ADEL, IOWA—Caucus chair Jon McAvoy faced an awkward situation right before his townsfolk were set to vote. Surrogates for each candidate—save still-on-the-ballot Herman Cain and Iowa absentee Jon Huntsman—had stepped up to the microphone for one final pitch. Michele Bachmann’s campaign had sent some star power in the form of her 21-year-old daughter Elisa; though her mom faded fast and left the race the following day, the younger Bachmann won praise for her eloquence from the caucus voters. She was the closet thing to a celebrity at this site 23 miles west from the heart of downtown Des Moines, with locals stumping for the other candidates. McAvoy introduced each of the speakers, an easy task when it came time for Perry: McAvoy was that designated supporter. The proceedings went in alphabetical order, so a Rick Santorum supporter would be the final one to pitch his man before the vote began.
But when McAvoy called Santorum's representative forward, he was met by silence. A few awkward minutes ensued—McAvoy could have sworn that a Santorum representative had been there earlier—before he gave up. Rather than bypassing Santorum's turn, McAvoy was gracious, reading a speech faxed in from the campaign earlier that afternoon. He delivered it dutifully, but it was a less than convincing sell with Perry's logo adorning his T-shirt.
Adel was Huckabee territory four years ago, but this time it was divided and, like much of Iowa, undecided. A commuter town 23 miles from the heart of downtown Des Moines, Adel has 3,862 residents according to the last census. Most commute into Des Moines or the nearby suburbs for work, but Adel maintains the small-town feel of neighbors everywhere knowing each other. Just over 300 people turned up at the gym in ADM Elementary School Tuesday night to caucus in the area's two precincts. "I've seen a lot of Ron Paul," said ReNae Arnold, 33, who was sporting a Romney sticker and is a member of the county central committee. "The Huckabee people, since we have Santorum and Bachmann, they're kind of split." The Paul contingent was visible thanks to pins on their chests, and many must have arrived early since they dominated the middle front section of chairs.
All the seats in the gym had been filled by the time the caucus got under way shortly after 7 p.m. Excess Republicans lined the walls; many brought along children who bounced about the space before the proceedings began. The rollaway speaker system didn’t provide much oomph for the presenters, and it was nearly impossible for those along the wall to hear.
Lacking a representative wasn't the only way in which Santorum's campaign faltered in Adel. Newt Gingrich's supporters had blanketed every chair with a bright yellow sheet of paper refuting every attack leveled by his opponents' super PACs, such as his support for an individual mandate and the money he earned from Freddie Mac. Ron Paul posters and informational brochures were spread around, and a table near the entrance was piled high with pro-Perry literature while Perry yard signs guided visitors into the school’s parking lot.
These would seem like minor concerns for a normal election, but the Iowa caucuses are unlike anything else: Direct bargaining for votes is encouraged rather than outlawed, and the opinion of a neighbor can sway a torn voter. Each vote already assumes outsized importance in the low-turnout, high-stakes contest—which proved especially true on Tuesday night when just eight votes separated Santorum from Mitt Romney's first-place finish.
A stronger presence would have earned Santorum more votes in Adel. Polls had indicated that up to 41 percent of caucus voters had not settled on their decision headed into the final weekend of the campaign, and Adel was no different; many voters said they were leaning toward one candidate but holding off until after the surrogates’ speeches. Jerome Levorson backed McCain four years ago but was less certain this time. "Until I was walking in the door, I was still flipping a mental coin," he said. "It ended up Romney."
Carrie Green was “stuck between two: Ron Paul and Rick Santorum." She'd caucused for Paul the last time but was intrigued by Santorum's rise and wanted to learn more about his views. With a Southern twang, teenage children, and no libertarian slogans tattooed on her arms, Green didn't fit the stereotypical image of a Paul fan. "He's not a dirty politician like some of the others," she said. "He's not as negative, and he seems to be more of the people's person." When I caught up with her later, she'd stuck with Paul, citing the lack of a Santorum speaker as the convincing factor. "I felt like if he didn't have someone here to speak with us, he didn't have a chance," she said.
Brian Fowler might have been the most indecisive person in that room when I spoke with him 20 minutes before the caucus began. He'd lived in Iowa his whole life, but this was his first caucus. Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum were all in the running, and Fowler said he would rely on the speeches and literature to make his final decision. "I didn't find any paperwork on Santorum," he said. I tracked him down following the vote, and the retail politicking had done wonders. He'd gone with Perry after some friends' arm-twisting arguments. "I think Perry's going to get more votes than Santorum," he told me.
That's indeed how things panned out in Adel. Once the surrogates had said their peace, the voters were able to hand in their ballots (this caucus location had printed-out sheets, while others had voters write down their favorite candidate on a blank slip of paper). McAvoy and Arnold brought the boxes of completed ballots out to the hallway and counted by placing them on top of a blank sheet of paper bearing the candidate's name. With few voters and this fairly efficient system, it didn't take long to tabulate the results for each precinct. The combined tally was:
Huntsman: 1 lonely fan
Much of the crowd had already departed before McAvoy stepped up to announce the count, and any stragglers cleared out as soon as the results became official. But voting for presidents isn't the sole function of the Iowa caucuses; they are also party organizers. Committee members are elected, delegates to county conventions are selected, and proposed changes to the party plank are submitted and voted upon.
The first two parts proved incredibly simple in Adel. There were more open delegate slots than people remaining, so the county commissioners will have to go about town and recruit more folks later this year. There could have been a contentious race for county commissioner, but the interested parties worked it out amiably among themselves, with the people who had served in the past deferring to others. Self-employed Chris Johnson was one of the newbies. Politics had never been his passion, but he said that's changed over the past six months as the ideas of Ron Paul have inspired him. "I supported him last time, but I didn't get active like I am now," he says. Johnson went to the Ames Straw Poll in August to support Paul and volunteered in Adel for the campaign. "I've been going to the last couple [commissioners’] meetings, seeing how they talk, and I just want to get active, see what goes on and get behind the scenes."
Paul fans were eager to infiltrate the local party infrastructure. Though their candidate placed second to Romney here, it was primarily the Paul people who stuck around to list themselves as county delegates. A stark division developed when it came time to suggest changes to the party's platform. The remaining group of 16 was evenly divided between the Paul followers and people who could be termed more traditional Republicans. Both sides agreed on a provision requesting an amendment to the state constitution protecting the right of individuals to bear arms (the Second Amendment isn't secure enough for them), but an even split opened when the Paulites proposed cuts to all federal foreign aid. The other side—which included McAvoy and Arnold—said they were fine with some cuts but blanched at shutting off all foreign assistance. The measure was put to a vote and came to an even tie, so it would advance up to the next meeting of county delegates. And that was the story from Adel: Paul may have dropped out of some headlines, but his supporters are prepared to do what it takes to turn the Republican Party into their party.