precincts fail to report their results—possibly because the party leaders couldn’t figure out the new app and didn’t feel like calling the backup hotline, and decided to go to sleep rather than report their results—and state officials reach out to the campaigns, of all places, for contact information so they could rouse the officials from their beds. I saw voter fraud captured on video, but not corrected or policed. I saw precincts that may not even have had party chairs in the first place. I saw it all go down, and I saw the media throw up its hands, look at each other in bafflement, and call the whole thing a draw.

Maybe we can’t declare a winner, aside from that loathsome fanatic Ted Cruz, but we can absolutely declare a loser. The Iowa caucuses are, for the second straight election, an unforgivable national embarrassment, and a throbbing black eye for democracy.

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But then, I saw some other things too…

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Late afternoon, yesterday, I had the bright idea to look up the Bernie Sanders student organization in Iowa City. A quick Google search turned up the “Hawkeyes for Bernie,” and I sent an email out to the president, copying the director of public relations. The latter, Saba Hafeez, got back to me immediately. Saba is a 23-year-old first-generation U. of Iowa senior from Sioux City by way of Boston, raised Muslim, parents from Pakistan, politically active as long as she could remember. She had caucused as middle-schooler in ‘08 (observer status) after campaigning for Obama, and met Elizabeth Warren last May as part of the “Draft Warren” campaign on campus. After that, she was a hot commodity sought after by all three Democratic campaigns, and though she couldn’t work full time as a field officer, it was a no-brainer for her to join the Sanders cause.

She gave me the lowdown on the right place to observe if I wanted to see a lot of students and big turnout. She was a captain at Iowa City’s fourth precinct, she said, at an arts center on the west side of campus. I looked it up, and decided to take her up on the offer. If nothing else, it would be nice to take a foot bridge over the Iowa River at night.

Quick dinner at A & A Pagliai’s Pizza, brisk walk back to my AirBnB on Dubuque Street to retrieve my winter hat. Jesus, why did I grab the one with the Ohio State logo when I left North Carolina? That’s not how you win friends in these parts. I hid the Buckeye by flipping it over, and then it was off, butterflies in my stomach, to a destination I’ve been anticipating for months. (You already know this if you read yesterday’s piece, but you are not reading an account that pretends at objectivity. I am an adamant, obsessed, and addicted follower of Bernie Sanders.)

The winter storm that was prophesied held off; out on the streets it was only cold, only damp. But it’s always cold in February, so won’t depress turnout…these are hearty people. Yet for reasons I can’t understand—native pessimism? Roads too empty past the university halls?—I came down with the sudden premonition that Hillary would win. Of course she would. She’s leading in the polls, her organization is better. It’s the only reasonable conclusion to draw…but I didn’t feel it in my brain, only in my gut.

The lights of the city shone on the river. At Art Building West, a groovy postmodern building jutting out over Riverside Drive (“a hybrid instrument of open edges and open center” and a “formless instrument,” per its architects), I waited at the bottleneck entrance. The line was short but getting longer, full of Iowans wearing the same packable down jackets. On the doorways, and everywhere inside, Hillary Clinton signs. Older women decked out in blue offered us Hillary stickers and buttons with the “H” logo—I always get a kick out of the arrow pointing to the right, perfect by accident—as the crowd funneled in.

“Hillary supporter?” they asked. New registrations on the right, repeat voters sign in to the left. Fill out your forms, and then head up the stairs, where another volunteer will offer you the chance to take a picture with a Hillary Clinton cutout. The Bernie people, far fewer in number, manned the new registrations desk—their bread and butter. Including my new friend Saba, who later told me that the minute the Clinton army entered the building earlier that night, they painted the place blue, signs everywhere, while the Sanders people just watched. Here were the early signs of the superior organization we’d been hearing about.

The stickers carried an enormous psychological weight, at least to me. Everywhere I looked, I saw Hillary supporters. Because we were on the outskirts of campus, the students mixed in with older voters, and while precincts in the heart of campus were falling for Bernie in total routs, it became clear to me that a different fate awaited precinct four. Again, I let the panic sweep in—if Sanders supporters are outnumbered here, in a city, in a university town, he’ll get killed across the state. They’ll demolish him in Des Moines, and he’ll be laughed out of the rural precincts.

I didn’t know how wrong I was. I didn’t know the drama that waited in the state, or the drama that beckoned inside these doors, in precinct four.

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The people kept coming. Upstairs, outside a lecture hall with a Woody Guthrie’s “Dust Bowl Blues” song cued up on the projector screen—the Bernie people must have commandeered the tech—one of the Hillary volunteers told me with something like awe that they were expecting 350 people. “Wow,” I said, at which point a student walked up and showed us his white card. “I’m number 354.” Outside, the line stretched around the block, and at 7:02, red cards were handed out to the people in line. Anyone who came after would be out of luck.

There would be 658 people in all—just shy of the Obama precinct record from 2008. The chair, a computer science professor named Douglas Jones with a white goatee and one of those Swiss alpine hats, complete with feather, managed to gather everyone upstairs. Chaos ensued as he tried to speak to the massive crowd outside the lecture hall, shouting into a microphone that could be heard inside the lecture hall. His vocal cords strained, people shouted back at him to speak up, and downstairs a clutter of noise as the last voters registered. Space would be a problem.

The only person I had spoken to for any length, at that point, was a student named Jake, a quiet kid with purpose who was caucusing for the first time and supported Bernie. Now, on the stairwell, I met two older women named Joey and Joni (“not like Joni Ernst!” she said, a reference to a hated state politician). I was beginning to notice a J-theme. Joni, a retired substance abuse counselor who had once worked as a gravedigger, told me she was undecided, and that she wished she could make a hybrid candidate with Bernie’s policy and personality, and Hillary’s experience. Joey, who taught musical therapy at the university and was undecided but leaning to Bernie, agreed.

“But I do care about women’s right,” Joni said. “Young women today don’t have the same passion. They have no tradition—I grew up with Gloria Steinem.

She wanted a constitutional amendment for women’s rights, and you could tell she would finally go to Hillary, but part of her heart was with Bernie. She kept quoting him. “He talks for us,” she said. “Nobody should work for 40 hours a week and live in poverty.”

Joey was less outspoken, and more torn. The doubt was painted on her face, and I put aside my prejudice against undecided voters and felt sympathy—she never said this to me, but my guess is that to some degree, the struggle was between policy and gender, and it’s easy to imagine the torn allegiances. As she deliberated, Douglas Jones drew a rousing cheer as he introduced a motion to cut the bullshit and move the party formalities to the end of the caucus. With 658 caucus-goers, each group needed 98—15 percent—to become viable.

There wasn’t enough room to run the caucus upstairs, so as Jones began the alignment process, he told Hillary supporters to stay put, Bernie’s people to go downstairs, and anyone undecided to congregate in the upstairs foyer. (He forgot O’Malley, whose advocates were later given a tiny room in a hallway.)

Jones may as well have said, “young people go downstairs, old people stay,” because that was the effect. An exodus of the young flooded down to the main lobby, men and women alike, and I saw almost immediately that I was wrong about Hillary’s advantage—the numbers were staggering. Some friendly trash talk flew back and forth as the groups passed:

“Come with us, it’s so much cooler.”

“That’s right, take the walk of shame.”

Joey watched in a state of torment. “I have to go with my heart,” she said, and took one step down with the Bernie people. But she stopped, and eventually drifted up to join the undecideds. (Later, she’d choose Bernie.)

I walked downstairs, pushed through the Bernie crowd, and found O’Malley’s room. Inside, about 15 people sat in glum discouragement, nowhere near viable. They looked at me hopefully as I entered the room, then saw my “observer” sticker and fell back into a funk. I met a man named Jim and a woman named Judy—the Js were beginning to make me question my sanity—who conceded that they’d have to give up the dream and join the Bernie group. They were still miffed that Jones had snubbed them when he told everyone where to form their preference groups.

Outside, Bernie’s precinct captain tried to speak to the milling group. He was shy and good-looking—traits that probably endeared him to friends in ordinary life, but were a little bit infuriating under the circumstances, when assertiveness verging on bullying was a prized asset. His voice wouldn’t carry, and he couldn’t force himself to shout, so another man had to step in for him. The supporters handed in their cards, and soon a total was announced: 333 voters. More than half of 658, just barely. Bernie had won. A loud cheer went up, followed by a “Feel the Bern!” chant.

Big problem: He hadn’t won a thing.

And here’s where the lack of organization and preparation hit the Sanders crew hard. The fourth precinct had eight delegates to award, and with an even number, the winning side has to do much better than 50 percent to avoid a split session. It’s a bit complicated, but in basic terms the winning side has to win “half” of another delegate in order to take a 5-3 advantage. Each of the eight delegates in precinct four was worth 82 voters, based on turnout, so to avoid a 4-4 draw, Bernie had to win half the votes (329) plus half of a new delegate (41), for a total of 370.

And they had a chance—with the O’Malley and undecided groups not viable, those last 37 voters were out there to be absorbed. But while the Sanders precinct captain smiled and accepted congratulations, the Clinton deputies upstairs had their asses in gear. They knew exactly how many they needed to peel off in order to force a tie, and they knew where those people had to come from—the undecideds.

They poached an O’Malley supporter or two, but as I walked upstairs to the group of 40-or-so undecided voters, I saw six blue-clad Clinton volunteers break them off into small groups and deliver their spiel. They were joined by others not wearing any official garb, including my old friend Joni, who had gone from undecided to advocate in the space of about ten minutes. Meanwhile, there wasn’t a single Sanders rep to be found, and by the time they understood what was happening and sent their own emissaries upstairs, it was too late—the Clinton group already had what they needed.

A few Sanders reps arrived in time to fight for the scraps—the last holdouts, who were starting to seem like sad little attention cravers—but in the end, the final tally was 358 for Sanders, 12 shy of the threshold. I had to tip my cap to the Clinton side. They were a well-oiled unit that had saved a delegate in a desperately narrow race where every single one would count. When the caucus ended, the Sanders group was still basking in its fake triumph, not understanding what they’d just lost. Not the Clintons—they knew the numbers.

“In Iowa City,” an ecstatic Clinton volunteer told me, “a tie is a victory.”

And she was right.

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This, of course, represented another huge failure of the caucus process—it’s a place where strategy and assertiveness can win the day, and that’s an absurdity when the whole thing could have been settled by a secret ballot like the rest of the sane world. Sanders “won” the precinct by 60 votes, but that advantage meant nothing. And all over the state, especially in the cities, similar results were flooding in. That’s why his campaign is demanding that Iowa release the popular vote totals. At the time of writing, it looks like he’ll lose by roughly five delegates—a razor-thin margin—but based on anecdotal evidence of the kind seen in Iowa City’s fourth precinct, it’s a good bet that he won the popular vote.

But Iowa doesn’t release those numbers. Of course they don’t—that would mean adopting a sensible policy.

After things had settled down, I spoke with Saba for a few minutes, who was disappointed in the entire outdated system and politics in general. “Why doesn’t the government create a voting app?” she asked, which seemed like a terrific question to me.

On her recommendation, I walked back over the river and found a bar and restaurant called “The Mill.” They had CNN on the big screen, audio blaring, and over the next two hours, at least 200 Bernie supporters filtered in to the large back room, packing the place wall-to-wall, watching the returns come in.

Time passed in an anxious fever dream. Hillary had a slight advantage, but it was dwindling all the time. The bar cheered whenever Jake Tapper or anyone else mentioned Johnson County and Iowa City, and the stories from other precincts poured in from the newcomers. Bernie won 6-1 at the library, where Clinton had to convince a handful of undecideds just to be viable. Similar stories from Hawks Ridge, and the HHS Building, and the Fieldhouse. He’d win the county by almost 20 percent in the end, and these were the diehards at the heart of his stornghold.

At 9:00 p.m., Hillary held a 20-delegate lead. It evaporated over the next hour, as the energy in the place built, slipping into the single digits by 9:30 and dropping to just three delegates at 10:02. Her overall numbers fell below 50 percent, and Bernie would come as close as two delegates.

At some point, Hillary declared victory, despite having no clue how it would play out.

“Can you do that?” asked a guy beside me at the bar.

Watching MSNBC later on, after leaving the bar, I watched Chuck Todd question the tactic.

“I just don’t understand why the Clinton campaign decided to do what they did,” he said. “They have now made it that much worse if they lose or if it’s a tie.”

I’ll tell you why, Chuck—it’s because she and her people have always cynically assumed that the voters are stupid, and that they can influence perception independent of reality. They never quite understand the transparency of their own machinations, because they don’t have it in them to respect the people they’re trying to sway. So when someone had the bright idea of declaring a win, nobody thought about the ramifications. They just thought, “yeah, they’ll buy that!” And pressed on.

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Meanwhile, the entire caucus process fell to pieces. Precinct chairs weren’t reporting, blatant fraud was caught on camera, and shit like this happened in at least six precincts:

The irony here is that along with the narrow margin and the popular vote issue, the corruption and luck that benefitted Clinton just casts more doubt on the entire process, making it impossible to declare a victor. They’ll both move on to New Hampshire, where Sanders won’t have to worry about voters reacting against the Iowa results, as they did in 2008, to assert their independence. His commanding lead in the polls will translate to his first primary victory, the Clintons will dismiss the result since the state neighbors Vermont, and they’ll head to Nevada with everything in play.

It’s a bittersweet result for both sides. Clinton is re-living the nightmare of 2008, and Sanders proved that his appeal and his organization are legitimate, and ready for a protracted battle. Even if the results and she ekes out a close win, it’s the ultimate pyrrhic victory that raises more questions than answers. As for Sanders, he came up achingly short of being able to declare an outright win. If it’s true that he took the popular vote, it’s a maddening missed opportunity to generate a huge amount of momentum that could shift the dynamics everywhere, including the alleged Clinton stronghold of South Carolina and the southern firewall states that follow.

They’ll both survive. So will the Iowa caucuses, probably. Although if there was any justice in the world, they would be led out back for a walk, gently told to face the trees and think of their favorite song, and put down for good.

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Cynicism was prevailing, I’ll admit. But there came a moment…

At the bar, a girl named Veronica takes the microphone and interrupts Marco Rubio’s speech. She makes a joke apology for that, and then thanks the people around her. Veronica is the organizer, and these kids mean business. They met here for the debate, and the State of the Union, and here they are again. Even though the caucuses are over and the nation leaves Iowa behind, she wants to keep up these gatherings. To talk about progressive politics, to hang out, to keep the movement alive. She passes around an email list, and by the time it circles the room it will have a hundred signatures, maybe more.

I imagine these mini-movements are happening all over the state, and maybe some day soon they’ll happen all over the country. I don’t know these kids at all, but at this moment I love them. I love how they’re fighting, how they believe in the salvation of the ruined world they’ve been handed. They really, really give a shit, and I’m grateful beyond words to be the strange 33-year-old standing by himself at the bar, watching it all go down. At times like these, I despise pragmatism and fear and lowered expectations, because I know that their spirit is the only thing that matters.

You sap, I think, as I dip into my beer to hide my eyes. You know better than this—thinking in symbols, romanticizing, believing that they won’t be cracked in the end. You’re getting carried away now, amigo, and you best come down to earth before you start expecting too much. But I look up again—I look up again—and there they are.

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