The Joy of Caucusing

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

It is sometimes fun to live in Iowa. Normally, I can come up with many positive adjectives to describe life in a small midwestern town. Fun might not always be one of them. But every four years, we in Iowa become the center of the political universe, and for a political junkie like me, this is fun.

More than just fun, the Iowa caucuses have restored my faith in American politics. They have transformed me into an interested, active participant. This year marks the second time I’ve participated in the caucus process. Before that I had either not voted in presidential elections or voted for a minor party candidate. My lack of participation was derived from extreme cynicism and an inchoate sense that the very thing the “principalities and powers” abhor most is to be ignored. If that is true, then in embracing the caucuses, I and most of Iowa are feeding the beast exactly what it wants. But the allure of the caucus process is hard to resist. Beyond the fun, it is the hands-on closeness, the grassroots participation, the sense of actually mattering, that buffed away my cynical tarnish.

Going into my first caucus in 2004, I was a bit war y. Why not just let us go into the privacy of our own booths and cast our vote (except that by agreement New Hampshire gets the first primar y, Iowa the first caucus)? But caucusing turned out to be a hoot. There is a lot of mingling, chatting, gawking, and smiling, almost like a carnival in atmosphere. In a town like mine, where there are many more Republicans, attending a Democratic caucus feels like a subversive act. It gives me some small sense of what early Christian worship in the catacombs must have been like. “I didn’t know you were one too!” We are like some obscure beetle that is buried deep underground only to surface every four years, soaring with short-lived glory. In seeing others who are like me, I am cheered and encouraged.

Participating in a caucus, rather than just casting a secret ballot in the seclusion of a voting booth, makes me think of Robert Putnam’s “bowling alone” theory. Today’s America lacks social capital because of insufficient participation in the group activities that can bind us together. The Iowa caucuses are a good antidote to this isolation and certainly must build up social capital. Once the actual meeting is called to order (mine meets in a middle school classroom), everything becomes prim and proper, but not officious–after all this is Iowa. Participants are good-natured and courteous. You literally have to stand and be counted for your candidate. No hiding your support. Although the candidates began to spar in the final days before the caucus, among caucus-goers there was little animosity or sense of “bad guys,” perhaps also a function of Iowans’ terminal niceness. The Democratic Party requires that candidates receive the support of at least fifteen percent of the participants to be deemed “viable.” This then leads to some impassioned speeches and horse-trading as supporters of other candidates try to woo those now without a candidate. These little speeches strike me as American democracy at its finest: part New England town hall meeting, part sermon, part oral report from eighth grade social studies class.

Retail Politics is how the Iowa caucuses are often described. The candidates are personally accessible and very much among the people. Gone are the days when a candidate might have coffee at your house with five other people. Today, the venues are more likely a restaurant with seventy-five people, or 300 in a school cafeteria. Yet even this gives amazing access to the candidates. This past year, without trying too hard, I ran into Michelle Obama waiting to pick up food at a local restaurant counter. My wife had personal little chats with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. I’ve seen my favorite coffeehouse and the girl next door in the background of the national news, read a quote in the New York Times from the oldest member of my congregation, and heard a familiar voice on a C-SPA N call-in show. Of course, this is part of the fun of caucuses–feeling like you’re in the spotlight, rubbing shoulders with national leaders, collecting bumper stickers or photos of the candidates on your cell phone.

There is plenty of talk among Iowans of “taking the measure of the man” or woman, and “looking deep into a candidate’s eyes,” in a search for character and integrity–as if it were so simple. Yet there is something to the idea of being up close to the candidates and getting some feel for them as people. I would say that almost universally one comes away impressed. The candidates are capable, likeable, and gifted individuals.

By the time the caucus actually arrives, most Iowans are complaining about all the T V commercials, mailings, and phone calls. It isn’t unusual to receive six to eight phone calls in a single evening, from both pollsters and campaigns. Caller ID is a must. Sometimes there are four T V commercials back-to-back from different candidates. Perhaps it does get a bit overbearing, but I suspect part of the reason for the complaining is old-fashioned Iowan modesty. We just don’t want to grab undue attention or have too much fun. We just want to do our part.

“Who elected Iowa?” is a frequently asked question. What gives this small, unimportant state such disproportionate significance? The answer is likely “Jimmy Carter,” whose victory in 1976 in the previously unheralded Iowa caucuses catapulted him into national prominence. Many states protest Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status and all the attention lavished upon Iowa. It is true that Iowa is not very representative of the country as a whole. One pundit quipped, “Iowa is whiter than an Osmond family reunion in Norway.” The typical Iowa response to such complaints is that Iowans are diligent and conscientious in their decisionmaking and take this task very seriously– thereby simultaneously highlighting our midwestern virtues of trustworthiness and hard work. Talk to most Iowans about the caucuses and words like “duty” and “responsibility” are uttered in solemn tones. From what I can observe, these defenses of Iowa’s privileged position seem legitimate. Typical Iowans are very informed, curious, and engaged in the caucuses.

While I am glad to participate, I am also always astonished, perplexed, and as a pastor perhaps a bit envious of the commitment and willingness to work of many caucus-goers. Are there any other causes for which people would put fourfoot- by-eight-foot signs in their front yard? When I am buttonholed by a member of my congregation, seeking my signature on a “commitment card” for their favorite candidate, I imagine how this very same person might just become apoplectic should I approach him seeking a signature on a commitment card for Jesus, let alone the next stewardship campaign.

Messianic overtones inevitably creep into some of the rhetoric. This year it was probably heard most frequently among the supporters of Barack Obama. When Oprah Winfrey introduced the Illinois Senator to 17,000 people in Des Moines, she kept repeating, “Are you the one? Are you the one? ” echoing the question that the disciples of John the Baptizer asked Jesus. One TV talking head declared that the candidates are all “larger-than-life screens on which Iowans project their dreams.” To the extent this is true, it seems like a recipe for disillusionment in the long haul, as people mistakenly seek in politics what politics is ultimately unable to provide.

I finally chose my candidate when attending a rally in a neighboring town, not in the well-scrubbed, well-heeled Dutch enclave that I call home. Life in typical Iowa small towns is more desolate and gritty than the idyllic postcard image of the past. Banjo music was playing over the sound system when I arrived at the rally. Many of the people in attendance wore overalls or NASCAR jackets. They looked like people who work hard and whose life is hard. The first name of one of the introductory speakers was “Mudcat.” The message was undiluted, scrappy populism. It felt as if the candidate was
channeling Woody Guthrie or FDR. Some might say the message was overly simplistic or unnecessarily bare-knuckled. This is not who I am nor the sort of people that I frequently keep company with. Nonetheless, I had found my candidate and the people I wanted to side with. Listening to the candidate and looking at the crowd, the voice in my head just kept repeating, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, and adjunct professor of religion at Central College.