In a last minute opening, I had the opportunity to attend the Caucus in Bettendorf, Iowa. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew that I wanted to witness this landmark event in American politics.
Joined by students from the American Presidency class taught by Assistant Professor of Political Science Thomas Bell and the Voting and Elections class taught by Associate Professor of Political Science, Andrew Civettini, we set off for the Quad Cities Waterfront Convention Center on Monday, Feb. 3.
For those that don’t know what a caucus is, it’s essentially a primary election where people come and discuss politics then vote by standing in a group with other people who support the same candidate. The population is assigned a precinct based on where they live, and the precinct is assigned a precinct chair by the state party to make sure the event runs smoothly. Within these precincts, citizens voice their support and hope that their candidate has the most supporters in order to send delegates to the county level, and so on until the National Convention.
“The caucus serves two purposes: One is to pick which candidates get delegates to the national convention and how many. The other thing is the caucus serves as an aggregating process to create the Iowa Democratic party platform. What will happen next here is people suggest platform positions — what the party believes in,” Civettini said.
I talked to Clark Shanahan, sophomore, a student in Civettini’s class. Personally, American politics are frustrating and complicated and I still find myself confused about what everything means despite growing up in America and reading the news every day. I wanted to get the thoughts of someone who studies this, and would have a more grounded outlook than I might.
“I’m looking forward to seeing everyone actually make their decisions in real time,” Shanahan said.
While we were excited to attend our first caucus event as observers, we encountered some who weren’t as thrilled. Stopping by a fast food chain outside the event, I sat down with two men, Robert Cannon and Doug Decherd, who were happy to share some of their thoughts on the matter with someone from the “young generation”, as they called it.
“You’re going out into a very flawed system tonight if you’re going to watch caucusing,” Decherd said.
Sounding somewhat cynical, the two men in fact sympathized with our generation and were concerned about the many things that Democratic politicians promise. Their concern lies with the never-ending promise of new jobs, but forgetting about the fact that no one is getting trained for these jobs.
“My question is: How do you fill the new energy jobs that already exist when nobody signs up for them, nobody is trained for them?” Decherd asked.
Both men served in the Vietnam War and developed critical skills that would later help them in their technical careers. They think that many people in school now are not the things they should and are handed empty expectations. This would give me some perspective as I headed into this event where I would no doubt be bombarded with endless motivational slogans and promises.
The inside of the convention center feels like a convention for presidents, because that’s essentially what it is. Swarms of people are covered in political attire, stickers and often holding a sign in one or both of their hands. There’s endless noise, but I felt the excitement of those who were actually caucusing, which I found out that day is in fact a verb.
I was set to observe precinct B52, which I heard informally titled as “the zoo” by a passerby, because it was one of the larger ones. The precinct was set in a conference room where caucus goers put up signs and decor in each section of the wall for their respective candidates. A man was passing out candy he called “Pete-candy,” and was dressed in, of course, Pete Buttigieg attire.
The caucusing would begin with the first stage known as alignment. Preference cards are handed out where the person’s first preference candidate is written down. There is the option of being unaligned as a first preference, where a candidate is eventually picked after discussing with various supporters. Supporters are counted to determine a candidate’s viability for the next stage.
I spoke with a woman named Allison Mccauley who came for Mike Bloomberg. I asked her about the preference card method which was being used for the first time.
“It (used to be) a lot more laid back, this is a lot more formal, filling this out (the preference card). Before it was people in the back of the room going, ‘I’ve got 15,'” she said.
The more I conversed, the more I realized that some people were as confused as I was. Many were first-time caucus goers who were trying to keep up, in addition to understanding the new rules. Many were happy to be involved.
I spoke with a 69 year-old man named Dale Tetsch who admired Biden. Like me, it was his first time attending the caucuses. His concern lies with progressive candidates that may overextend themselves.
“He’s not hot tempered, he’ll surround himself with a lot of good staff, he should do a good job,” Tesch said.
After the first alignment was completed, several people left the precinct. Civettini explained that those who supported a viable candidate would be able to leave without repercussions towards the outcome of the candidate. This was created in regards to those who come with children, people with disabilities, the elderly, etc. A wave of people left, and I wondered about how many thought they were supposed to leave when they shouldn’t have.
Then came the second alignment. This was when supporters from no longer viable candidates move over to another candidate.
Pat Lehnerr had to move from Warren to Buttigieg due to Warrbeing unviable. I asked her why she decided to move to supporting Buttigieg, a more moderate candidate compared to Warren’s progressive policies.
“When I made up my mind yesterday, I was torn between Pete and Elizabeth, and I was really worried that Pete was unelectable because there’s so many homophobes in this country,” Lehnerr said.
One of the precinct presidents, Jeff Mccraw, shared some words of advice before the caucusing would start that I think held down any bitter sentiments for the night.
“When you leave tonight we must all be united as Iowa Democrats ready to fight for our values,” he said, joined by co-president Lisa Mccraw, his wife.
The caucuses were messy and entertaining. I was surrounded by loud, excited people rooting for their candidate. While this is a critical event for shaping the outcome of the American president, it doesn’t take away how utterly confusing and odd the process is.