The Iowa caucuses will break your heart -- when they're not making you tear your hair out. There's no doubt last night's results indicate a real dose of positive change: Iowans turned out in record numbers and for the first time supported an African American in a statewide election. Youth participation was up 5 percent from 2004. But at individual caucus sites, where few national journalists tread, the view wasn't quite so rosy.
At Des Moines' 23rd Precinct, for example, just three miles from Barack Obama's triumphant victory party, organizers failed to adequately explain the caucus process, voters publicly protested the participation of two immigrant women, and Spanish translations were unavailable. And while in theory, the process of "convincing" one's neighbors to caucus for a certain candidate sounds like grown-up debate club, in practice, it looks more like junior high school clique formation, replete with peer pressure.
If more journalists attended actual caucuses, Americans would have a better understanding of the inequities of this process, which holds inordinate influence over our political system. The few organizations that do cover caucuses, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, choose to emphasize reporting from candidate parties held at downtown hotels and conference centers. And the vast majority of the national press corps bypasses observing the caucuses entirely. On CNN's American Morning Friday, a reporter even said -- erroneously -- that "we're not allowed" inside caucus sites. In fact, both the Iowa Democratic and Republican Parties offered a clear credentialing process for media interested in seeing a caucus. It's exciting, of course, to watch campaign staffs go through heartbreak or elation in real time. But that's only part of the story; the caucuses themselves are equally dramatic.
Consider, if you will, the case of the 23rd Precinct, where the Democratic caucus was held in Harding Middle School’s auditorium. A mother and son team, Alane and Brent Houck, served as precinct secretary and captain. The Houcks were enthusiastic about the process, but they didn't offer caucus-goers a big-picture explanation of how it all worked. This reporter, seated at the front of the room to distinguish herself from eligible participants, was mistaken for someone in charge, and asked several times where the voting booths were. When one middle aged woman wearing a Barack Obama sticker -- a first-time caucus-goer -- learned she'd actually be physically counted for her candidate instead of casting a ballot, she seemed confused, and later left the room before the count began. She never returned.
The doors opened at 6 p.m. Between 6 and 7, about 100 people filed into the auditorium. (For an overview of how caucusing works, go here.) Obama supporters sat in the back, and John Edwards and Hillary Clinton caucus-goers occupied the left and right sides of the room, respectively, drawn by signs tacked up by volunteers. The three front-runners were in a dead heat, with Biden, Richardson, and Kucinich supporters clustered in groups of less than 10 people.
Doors were supposed to close at 7 p.m., but didn't. At 7:13, two Latina women, one who looked to be in her late 20s and the other in her 50s (seemingly a mother and daughter), rushed in late. They were accompanied by a pre-teen girl, and the younger woman held a small baby. They seated themselves quietly at the very front of the Hillary Clinton section, clutching the candidate’s flyers.
Alane Houck had just finished reading aloud a letter from the Chairman of the State Democratic Party. She looked askance at the women. "People are coming in late," she said to her son. "The doors are supposed to be closed." Brent waved her concerns aside, and the preliminary announcements continued, without anyone approaching the two women to let them know late-comers were not allowed to caucus. Alane then announced she would pass around envelopes for donations to the Iowa and Polk County Democratic Parties. She spoke about the importance of giving money for several minutes before she said, "Of course, it's only if you want to."
But during her pitch, people began to look at one another with concern. They simply weren't expecting to be asked to give money. The entire process was conducted only in English, with no written translations into Spanish or other languages passed out. The message "it's optional" could have easily been lost among non-native English speakers in the room, and the 23rd Precinct is much more diverse than Iowa as a whole, which is 95 percent white.
That's when the baby started to cry. The older woman took her out into the hall. Later, when she didn't return, the infant's mother left the room as well, to check on them. When the women (along with the baby) returned to be counted, a murmur of concern arose from the Obama contingent. "Hey, people are coming in late!" shouted a man.
After a few tense moments, a Clinton supporter in her fifties spoke up in support of the two women. "They have a baby, it started to cry!" she explained. The man shot back, “I didn’t hear no baby!”
The family, obviously first-time caucus-goers, was visibly uncomfortable. It was now clear to everyone that they were not fluent in English. The auditorium was silent. Alane Houck finally approached them and, using the older daughter as a translator, told them they had arrived late and were not eligible to participate. A few minutes later, they left, heads hung.
Thirteen minutes had cost this family, part of a demographic severely underrepresented in the caucus, their voice in the nominating process. They were exposed to public ridicule and denied adequate translation services. It's remarkable they came out to the caucus at all, but after this experience, it's extremely unlikely they'll try again in upcoming elections.
And many more people were befuddled as the 23rd Precinct moved from the initial count into the realignement of voters who had supported candidates beneath the viability level. Volunteers for the top three candidates fanned out around the room, trying to convince the Kucinich, Biden, and Richardson iconoclasts to choose their candidate as a second choice. Quiet conversations were interrupted by loud cheering. SEIU organizers led the Edwards folks in the chant, "Hey Richardson, come over here!" Then the Obama people began to scream. This part of the process lasted 30 minutes.
Amidst the brouhaha, it was impossible for the Houks to give any information to the crowd. When the half hour ended with a shouted announcement from Brent Houk, the tally showed Obama and Edwards winning two delegates each, and Clinton one. But it was clear many people didn’t understand the caucus was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Seeing Edwards’ comfortable margin of victory in the precinct, Mark McGrew, an Edwards supporter whose wife had chosen Hillary, trudged across the auditorium to cheers from the Clintonites. He hoped to give Clinton a second delegate, and take one away from Obama. Earlier in the evening, he had said, "I'm not so much voting for Edwards as against Clinton and Obama." When asked why he disliked Obama, McGrew at first demurred, but then referenced verifiably false reports that the Illinois senator is a Muslim. "There are so many rumors about his background, and you know, it's scary," McGrew said. "You don't know if they're true or not." (Up close, Iowa seems a lot less comfortable with multiculturalism than media analyses of Obama’s 8 percent victory would lead you to believe.)
But McGrew was to be disappointed. At the time he switched from Edwards to Clinton, it was too late to influence the outcome. Alane Houk finally noticed the continued movement and made an announcement that the caucus was finished. The room quickly emptied out.
After the caucus, Al Semple, a 63-year old Obama supporter, veteran, and experienced caucus-goer, said the 23rd Precinct is this disorganized every year. There's no doubt that running a caucus is time-consuming and stressful. But if one or two volunteers can't handle the process, official Democratic Party representatives should be present to guide it along.
That's not to say there were no uplifting stories from Harding Middle School . Strong labor support carried Edwards, the underdog, to local victory, and many caucus-goers were excited first-timers. David Benitez, the 18-year old son of immigrants from El Salvador, attended with his friend Shannon Whistler, also a high school senior. Both supported Obama. "I like how he targeted youth," Whistler said, while Benitez was impressed with Obama's charisma.
And many families brought kids along, who were allowed to mock-participate. Ben Frazier, 13, sat in the Clinton camp alongside his father, while his mom, Michelle, worked the room in support of Obama. "I encourage him to be an independent thinker," laughed Michelle. With their split allegiances, the Fraziers, who are African American, busted all assumptions about the influence of race, gender, and age solidarity in choosing a candidate. After the caucus, they all climbed into a minivan to attend Obama's victory party.
The Iowa caucuses are certainly thrilling, but are they just? Even with Democratic turnout at 239,000 this year, up from 124,000 in 2004, only a small fraction of eligible voters, about 11 percent, found time to devote two hours to the caucus. And it wasn't just in the 23rd Precinct that captains were unable to control crowds. The Des Moines Register reported that people all over the state left disorganized caucuses without being counted, and many voters questioned the accuracy of tallies.
So is a rowdy caucus really a purer form of democracy than the ease and privacy of a voting booth? All evidence points to no. Maybe America would sit up and take notice of that uncomfortable truth if more of the national media ditched the swank after-parties and covered a caucus.