On the Road: The Iowa Caucuses

Here’s this month’s 3 Quarks Daily column, as it appeared Monday:

Banners waved, the converted preached and hawkers peddled hats, buttons, “Impeach This” sweatshirts and dodgy conspiracy theories. The sky hung sullenfrozen in the shade of dull cutlery. A big screen kept those outside Drake University’s Knapp Center apprised of the slow boil inside.

Fire safety officials began to turn away an overflow crowd two hours before the start of Donald Trump’s Iowa MAGA rally last Thursday. The Presidential interloper came to crash the Democrats’ caucuses, and MAGA fans glowed with an intensity rather like coyotes circling the Democrat’s family pet.

Welcome to Des Moines, where unmarked satellite trucks troll snowy streets, coffee houses and hotel lobbies are broadcast-ready, and legions of reporters and crew and a few political tourists have swept up and besieged an entire town.

The candidates still standing are punch-drunk. Former Congressman John Delaney called it quits as flakes fell across the capital Friday morning. Even without Delaney, a relentless event-holder, the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker listed 64 events over the campaign’s final weekend.

Saturday, while Pete Buttigieg worked the National Cattle Congress Electric Park Ballroom out in Waterloo, candidates Yang, Klobuchar and Steyer held rallies in brew pubs, and Joe Biden harangued a community center. And that was all before noon. By then, Buttigieg was on to his second event, at the coliseum in Oelwein.

•••••

Getting the hang of the Des Moines Skywalk is a fine idea. It’s a seemingly random four-mile web of corridors linking the second floors of 55 buildings across downtown, and roaming the central business district without going outside is a fine idea in February.

A Skywalk bridge over and a block or two down, Andrew Yang stood in a Marriott conference room Saturday night, filling out an under-tailored blue blazer and road-wrinkled trousers, promising his gang they’d shock the world in two days, but his canvassers still sought precinct captains at the door.

Joe Biden made his closing argument Sunday afternoon at Hiatt Middle School. He booked a small room he could fill. His presentation didn’t approach the MAGA rally’s feral vibe, not even close, but neither did he present as feeble. He didn’t dodder, seemed confident enough. Aim high.

Over at Lincoln High School, Mayor Pete had a much larger crowd, and a dedicated amen corner. His presentation was trademark, straight-up and sober, hardly visceral, but with way cleaner production values. And unlike the VP, he didn’t cycle eight politicians out to the stage first. Bless him.

No one dared challenge the Super Bowl for attention. You could attend a watch party with Senator Klobuchar or Senator Sanders, but no one laid on the traditional final night rally.

•••••

All week the Senators absent from Iowa because of impeachment cursed their luck while Biden and Buttigieg made hay. Biden has been here for a week. Except former Senator Chris Dodd, who is traveling with Biden, moved to Iowa for the three months prior to the 2008 caucuses. Look what that got him.

While Senators Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren (and Michael Bennett) were back in the capital, surrogates flooded the zone. Their stand-ins’ star power varied: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Senator Sanders; former Secretary Julián Castro, his twin brother Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, the actress and activist Ashley Judd for Senator Warren; and Phill Drobnick, a Minnesotan who coached the Olympic gold medal-winning men’s curling team in 2018, for Senator Klobuchar. Yes, THAT Phill Drobnick.

•••••

Participants gather tonight (arrive early! doors close at 7:00!). In, for example, a high school gym, candidate A’s caucus-goers will muster under one goal, candidate B’s under the other, candidate C’s near the home team’s bench and so on. Candidates who fail to gather a minimum of fifteen percent of caucus-goers are eliminated.

Speeches will be given and arms twisted. The remaining candidates’ representatives will woo the disenfranchised while the failed candidates’ representatives will speechify and arm-twist back, hoping to persuade enough others into their corner to achieve fifteen percent. Or, maybe they’ll  just go home.

The whole thing will take maybe three hours. It is one of the few times American voters engage each other directly and publicly outside the voting booth.

Much of this race is for the right to play second fiddle, or even third. Nothing would please good old midwestern-values Amy more than to finish above fourth place, and Mayor Pete above third. Only John McCain has finished lower than third and gone on to win a nomination (2008) and no Democrat has ever done so, but for now, never mind about that.

•••••

A month ago sunrise glinted off the gold state house dome behind the right shoulder of a young cable news correspondent declaring “game on.” All the candidates were here then, too. With one-month-to-go cries of “now it’s time to get serious,” the cable channels crashed the champagne bottle against the campaign’s bow and declared it time to play now, for real.

So: Will Elizabeth and Bernie please start fighting? They did, with the no handshake moment after the mid-February Iowa debate. How’s that working out for Senator Warren? Late polling suggests maybe not that well.

Is Mayor Pete mild-mannered or secretly mean? These last couple days he’s begun to criticize Biden and Sanders explicitly, by name. So, secretly mean.

Oh Senators Klobuchar, Booker and Bennett, no traction no traction no traction.

And please, let’s have a gaffe, Uncle Joe.

About Joe: Richard Ben Cramer wrote that “the joy of being with Joe” in 1988 (the plagarism campaign) was that “you were included – not just in his politics, but in his life, and the lives of his family. You were more likely to hear from Biden what Jill said the other day about teaching … than you were about his five-point education plan.”

The problem with familiarity dogged Biden all those years ago, already. Cramer: “One time, an Iowa room, Joe was in mid-monologue, and there was a woman at a table, facing away, who would not turn around. Joe didn’t break stride in his talk … he got to this woman, came up from behind … and gently, but decidedly, he put his hands on her…. He got both hands onto her shoulders, while he talked to the crowd over her head, like it was her and him, through thick and thin. The woman looked like she’d swallowed her tongue.”

•••••

Last summer I took the optimistic position that the Dems had a wealth of talent and plenty of time to talk through the issues, select a candidate and then methodically set out to retire Donald Trump. Fact, though, is different from truth, or optimism. It is a fact that Joe Biden has consistently led national polls. It is a broader truth that few are rabid about his candidacy.

People say the Democratic left wields more enthusiasm than the Biden wing. If tonight’s results demonstrate the left’s fervor as fact, that will underline another larger truth, that social spending priorities define what’s important to the voter in a way that, say, Vice-Presidential laurel-resting, does not.

Do they have a chance, these Democrats? In seven of the last nine contested caucuses the Iowa winner has gone on to win the nomination, but only two, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, have gone on to win the presidency.

Does Iowa even matter? Yes, but just for a week, until New Hampshire.

And more fundamentally, why is this country so full of hand-wringing a scant thirty years since it stood astride the world triumphant? No longer dreaming of indispensableness, now we just hope the domestic body politic can be governed at all.

But back to Iowa. I’m pretty sure Iowans are ready for all the attention to be over, to get their lives back, for the TV ads to go away. (Who wouldn’t want an Authentic American Collectibles 2020 Battle for the White House Chess Set for only 39.99?). Still, it really does feel like an engaged electorate. Everyone has interviewed everyone else. In every restaurant and tavern, the talk at the next table is political. Phrases waft across the room … “abuse of the public trust” … “You break it you own it” … “Appropriations process.”

These people are really into this thing.

•••••

Candidates don’t get to caucus day by being shrinking violets. Many candidacies have already shrunk to nothing. And my goodness, just the amount of sheer, unrelenting effort expended here, by so many people, day after day after frozen day. Now, at last, after all the fury, frenzy (and studied investment by non-Hawkeyes in learning to walk on icy sidewalks), starting today, we’re out of the gates. There will be numbers.

Just not very many. If every registered Iowa Democrat caucuses today, by the end of the night 0.45 percent of Americans will have spoken.

It’s big on an Iowa scale, though. The Democrats expect record participation. Party chairman Troy Price expects more caucus-goers than the record year 2008 (the first Obama election). In anticipation, besides the usual gyms and firehouses, libraries and churches, Iowa Democrats have signed up private venues like the Science Center of Iowa and the Iowa Events Center, capacity 17,100.

The party could spend $20,000 on venues alone. “We’ve never paid for this many (sites) in one year,” Polk County (Des Moines) Democratic Party chairman Sean Bagniewski said.

“They pass the hat” at the caucuses, Dallas County Democratic chairman Bryce Smith said, so they hope to make their money back.

•••••

Casual observers are perennially vexed by Iowa’s high level of undecided voters. It’s not vexing. It’s down to the system that requires participants to be prepared to support another candidate if their first choice doesn’t get 15%.

One thirtyish couple at the Andrew Yang rally, for example, were torn about where to go if the Yang Gang doesn’t shock the world tonight. Attending their second caucus, in Altoona, they’ll listen to the Warren and Sanders pitches. Anyone but Biden, they say. One poll shows only seven percent of Iowans under 50 support the former VP.

(In 1976 “Uncommitted” got 14,508 votes. Jimmy Carter tallied 10,764 votes but was declared winnerCarter won by trailing “uncommitted.” That was an undecided year.)

Here in the early going, none of the candidates do much of the vision thing. No one strides across Iowa corn fields hoisting the banner of inspiration. Instead they frame themselves in terms of their opponent to come. This year’s version of ‘Yes We Can’ is more of a mumbled ‘Gee, we really think our side is best positioned to counter the bared teeth of the MAGA coyotes.’

Could use some work.

As caucus day dawns, polls don’t help much. Publication of the definitive final poll by the Des Moines Register on Saturday night was cancelled because of possible “irregularities in the polling methodology.” By tomorrow morning there may be a clear winner, or a muddle. Whatever happens, the press will get what it came for, and Iowans will get their state back.

Iowa Caucuses

I’ll be heading for Iowa in a week and a half. For years I’ve promised myself that I’d go and have a good, close look at this unique bit of grassroots participatory democracy/great American circus/media frenzy on the tundra, as soon as I could interrupt my work without harm. That time has come.

I’ll be writing about what I find here on CS&W and filing a column @3QD on caucus day. If anyone has any suggestions, anecdotes, or wants to share something you think I should know, or if you’ll be in Des Moines and would like to compare notes (or have a beer), please email me at BillMurrayWriter (at) gmail.com.