The Iowa Caucus: A View From the Ground

My colleague Bert Johnson is in Iowa and gives this first-hand report about caucus proceedings there:

“There is much about Iowa that is exactly what you would expect: farms, open fields, rolling hills, and frantic presidential campaigns criss-crossing the state in an effort to secure last minute caucus votes.  Driving across the state gives us only a small sense of what the candidates have been through over the last few months. It takes an hour and a half to drive from Dubuque to Waterloo; another hour and a half to Des Moines from there. In between we drive by the National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, a bald eagle circling far from any body of water, and a lone Godfather’s Pizza place by the side of the highway that looks as if it would like to hitchhike its way out of the state.


We start today in Dubuque for a Mitt Romney rally at Weber Paper Company, a suitably modest but successful Midwestern business (website motto: “Call Weber Paper. If they don’t have it, they’ll know where to find it”). Weber is located in an industrial park on the western edge of Dubuque. When we get there an hour ahead of time the parking lot is already full and we have to park across the street. Inside the warehouse is a standard campaign setup – boxes of paper piled high behind the stage and fronted with a Romney for President banner. The media occupy platforms in the rear of the room. FOX News’s John Roberts applies chapstick in preparation for his standup. No wonder – it’s cold in Iowa today and the temperature in the warehouse is 49 degrees, according to the wall thermometer. That’s fine for us rally attendees, who have coats and gloves on, but some young campaign staffers are shivering.

The typical Romney rally-goer is in his or her early 50s. There is an unusually large number of fur coats. Romney’s young staffers wear ‘secret service’-style earpieces as they coordinate amongst each other and (presumably) with other staffers traveling with the candidate. As zero hour approaches, they pass out American flags in two different sizes to the people standing near the front.

Romney arrives only a few minutes late. South Dakota Senator John Thune takes a few minutes to introduce him, and Romney then introduces his family (wife, brother, sister-in-law, and three sons are present). Ann Romney speaks for a few minutes about her husband’s experience and qualifications. Romney then takes the floor to give his speech. He leads with Iran, which apparently test-fired some missiles today, but moves swiftly to the economy, touting his qualifications in the private sector and as a budget-balancing Massachusetts governor. It is a speech focused on competence and management experience. Very efficient and businesslike. After 13 minutes, it’s over and Romney steps down from the stage to shake hands. This is the final sprint and today candidates were not answering questions from the audience.


Off to Cedar Falls, where we arrive at the Park Place Event Center to see Ron Paul. The atmosphere is totally different here. Rather than a warehouse, we’re in a room at a convention center complete with those paneled walls that can be retracted if you need a bigger room. We’re sitting rather than being forced to stand (a copy of the U.S. Constitution has been placed on each chair). No earpieces on the staff. Most importantly, the crowd is much younger and significantly more diverse. The average age is more like early 30s – the youngest crowd I’ve ever seen at an Iowa event. I mention this to the guy sitting next to me and he points out that Cedar Falls is home to the University of Northern Iowa, so students make up “half the town.” Still, I wonder if I’d see this kind of a group at a rally for any other candidate.

Paul arrives with his son, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who leads off with a passionate defense of his father and – notably – an attack on Santorum. There is one candidate who seems to be rising in the polls, Rand says (and we all know who he’s talking about), who voted to double the budget of the education department and to increase foreign aid.

Ron Paul takes the high road, explaining the importance of prioritizing freedom and of adhering to the Constitution. Whereas Mitt Romney gives a speech as if he’s closing a sale, Ron Paul speaks as if the most important thing is that you learn something. He’s teaching you a lesson. The depression of 1920-21, which occurred before the government started its wholesale meddling with the economy, was over in a year. Why? We’re invited to conclude that it was because the economy was allowed to run its course rather than being distorted by government interference.

Ron Paul speaks for 14 minutes and four seconds, and then takes off. He’s due in Mason City in an hour. The media, crammed into the back of the room, scramble to file their reports. We almost knock CNN’s Dana Bash off her perch just as she’s about to go on the air. Sorry, Dana. It’s crowded.

Michele Bachmann

Bachmann is lagging in the polls but I wanted to see her because she’s one of the two remaining candidates (the other being Santorum) who is a strong and consistent social conservative, and would therefore seem on paper to be a great fit for the socially conservative Iowa caucus-going electorate. Tonight’s rally is at her campaign headquarters at a strip mall in Urbandale. I almost missed it, but I was lucky enough to see a satellite truck from Minnesota’s KARE – 11 turn into the parking lot. We get there early, and her staff and volunteers invite us in to wait. The rally itself will be outdoors, so we’d better stay inside where it’s warm until Bachmann is about to arrive.

Bachmann’s HQ, just three days ago the site of an Occupy protest at which 18 people were arrested, is full of cheerful and positive staff and volunteers. A few dozen college-aged people staff a phone bank, inspirational signs are all over the walls, and we’re directed several times to take whatever we might want – coffee, soda, or whatever. We’re invited to sign up for a volunteer list, and I note that the form asks several questions about home schooling – whether we were home schooled, are home schooling, or are otherwise involved in the home schooling movement.

Bachmann isn’t here yet because she’s on FOX’s “Hannity” show, so the staff sets up a TV, attaches it to a cable dangling from the ceiling, and turns up the volume so we can all hear.  Once she’s done with her FOX interview, we’re told it will be 16 minutes until she arrives; after a few more minutes of waiting, we file outside.

The Bachmann group is a mixed crowd. Lots of older people, but a significant number of younger volunteers as well. A definite Tea Party contingent is present – there’s a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a guy pushing his book that satirizes Obama by portraying him as Suess’s “Cat in the Hat,” and so on. This is a smaller bunch, though. Although the Romney and Paul rallies drew hundreds, in Bachmann’s case, it’s just a fraction of that.

Finally Bachmann’s bus pulls into the parking lot. The scene is the most effective visual of the day: the Bachmann decals on the side of the bus seem crisp and brilliant in the bright media lights; Bachmann’s staff has done a great job of making sure the crowd holds signs in just the right places so the camera shots are not obstructed. Bachmann steps out on the back of a pickup truck with her state director, and the crowd cheers. She speaks, but only for a minute and a half. Appearing to analogize her Iowa supporters to biblical loaves and fishes, she urges people to upload photos to Facebook and Twitter and to “multiply multiply multiply!” That’s pretty much all, though – she and her campaign have been at it since 4am and are clearly tired. They turn the music up and the candidate steps down from the truck to shake hands.

Mitt Romney’s campaign is clearly the most polished operation, but it lacks the improvisational excitement of the Ron Paul group or the moral commitment of Bachmann’s effort. What I saw today only reinforces the advantages and disadvantages of Iowa’s place in the nomination system. On the one hand, candidates are face-to-face with real voters – voters who take the process very seriously and often attend many events with the various candidates before making up their minds. The caucus process is deliberative and well-considered. But it takes place in a small state that is in many ways unrepresentative of the rest of the country, and it is therefore unavailable to most Americans. In the last desperate days leading up to the caucuses, it can become more of a spectacle than a serious exercise in democracy. As NBC’s Chuck Todd said on Twitter the other day, “Just about every event we’ve been to this weekend in Iowa is made up of 1/3 media, 1/3 political tourists, and 1/3 actual Iowans.” Still, I’m glad to have been part of the political tourist contingent today.”

Bert will be heading to New Hampshire next where, with luck, he’ll give us another up close and personal view of the proceedings there.  Meanwhile, I’ll be on later today with some last minute assessments of what is likely to happen in Iowa.

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