Posted by: trevormeers | January 4, 2012

Caucuses, Cookies and Dug The Delegate

Allison leaned over from her metal folding chair and whispered, “I think our neighbors run Mingo.”

Rules against campaigning at polling places don't apply on caucus night, when the name of the game is selling your candidate.

Sure enough, five minutes into my first presidential caucus (attended by my daughter for educational purposes), I realized I had already run afoul of the Clear Creek-Poweshiek Precinct’s Republican machine. The guy running the meeting was the leader of the neighborhood caroling group I’d notoriously snubbed over the last few years. I knew him even without the fedora. By the end of the one-hour caucus, he’d risen from Temporary Caucus Chair to Permanent Caucus Chair, not to mention becoming a delegate to the Jasper County Republican Convention in March. His sisters were checking people in at the registration desk. His mom was setting out cookies in the community center kitchen. His dad was in the front row, sporting a Leatherman on his belt under his American flag tie and nominating himself as another convention delegate.

Right out of the gate, it seemed Barack Obama might be more welcome at this caucus than me.

The evening started rocky, before I even realized my caroling tastes carried political ramifications. We stepped through the community hall door into a crowd of people in Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirts and Ron Paul T-shirts. An older woman looked at me, raised her hand above her head and pointed to the middle of the room. I asked, “Is this where the line starts?” She looked at me again and gave me that bug-eyed, raised-eyebrow expression that means, “Are you stupid?” She jabbed her finger in the same direction again. “Back there,” she said. “Unless your name starts with M-Z.”

Michelle Bachmann's volunteer spokesperson makes the congresswoman's case to the crowd.

“Well, I guess it’s my lucky day,” I said and stepped up to the table, where a teenage girl holding a list of registered voters said, “Oh, you’re our neighbor!”

With a paper ballot in hand, we tried to look inconspicuous while slinking to the only open seats, which were in the second row, right in front of the old guy wearing a black ball cap with an American flag on it. Around the room, I counted two Pink Floyd T-shirts, one camouflage cap and one name tag that a guy had filled out with “Dug.”

GOP Neighbor opened the session with the Pledge of Allegiance, even though there was no flag in the room. “Well,” he said, “just look, um, somewhere.” We sat down to start the caucus, and the old guy in the flag cap said, “This feels a lot like the Possum Lodge.”

We moved right into candidate discussion, when anyone could spend five minutes promoting their pick. An older fellow in a plaid shirt and hair with a touch of Shoney’s Big Boy flair stepped to the front to talk up Michelle Bachmann. “People say she hasn’t been in Washington long,” he said. “I say that’s great. They haven’t corrupted her.”

No one volunteered to speak for Newt, then GOP Neighbor asked, “Is there anyone who wishes to speak on behalf of Jon Huntsman? No? I didn’t think so.”

A guy named John came up to stump for Ron Paul. John was nervous, but got rolling when he pulled a pamphlet from his pocket and said, “All of Dr. Paul’s decisions are based on principle, and his principles are here: The U.S. Constitution.” He returned to his seat, where his daughter (who became a Junior Delegate to the county convention later that night) was beaming at him.

My official ballot, ready for the fateful check mark.

A lady named Opal carried Rick Perry’s flag. “Don’t get caught up in all the ideology of who’s pro this and anti that,” Opal said. “We need to beat Obama. And people may say that Rick Perry is not a good debater. Well, we’ve got an eloquent speaker in the White House now, and look what that’s got us.”

Mitt’s man went right to Romney’s status as a family man. “He’s been married almost as many years as I have. I, uh, don’t know how many that is.” Laughter rolled through the community hall. “43 years! That’s it! 43 years.”

With the speeches complete, we all turned to our ballots, where we simply checked a box next to our pick, folded the paper and handed it to the guy in the aisle. It all felt a lot more like electing a church treasurer than the polling places I’d been to in the past, with all their machine-read ballots and private booths. But confidentiality isn’t the idea at a caucus.

“There wasn’t a box there for ‘undecided,’” a guy behind me said. “Shoulda’ been,” his buddy replied. (“No Preference” finished the night with 135 votes statewide.)

The Permanent Caucus Chair and a small posse of onlookers retired to the kitchen, where they spread the ballots out on the island between boxes of cookies and started counting. A few minutes later, they returned with the results:

Santorum – 33
Paul – 20
Perry – 17
Romney – 15
Gingrich – 11
Bachmann – 8
Huntsman – 0 (followed by major applause)

The Clear Creek-Poweshiek precinct vote wasn’t quite in line with that of Iowa overall, where Romney edged Santorum by eight votes. But we put Michelle and that Huntsman character in the same spots as the rest of the state.

After the vote was in, people started drifting out to cars parked under the grain elevator. But we stuck around to listen in on some of the housekeeping, such as electing the county convention delegates. Ten slots were in play, and it quickly became obvious that they were available for the taking. “Dug” took one by mumbling, “I’ll do it, I guess.” The overachiever in me thought about grabbing a slot. How cool would it be to act as a convention delegate, even if it’s to a gymnasium in Newton in March?

But I got a reminder of reality when a lady behind me responded to her friend’s urging to sign up. “I’ve got my hands full with my cows and calves,” she said.

And with that, Alli and I headed out into the night. I’ll leave the politics to the neighbors for now. They seem to have it pretty well under control, and a guy has to recognize when his hands are already too full, even if he doesn’t have any calves coming on.



  1. I hope you’ve learned a valuable lesson regarding who you snub on neighborhood caroling nights. You better watch it or one of the neighbors may be heading for a cabinet position in the next administration.

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