Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is entirely unremarkable except for the fact that the whole place smells like baked goods. On the street, in the stores, even inside my cherry-red rented Pontiac Grand Am—somewhere, someone in that town is baking something tasty on a majestic scale. Cedar Rapids is also deserted, dreary, and not near anywhere in particular, the last sort of place that you’d expect the bulk of the direct contact between Americans and their presidential nominees to occur. Yet that is precisely what happens, not only in Cedar Rapids but also in Council Bluffs and Burlington and Sioux City and the many winter-bound and snow-covered smaller outposts in between, as every four years a new crop of potential next presidents dives into a long orgy of political courtship all leading up to one tender night.
The caucuses, they’re called, a potluck congregation of a hundred thousand or more people in high-school cafeterias, fire stations, public libraries, community centers, and farmhouse living rooms across the state—where, for the first time each election cycle, real voters cast real votes for the candidates who have been laying the groundwork for their presidential campaigns for one, sometimes two, or even (in the case of Dick Gephardt in 1988) as many as three years. Omens are the caucuses’ appeal: Iowa is the earliest turning of the leaves as another political season unfolds. And so the thing everyone comes to see, besides what colors might appear, is which leaves fall first.
An important spectacle this year, because, if you listen to the activists, the pundits, and many of the candidates themselves, 2004 shall determine nothing less than the future of the Democratic Party. Iowa’s special status means that the candidates spent twice as much time there—nearly a hundred days apiece for the serious contenders—as they logged in New Hampshire, the next most important state in the union around election time. Iowans hog the test drive, and then try to pick the model we’re all gonna drive off the lot. In defense, Iowans will say that they know how to kick the tires, and that if they didn’t do it, someone else would have to, and who should that be? Alabama? Oregon? Who? So Iowa’s place as the Genesis of the presidential creation myth holds, if for no other reason than every story must start somewhere.
THE CAUCUS PRIMER:
WHAT THE HELL IS
A CAUCUS, AND WHY
DO WE CARE?
Iowans tend toward two types of politicians. There’s the prairie plain dealer who will represent the region’s sense of decency and honesty amongst the double-talkers in Washington. And then there’s the native partisan, also decent and honest, but whose principal assignment is to go to Congress with local interests in mind and demands in hand, and bring home not just the bacon but the whole pork barrel.
Dave Nagle, former congressman from Waterloo and local political fixer, is the latter type.To get to him from Cedar Rapids you drive north on the Avenue of the Saints, a stretch of I-380 that runs between St. Louis and St. Paul and was built with federal funds secured by Nagle when he was a Congressman in the late eighties. It was just before those years, while Nagle was the chair of the Iowa State Democratic Party, that he went toe to toe with the Democratic National Committee over the date of the Democratic caucuses and won its lasting status as the “first in the nation.”1 For this he’s known as the Father of the Caucus. If Washington fortunes are found in Iowa, it’s because Iowans like Nagle have convinced Washington that this is the place to start digging.
Nagle’s offices are woodpaneled, with low ceilings, and small rooms. His computer moni- tor looks like a decades-old terminal at a small regional library, and he still runs Windows 3.1. On the wall hangs a plaque with a picture of a duck tied to a dog. Nagle appears very serious, but he turns out to be accommodating and patient.
“Today’s process was a reaction to the Democratic National Convention of 1968,” Nagle explained. “The party bosses controlled everything and the people were being denied the vote. In the days of Mayor Daley [Richard J., “Big Boss” of Chicago], the delegation was bound as the delegation voted. So if you had eighty delegates from Connecticut, and a majority of them went to John Kennedy, all eighty votes went to Kennedy.” Iowa has held caucuses since the state was founded in 1846—like the name “Iowa,” “caucus” is an Indian word; it means “elder”—but as primaries across the country switched to a proportional-representation system after the ’68 debacle, Iowa’s Democratic Party retooled its caucus system specifically to encourage more grassroots participation.
The caucuses are the first stage in a cascade of meetings that aggregate a whole lot of political activity, from the 1,993 voter precincts up to the county level, then the congressional district, and finally the state.The cycle begins in early winter, 2 when the precincts caucus. Nagle gave us a preliminary copy of the packet each caucus would open when they commenced the following Monday at 6:30 p.m. Much of it related to basic party activities. First, they pass the hat for contributions. They also adopt resolutions and name the delegates they’ll send to the county conventions in March. Then, Iowa’s ninety-nine counties sort through and tally the business of all the caucuses, and the process repeats to elect delegations and send platform planks on to the district convention in May, where it repeats once more to culminate in the state convention in the summer.
All of this, Nagle said, was put in place as a party-building apparatus. It brings people together annually, several times over, planning, nominating one another, crafting ideas, figuring out who’s going to bring refreshments—all the things that keep you politically connected.
The media froth that surrounds the Iowa caucuses today is an historical accident.The caucuses were originally set early because the cascade of conventions required several months.They had to start well in advance to get it all done. Nobody dreamed that anyone would care so much about these little meetings. But in 1972, Johnny Apple from the New York Times showed up to find out how Ed Muskie fared in the precinct caucuses. George McGovern had come in a stronger second than expected, which turned out to be the first chink in Muskie’s armor. Iowa set the stage for a similar showing in New Hampshire, and McGovern’s subsequent surprise nomination.
Then came 1976, and the entire national press arrived to watch a little known Southern governor named Jimmy Carter gather twice as many votes as any other contender, which sealed both his and Iowa’s place on the political map. (He subsequently won the Democratic nomination, and went on to beat Gerald Ford in the presidential election.) Thereafter, the floodgates opened. It’s a curious bond that’s developed between presidential candidates and Iowa over the years, since Iowa hasn’t had much actual predictive power about who will wind up with the nomination, much less in the White House. 3 Yet the political prospectors keep lining up their wagon trains to spend half their waking lives here, surrounded by a crush of media that scrutinizes their every move and trades in endless speculation as to who will have the most Iowans in their corner come caucus night.
And what happens on that night is not like the elections many of us are used to. It’s not a poll, open all day, with little cards and a hole punch that requires only a few minutes.The caucuses are one of the few American strongholds of intimate, hands-on, retail politics. They begin at an appointed time, and can last hours depending on how many people show up and how much they want to say. Here’s a simplification of what transpires during the part that the presidential campaigns care about: (1) At 7 p.m. sharp everyone separates into “preference groups,” so, (2) in the case of the 2004 caucus, there’s a Dean group and a Gephardt group and a Whoever Else group and they all sit or stand separately. Then, (3) if a group doesn’t comprise 15 percent of the people in the room, it is not deemed “viable,” and its members must then line up with their second choice.The end result (4) is counted proportionally.
That third, key stage is called “re-alignment,” and it was designed into the caucus, Nagle said, to help form consensus. “It benefits the party,” he explained, “because people interact and discuss, and it also means that almost everyone will see at least their second choice succeed.”4 It also, however, makes the procedure messy, because during re-alignment everyone tries to persuade others to move to their groups, like a multivariate exercise of political red rover.
And it’s important to remember that one of the groups could be no candidate at all. In the last few days of the campaign, the most important cohort is the uncommitted caucus-goer. “Uncommitted” is its own candidate, which reflects Iowans’ fierce demand to be convinced by their politicians. If “Uncommitted” has enough people,“Uncommitted” ranks as a personification of dissatisfaction with the other choices. In 1976, when the press crowned Carter a victorious dark horse in Iowa, he actually lost to “Uncommitted,” who had him beat by ten percentage points.
Nagle also mentioned the “practical considerations of assigning delegates,” the example for which he gave was that it may be tradition somewhere that Betty So-and-so chairs the Calhoun County Convention’s Arrangements Committee, which is “a nice term for the people in charge of the food,” because Betty brings the best donuts.“She needs to be a delegate if everyone is gonna be happy. That’s fundamental politics—so fundamental that sometimes the fate of the nation has to be set aside to make sure the delegates to the Calhoun County Convention have their coffee and donuts in the morning.”
THE NED TURNER
WESLEY CLARK HAS
And don’t forget old Ned Turner. Who’s Ned Turner? He’s the proverbial guy in the corner, in an example by Nagle, “who’s eighty-five years old and has been to every Calhoun County Convention since,say,1952, and doesn’t want his streak broken, except he’s for John McCain, and McCain ain’t a Democrat and he ain’t running anyway. But that doesn’t matter. Ned can caucus for McCain and appear as a delegate for McCain, and he will do just that since no one in that room wants to tell old Ned Turner that he can’t go to the county convention this year.” So at the upcoming Calhoun County Convention, you might have 100 delegates for Dean and 1 for McCain, simply because, as Nagle described somewhat gleefully,“that’s just what old Ned wanted to do.”
Driving back from Nagle’s office to Iowa City, I got a sense of just how seriously some people take the Ned Turner principle when I got a call from Dale Todd,an organizer from Iowans for Clark. Wesley Clark, at the time, was in New Hampshire. But one of the great features of Iowan Democracy is that you don’t need your own candidate to show up: Clark may have given up on Iowa, but there were some diehard Iowan Clarkies who liked their man, and were proselytizing anyway. “We’re having a Wes Fest tomorrow night,” Dale said.“In the recreation hall in Iowa City. You should stop by.”
Iowa City is charming. It is, of course, hemmed in by a nasty periphery of Wal-Mart and crappy regional fast-food chains like Jimmy Johns and Taco Joes. But the downtown, like all small city downtowns out here, is all handsome brick storefronts and gazebos. One of the few modern buildings was the recreation hall where the Wes Fest was getting started a few minutes late on the second floor.
“You can all caucus for Clark!” Dale told the crowd that spilled into the hall. Inside, official Clark posters hung alongside the homemade variety, including one that said: CLARK EX MACHINA! There was no stage and no microphone, just a room full of people with a lot to say and many questions. Where do I go? Do I have to be eighteen? Will Clark’s name be on the ballot? 5 Some Clark supporters gave testimonials. One, named Robert Bork (not the judge), noted that the reborn pragmatist Michael Moore had endorsed Wes. (All of Clark’s peeps call him “Wes.”) One elderly Clark supporter, walleyed and wheel-chair-bound from a stroke, but still razor sharp and irrepressible, had chaired a precinct in her day and helped the uninitiated with the details of caucus mathematics. The issue that kept coming up that no one had a good answer for was: why did Clark skip Iowa?
A fair question, considering that when Clark had delivered a speech at the University of Iowa Law School (just down the street) on September 19th, he drew an unexpectedly large crowd—1,200 people in a college town, a Dean town, of only 60,000 residents.
Nonetheless, some observers, including Nagle, weren’t convinced. All the campaigns check in with Nagle for early advice, which he dutifully provides in written form. He’ll meet the candidate, see him speak, maybe travel with him, and then draft a memo on that Windows 3.1 computer of his. Anyone who asks will get a memo from Nagle, and the memo that Clark’s people received said: Clark’s not ready for Iowa. Clark, coming in late, wasn’t mature enough as a candidate and didn’t have enough time or resources to (a) persuade enough Iowan voters, and (b) to get the boots-on-the- ground organization that the general would need to transform that persuasion into caucus delegates. Tom Harkin, Iowa’s senior senator, had told Clark more specifically: you need $4 million and thirty days of active travel-time here, otherwise it’s better to stay in Manchester, which is what Clark had done.
None of that daunted Dale and company. These were dedicated people. Iowans for Clark had established its own political action committee in Washington, raised money, and produced its own Clark radio spots. Many spent personal funds—Dale, for one, maxed out his credit cards—all the while knowing that with Clark polling at 3 or so percent the chance of Clark’s viability anywhere was a long shot. But the point of Iowa is to beat expectations, and Dale was optimistic that even a few surprise delegates would give Clark a little boost going into New Hampshire, where, according to polls, he was slowly cracking Dean’s lead.
That was Rebecca Sheir’s hope as well. She was the founder of Students for Clark I was flirting with as the meeting came to a close. Half of the campaign is flirting—between the candidate and the crowds, between the press and the campaigns—and journalistic technique is no different when you have to deal with so many press liaisons and hotel clerks and inter viewees. You want everyone to like you. But the person Rebecca was most interested in was Wesley Clark. “See how hot he is,” she said, pointing at a poster of the general. I wanted to ask Rebecca if she didn’t think Clark looked like an alien, since he never blinks, but I refrained. If he looks like an alien, after all, and is hotter than me, then where do I stand? The day before, Rebecca had been in Dubuque addressing some Unitarians about the virtues of Clark, and I wondered if she had spoken to them, as she did to me, about Clark’s “incredible abs for a man of sixty years.”
Rebecca then offered me a Clark bar. Who knew they still made Clark bars? I ate two and put three in my pockets. They tasted just like Butterfingers. Kind of like the candidate, I thought—Clark’s bar is similar to the name brands, but in more appealing packaging.
Or so his supporters believed. And with passion. Rebecca’s enthusiasm for the general—at one point she called him the Messiah— made me realize that Clark’s candidacy had a genuine movement behind it. And the little burst of energy surrounding Rebecca and Dale and the woman in the wheelchair in that rec center was the very thing to which Iowa was meant to give expression. Because in the rest of the country, seventy-five people in a rec center can’t possibly make difference. Even if they also have a PAC and made some radio ads. Small-time effort, no matter how dedicated, is a drop in the bucket in Michigan or New York or Florida where there are five or ten times as many voters and the campaigns are fought and won with thirty-second TV spots and tony fundraisers. Iowa, where people talk to their neighbors and bank tellers and uncles and local mayors about who the candidates are for six months, is one of the few places where a few people might, in fact, make a difference.
TOUCHING THE VOID WITH “THE KOOCH”
On the last three presidential ballots, you may have noticed the name John Hagelin printed beside something called the Natural Law Party. Ever wonder what that was? Me too. Ever wonder about Yogic Flying? Me too. So I counted it as good fortune when I discovered that a tiny Iowan town called Fairfield, no more than fifty miles from Iowa City, turned out to be the seat of the Natural Law Party, and a hub of Yogic Flying; and that this made Fairfield a well-known Dennis Kucinich stronghold.
The first thing to know about Kucinich is that he is affectionately called “the Kooch.” This is something I found out later, but retroactively applied to every thought I ever had about the boy wonder from Cleveland. His sobriquet was supposedly spontaneous, born from a moment when John Edwards was being counseled to distance himself publicly from Kucinich, and upon hearing this as he was boarding a campaign van, Edwards turned, pointed his finger at his advisors, and declared:“I am not going negative on the Kooch.”
I got this story first from an Edwards staffer, and then from a Kooch supporter, who said they liked how it sounded so they ran with it. Talking to my friend Amanda about this, I noted that if Kucinich somehow won the Democratic nomination, voters in November would be asked to choose between Bush and the Kooch. “A tough decision, if you catch my meaning.” Amanda’s response: “Yeah. Could get a little hairy.”
In Fairfield I learned that the Natural Law Party had disbanded and officially thrown its support behind Kucinich. Among the Democrats, the Kooch is furthest left. He not only proposes repealing Bush’s entire tax cut and pulling out of Iraq—he wants to do all that, like, pronto, while also decriminalizing marijuana, exiting NAFTA and the WTO, and putting in a single-payer health-care system. The Kooch is vegan; his favorite song is “Imagine” by John Lennon; he’s got corn growing outside his Des Moines office; and he’s been known to say things like “stardust and spirit unite and we begin: one with the universe”— which only adds to the sense that he reminds me at times of a tiny David Carradine in Kung Fu, if the show were revived and took place today in Sedona,Arizona.
On the Kooch’s platform planks, the Natural Law Party pretty much agrees. Their politics, like much of what goes on in Fairfield, are rooted in the practice of transcendental meditation—TM—and the spiritual teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian mystic who introduced many in the West to Eastern religious practices by first touching the heart of George Harrison back in the Hard Day’s Night era. Since the 1970s, his U.S. movement has been based in Fairfield. On an abandoned college campus, they founded the Maharishi University of Management, a school with 1,700 students, where you can study a TM-informed curriculum from preschool all the way to PhD.
For twenty years, the TM aura expanded and eventually coalesced into its own political party. “In 2000, our candidates got over 1.4 million votes nationwide,” Bob Roth told me. “We were the fastest-growing party in the country.” Bob was the Natural Law Party’s press secretary for a decade, before they disbanded this year, partly out of frustration with the difficulties of mounting an active third-party campaign. “The system makes it too expensive to keep up,” he complained cheerfully.
We were at a café where I had an organic vegetarian popover and drank a nice bubbly lemon Perrier. Also with us was Deborah Williamson and Mario Orsatti, both meditators. Deborah is the southeast coordinator for the Kucinich campaign. Mario works at Maharishi U, in the media relations office.
“I’m warning you,” Mario said, “once you get [Bob] started, he can’t stop talking about election law.”
“That’s true,” Bob continued with a smile. “It’s important! The Natural Law Party raised three and a half million dollars in 2000.You need that kind of money just to get your name on the ballot in all fifty states.”
“Really. There are states where the Democrats and Republicans have, by legislation, made it extremely difficult just to get on the ballot. In Florida, to run for statewide office you need 250,000 signatures—just to get your name in!
That’s more than you need to run independently for national offices in Britain, Australia, Germany, and so on. But in Florida, of course, if you’re from the two major parties, your name goes on automatically.”
So that means…
“It means that you spend all your money and organizing time just to get in the game.This is what the Greens suffer through each year. That’s why we’re endorsing Kucinich. Why pay for your own candidate, when Kucinich represents our ideas and he doesn’t have to fight to get on the ballot?”
Aha! This is where it all comes around, isn’t it? Because the most interesting candidates are always from outside the mainstream. Historically, all the major social and economic reforms in our country’s history have originated in third parties or marginal political movements: abolition, women’s suffrage, worker’s compensation, child-labor laws. Much of which, by the way, started in this part of the country. William Jennings Bryan, from neighboring Nebraska, was cheered by Iowa farmers when he went up to Chicago and gave his Cross of Gold speech in 1896. A decade later, the Progressive movement, the original engine of political change in the twentieth century, was built on the remnants of Bryan’s Populist party, and when Teddy Roosevelt split from the Republicans and ran as a Bull Moose in 1912, his votes came from the prairie, not the bankers in the northeast. And Iowa’s one-time most famous politician, Henry Wallace, who was FDR’s secretary of agriculture and later vice president before he got 2.5 percent of the vote as the Progressive candidate in 1948, was born over in Orient, about a hundred miles from Fairfield. It’s that outsider tradition that propels the country forward, as the major parties take turns assimilating the avant garde in a kind of sporadic political osmosis. And yet, this year, the outsiders started inside the fold. If it wasn’t for Iowa’s refreshingly raucous dramatis personae, including the Kooch and the tragically more viable Dean, Bush v. Kerry would have been as boring as Clinton v. Dole was in 1996.They held the DNC’s feet to the fire. And could do so partly because Iowa is small and cheap and brimming with enough media that anyone can come and have his or her say while the whole country watches. Not to mention that the caucus process explicitly promotes open debate.And luckily so, because the result was that the people with the oppositional drive and daring were staying true to the party.Which brings us back to the Natural Law Party’s endorsement, because when you ask Kucinich why he isn’t running independently, he says without hesitation: “I’m a Democrat, a Democrat with a progressive social vision.” The Kooch understands what Nader won’t, which is that the Greens and Independents never get traction alone. It’s their job to build momentum behind good ideas and then pass the baton.What’s the point of symbolism if your effort actually undermines your own cause? I know it’s hard to swallow, but sometimes you have to take on the Man from the inside! That’s what Dean was acknowledging every time he talked about “taking back the Democratic wing of the Democratic party”—itself a line borrowed from the late Senator Paul Wellstone, whose spirited political independence showed the way to keep the party honest from with- in.As much as all this terrified the DNC at first, it may be a saving grace: because unlike in 2000, today the third-party fire is illuminating the Democratic stage rather than setting it alight.
Rush hour in Fairfield happens twice a day when hundreds of people gather in massive twin domes outside the city to practice an advanced yoga technique that uses meditation to conjure an inner force and propels practitioners from lotus position into the air. I asked Bob, Deborah, and Mario to take me there, even though they only allow visitors a couple of days a year, and today is not one of those days. On the way, we drove through ninety million dollars worth of Vedic City, located just outside of Fairfield. This is the early stage of Maharishi U’s urban-planning model—a whole town based on Sthapatya Veda architecture, the Indian Feng Shui that will probably be all the rage within five years. (Get in on the ground floor now: call 641-470-7000.)
We got to the domes’ parking lot, and took a handicapped space. (We all agreed this was OK, since the flyers were already inside.) I had read somewhere about the “invincible army of positivity,” a powerful force of goodwill generated by the flying TM’ers that can, they believe, affect the world. Get 7,000 flyers together and you have world peace. Currently inside the domes, there were several hundred.
We circumambulated the domes while Bob explained what was happening inside:
“Some people call it flying. Or levitating. But it’s more like hopping. The practice integrates the deep silence of meditation with the physicality of yoga. And it’s absolutely exhilarating. From a profound state of rest comes this huge upward surge of energy. I’ve been doing it for twenty-five years, and it reminds me of when I was an athlete as a kid. You know, when you get in the zone.You pick up a basketball and it’s on: can’t miss; can’t miss;can’t miss.That’s what it’s like all the time in there. Mind and body connect. That’s the total potential of Natural Law.”
I expected all this to be weirder than it was. It’s a little far afield, I know, but it sounded perfectly reasonable when Bob said it, at least until the Natural Law part. Let me just say that I like yoga as much as the next modern youthful fellow, but have limited patience for the hocus-pocus that floats around it.Yet I enjoyed spending time with Bob, Deborah, and Mario, and would have liked to stay longer.Who needs the old Cartesian concussion of the mind/body split when the comfort of monism seems so much easier? Yes, the ecumenical aspect of yogic flying is a little suspect—I’d like to think that personal serenity is philanthropic, but I’m not yet convinced—however Mario did tell me that Maharishi U has a neurology-research facility where one can observe, with the aid of a real-time MRI, how deep meditation affects the brain. Proof! Of what, I don’t know. Even if there is no positive energy radiating from the domes, I suppose it is technically true that if everyone in the Middle East, or the whole world, was into TM, it would indeed usher in an era of peace, because they’d all be so busy meditating and eating organic food and enjoying their new Vedic houses and being really nice people like those I met in Fairfield that there’d be no time or inclination to start any trouble. But you’d need more than 7,000: every single person would have to join in, otherwise the one guy not meditating would take over the place.There’s the catch, I guess: TM peace requires a TM planet.
But why not begin in Iowa? Bob had pointed out earlier that Iowa has always attracted utopian dreamers. Long before the Progressives and the Populists were the Inspirationalists, religiously based Christian communists from Germany who established the Amana colonies in the midnineteenth century. And just before them, the Old Order Amish settled not far from Fairfield in 1846, the year of the earliest caucuses. “We have something special here,” Deborah had said in the car outside the domes. “Every town in Iowa has a different personality. Pella is Dutch. Iowa City has the college. Waterloo is blue-collar. Fairfield is the meditators. And if there’s a common thread through it all, it’s that Iowans respect truth and hard work and want to see things get better. That’s why we know a good president when we see one.”
Or do they? In the whirlwind days before this caucus, it seemed like Iowans didn’t quite know what they thought they wanted in a president. Many kept changing their minds, or waited until the last minute to decide, which apparently is common, perhaps because the Iowa electorate does not align strongly with the traditional constituencies of either the Democratic or Republican Parties, so the candidates never quite know what to say to them at first. That’s why the caucuses always turn the state into what amounts to a giant magic eight ball, filled with three million people and twice as many pigs and what seems like a billion journalists all swimming in a whole lot of wild rumor and conjecture, and when a name appears out of the blackness on the little triangle in the window it shows only that the soothsayers were usually wrong, or, as one Iowa state senator told me, “those guys in their sharp suits get paid $1,000 an hour to tell you they don’t know shit.”
Yet: out of that uncertainty comes one immutable certainty, which is that to have any real influence on that little triangle in Iowa, you need a lot of people helping you. Dave Nagle’s memos, in addition to giving guidance, all promulgate Nagle’s Law of How to Win the Caucuses: organize, organize, organize, and get hot at the end. That last part is voodoo. But you don’t even have a chance at the voodoo unless you follow the first three steps and build a crackerjack team early. And not just the usual suspects from elsewhere, because in Iowa you also need well-placed local advisors and a motivated hierarchy of precinct captains. The advisors, in turn, need waves of volunteers at their disposal to call, knock on doors, walk the streets, and collect all the responses to gauge where their votes are, what precincts they’re strong in, and which ones need attention. The precinct captains may be even more vital, because they’re the legions of local whips, the ones who do whatever they can to get their list of people to the caucus itself. Don’t forget! Tomorrow night! Need a ride? Fine. Childcare? My sister will watch your kids.Working late? Come straight to the caucus and I’ll bring you some of my dinner. Many hosts of smaller caucuses will try to lure attendees with fresh baked goods. That may be meant as a gesture in the name of civic duty, or, equally possible, a partisan ploy, because it is important to remember that a caucus host may be a Kerry vet, or a Dean activist, or a Gephardt stalwart.
Thus all the manpower assembling in Des Moines. Dean’s, Kerry’s, and Edwards’ HQs were all within two blocks of each other downtown, each humming on its own wavelength. Dean’s was on a street called Locust. Activity radiated in every direction. There were vans being loaded, cars pulling in, people shuttling back and forth. They rented two large offices: the original building, occupied since July; and the Welcome Center next door for the Perfect Storm, which is what the Dean campaign has christened the migration of several thousand people who have come to the state by plane, train, bus, car, and thumb.
The walls at the Dean HQ were full of posters and slogans and maps and snapshots assembled into the shape of Iowa. In the photos, people were smiling. The atmosphere was warm. Even fun—especially compared to the Kerry or Edwards offices. There, the top-down, straightlaced organizations maintained order and keep a lid on their people. If Kerry or Edwards staffers caught on that you’re with the press, they’d clam up fast.“Talk to the press secretary,” they’d say with fear, even if you were just looking for logistical information.
Ask for their names, and they refused to abide even the Geneva Convention: nervous silence reigns. Those places were about controlling information, whereas Dean for America, as the now-historical blogging gambit established, was the first information-driven campaign. One manifestation thereof was that everyone was empowered to give you an answer. Not the answer you want? Keep asking until you get a better one! This was a handy logistical discovery for me, since I had wanted to join Dean’s People- Powered Bus Tour, but missed the departure. The buses were by now headed for Ottumwa. I could have driven down to meet them, but that would have meant leaving the Grand Am in Ottumwa for days, and then how would I retrieve it?
“Looks like you can’t go,” said one Dean staffer.
“There’s room in one of our vans going down to Ottumwa soon,” said the next Dean staffer who walked by. “You can leave your car in our lot and pick it up on Saturday.”
The stately Hotel Ottumwa looks like a place where Dillinger might have hid out. Dean’s people and the upscale press were staying there, and they were mingling in the bar on the ground floor. It’s where I got my first look at Joe Trippi, Dean’s campaign manager. Trippi was the guy credited with either being the mastermind of Dean’s meteoric rise or the Rasputin who caused his empire to eventually collapse, or both.Trippi, the story goes, caught his political fever in Iowa twenty years ago. He came with Carter in 1976, and was sent out to canvass in some back county with a shoe box with one name in it, and apparently fell in love right then and there. Since Trippi signed on with the Dean campaign, I kept hearing, all he had wanted to do was get to Iowa.
And here he was, a campaign manager now, trying, like all campaign managers, to circulate a little spin to the press.Talking “casually” to John Harris of the Washington Post, Trippi told a slightly fishy tale of dirty tricks by the Kerry campaign. This stuff happens all the time. Since there’s not much in the way of real information at rallies, the time spent in bars and restaurants becomes the frontier of a détente between the press and the campaign, where every conversation is a cloak and dagger exchange, made in darkened corridors of mutual distrust. The campaigns want reporters to have information—but only certain information. The reporters are looking for something, anything, to distinguish the next day’s article from all the others, so when Joe Trippi sidles up and says,“Bad business what the other guys have been doing over in Council Bluffs…” they want to hear. But they also know that for every piece of good intelligence, there are twenty false leads, patchy signals, intentional deceptions. And in the end the good intelligence is still just spin, anyway. The story Trippi was circulating was that Kerry’s campaign had been calling known Dean supporters seventeen times a day to discourage them from picking up the phone at all, so they weren’t answering when pollsters called and thus were negatively impacting Dean’s numbers.
Was it true? Who knows. Many Iowans were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of politicking by the campaigns. Everyone was getting canvassers, calls, an avalanche of brochures and mailers every day, as well as the dreaded robo-calls from maybe Kerry’s people,maybe Dean’s people not having their shit together and calling their own supporters too many times.Yet Iowans took it mostly in stride. Some were turned off, especially by the negativity in the mailers. But others saw the attention as the curse of being loved too much. And everyone seemed grateful for the unique ability they had, in places such as Ottumwa or Oskaloosa, to get firsthand experience with the candidates.
Like Stacy and Eric Edgren, native Oskaloosans, who had come down to the Hotel Ottumwa’s Chief Mahaska Room the next morning to hear what Dean had to say. Dean’s not the best orator; he’s not even a very good orator, yet his words seemed to connect in the room because they sounded sincere.Whatever the cause of Dean’s ultimate undoing, he was the one who figured out Iowa first by being candid and direct. He saw that bullshit doesn’t fly in the small venues where the caucus prep work happens. That’s why Kerry staged larger, more Washingtonian events, equipped with a whole sales force to stump for him, and only caught on when he took a page out of Dean’s notebook and crafted a similar message.
And that message, basically, was: keep it real. In the Chief Mahaska Room, Dean’s stump speech showed that his core communication—the gift he bestowed to the 2004 Democratic Party in similar speeches all across Iowa—was in the connective tissue, the symbolic language he used to join the specifics:
“You can do better than this.”
“You can’t be afraid in a
“You have the power.”
“Only you have the power.”
It was that vital second person—reminding people of their fundamental democratic agency rather than focusing on the candidate’s CV—that excited people. I watched Stephanie and Eric’s faces beam when Dean said these things. Unlike all the wan rhetoric about “working families” people hear from every other politician in the country, here was a guy who was saying something—not what he thought people wanted him to say, but what he wanted to say—and that something was about fundamental change, a New Politics, and that wasn’t just the boilerplate pandering to “change” dredged up every other November, this seemed like real change because it wasn’t just words, there were volunteers and donations—a movement to back it up. You have the power. Eric and Stephanie, in their late thirties, and never before political, were sold. While Dean shook hands across the room, Eric turned to me and said, “I love my country, but right now I’m ashamed. And I’m pessimistic about our future—the future my son John will have.” Little John’s emblematically cherubic sleeping pink face was wrapped in a knit sweater in his father’s arms. Eric had never caucused before. Now he said he’d make a list of neighbors to call. “Dean stands up for what he believes. He’s the only one I’ve heard who makes me excited about the future again.” Fuckin A:America.
IN IOWA, A DAY
IS A WEEK
By the homestretch, many of the reporters on the press buses had been with the candidates for weeks or even months nonstop, outside of quick holiday breaks.They slept, ate, and spent their makeshift recreational time with the candidate, his staff, or eachother. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this benefits democracy. It’s probably better to rotate the press assignments and take people off the buses every so often. Because the buses concentrate the media, already an echo chamber, into a tiny little insular space where, most of the time, very little news is disseminated nation-wide at a frenetic pace. Aiding this are the electrical outlets running below the seats and cellular-based internet cards for laptops, which allow the writers to write and the photographers to transfer their images and the camera-people to log tape, all the while sending messages out into the gray skies over Iowa’s farmland.
Dean’s caravan had three of these charter buses, one for the campaign, and two for the press in tow. Press Bus 1 was for the heavies: the two Timeses, the Globe, the wires, the TV people. Way in the back of Press Bus 2 were the misfits like us literary magazines, the documentarians, the foreigners, the errant novelists like my homie Stephen Elliott, all stashed behind the overflow of still photographers at the front who wished they were riding in Press Bus 1 anyway.
Why, I’m not sure—because later, for a brief moment, I accidentally got on Press Bus 1, and had to claw my way off.Theirs was a bus with an evil regime: a pecking order, cards taped to their seats, and mocking attitudes about everything except themselves. They made fun of the food, the candidate, the local establishments—as if they’d never seen a Dairy Queen before, about which their oh-so- clever joke was “I guess that’s how they aspire to royalty in Iowa.”
Dorks! All of them. And poorly dressed. A trivial complaint, you say? Not when it’s the press who give the candidates such a hard time about what they wear,because let me tell you: when you turn the Daily Mirror on itself, the picture ain’t so pretty.When Eric Salzman from CBS tried to boot me from his seat—which wasn’t even his according to the name on the card taped thereto—I said to Steve, who also had the misfortune of winding up with me there,“I’m getting the hell out of here.”
“Yeah, man.” Steve was already gathering his stuff.“This is the Bad Vibes Bus.”
Back on the Good Vibes Bus, campaign news flowed from the TVs suspended above the seats. New endorsements. Who was attacking whom. What Dean said way back when about the caucuses being a special-interest buffet on Canadian television. What Kerry said way back when about dismantling the Agriculture Department.
What Dean said about what Kerry said about dismantling the Agriculture Department. It had gotten ugly in Iowa, especially between Gephardt and Dean, with Kerry throwing a few sucker punches for good measure, and in the last few days the bruises and black eyes were showing. And all the while Bush was sitting up in Washington like Donkey Kong, tossing down barrels filled with outlandish policy schemes at all the little Marios running up to save the princess. The Republicans are going to welcome all illegal immigrants! Jump that one for 200 points. Oh, and by the way, we’re gonna build a base on the Moon and send Americans to Mars…
The real news, though, was the “the Zogbies”—the regular figures from the polling firm Zogby— especially those ominous new numbers that flashed across the screen carrying the first hint of changing tides: Dean 28 percent; Kerry 23 percent; Gephardt 18 percent; Edwards 15 percent. Not much earlier, Dean’s lead had been twice that, and Gephardt was in second place, and Edwards had been, depending on the source, still in single digits.
As Dave Nagle had said:“A day is a week in Iowa.” Except that Nagle had also said that the polls don’t mean anything. That’s conventional wisdom in Iowa,despite that everyone also pays very close attention to them. It’s not that the Zogbies are biased or use a faulty methodology, but rather that there is no way not to misstate the geography of the caucuses. That’s because of how delegates are allocated to precincts,6 not to mention the 15 percent viability requirement and the horse-trading and the fact that things change once the caucuses start. To illustrate: take Edwards, polling at 9 percent statewide, as he was the day I arrived in Iowa. As stated, this means no delegates. Because 9 percent everywhere is viable nowhere. But the distribution of that 9 percent is critical. Edwards may have 40 percent in the precincts where he’s focusing his efforts, and 2 percent in others. And because of previous turnout, his hot precincts may have disproportionately more delegates. So in fact, that 9 percent could be rendered into delegates—9 percent or even more, if his campaign is smart. Conversely, if your support is too concentrated, and it overflows in precincts with fewer delegates, rating at 25 percent in raw support might slide to 15 percent in the closing count on caucus night.All of that adds an uncertainty to Iowa much larger than the basic margin of error endemic to polling itself. And Zogby captures none of it.
Still, what the polls did generally reflect was how successful all the campaigns were at co-opting Dean’s message in the final few days of the campaign. While Dean was being recast from surging underdog to dangerous stray— from Benji to Cujo—everyone else stole his thunder. Everyone except the only candidate who was there with Dean from the start: the Kooch, whose brilliant slogan distilled most succinctly what both he and Dean knew the November election would be about:
FEAR ENDS; HOPE BEGINS.
This, they all realized, was what the Democrats offered against the Republicans, so now you had Kerry talking about Harry Truman and Edwards uniting his “two Americas,” and even Gephardt, who had never ruffled a shirt in thirty years in the House, was raising his voice, and not just about the evils of NAFTA. And everywhere plural pro-nouns. “I” doesn’t sit well in Iowa, where you’re taught not to lay words on yourself. Dean’s “we’s” and “you’s” were catching, and once Kerry, who had used “I” 119 times in his speeches a month before, started including the rest of us in his new vision for the country, he started taking off. Nagle, who had endorsed Dean, always said that Kerry built the best organization from the start. Now, that organization finally had a message to get hot with at the end.
“Wow, is it warm in here?” Deb Henry was standing at the front of a homeroom at Martin Luther King Elementary School. This was north Des Moines, Precinct 44, and it was indeed feeling a little warm as she brought the caucus to order. The secretary (her husband Mitch) had signed in the forty-nine people who were now seated in the rows of plastic school chairs. Deb herself taught science, and she had the wind in her voice that a schoolteacher needs to fill the room. It was a relatively small turnout; roll call and other business didn’t take long, so there was plenty of time at the beginning for resolutions.
The first to stand was Faith Nettleton. She had brought her daughter along because she was eighteen now and Faith wanted her to be a part of the process she had participated in since she was eighteen and first caucused for Jimmy Carter. Faith herself had forced her way out of bed that night, despite that she was on painkillers for a bad back and couldn’t even drive, because she had a personal imperative to deliver the following statement: “Resolve that the United States Government should return, continue, and increase the funding that has been taken away from the Veterans Administration.”
The incredible thing about a resolution at an Iowa caucus is that it is more than just words in a school room in north Des Moines; it’s a political petition that can theoretically wind its way up through the various stages and make it to the state convention. This year, it might even get as far as Boston and be presented for the national platform. Not many make it that far, but it is possible.That tangibility of political power is almost unique to the Iowa caucuses. Faith dragged herself to MLK Elementary to deliver her proposal because she had recently watched her fiancé die because he couldn’t get proper care in the VA hospitals, and she wanted that issue to be taken up by the state party. Her voice was soft, and died in her throat a few times as she spoke.The room stayed still because the moment was obviously emotional and some people there knew Faith and what she had gone through. One of them was Faith’s neighbor Bob, himself a Marine in Vietnam, and he eventually broke the silence to second the motion and thank her for an important contribution.
Emboldened, others joined in. Porter Demery added that there should be co-payments at VA hospitals.Willie J. Bumpus, Jr. demanded rent control and a better prescription-drug plan. It didn’t occur to any of them that this schoolroom was a long way from the places where policy actually gets made, because this was a place where policy starts. It may seem like some long-lost quaintness from an ancient civics textbook, but at the caucuses, or at least at this caucus, people believed that their voices actually carried weight.
And to reciprocate, they took their roles in the process very seriously. Especially when the preference groups started forming at seven.After the first lineup—
Let’s get a count: Dean? We have eight. Gephardt? Ten! Kerry? Kerry? How many for Kerry? Five, I think. Kucinich? Three. Edwards? Looks like nineteen. Sharpton, Clark. Zero! Any Moseley Braun?
—the chairs started sliding again for the re-alignment phase. There were five Uncommitteds, and the Kerry and Kucinich groups weren’t viable, so they had to either stand with another candidate’s group or try to attract supporters from each other or maybe even from someone in a viable group who was still on the fence.
Which made for a chaotic half hour. It sure is something to watch an electoral process that requires debate and argument for a result. I gave up trying to keep a running status, because there was much indecision, and many reversals, and just keeping track of that many people moving around and talking all at once was near impossible. Unlike a polling station, where there’s a solitary sense of civic duty, this thing here was about community.
“It’s a big responsibility we have to each other,” Faith said as we stood in a hazy area between the Edwards group and the Uncommitted corner.“We have to do the best we can here tonight.” Faith was one of the Uncommitteds, teds, not because she didn’t like any of the candidates, but because she thought they all had good qualities. “I don’t want to go with any particular one, because especially in this election, I don’t want to put forward just one person. I want to send the message that we have more than one candidate who would do the job well.”
Although a viable Uncommitted group was her ideal outcome, there weren’t enough o them, and at 7:30 p.m. Faith stood with Edwards. She liked him well enough and since her neighbor Bob was Edwards’s precinct captain they made a deal that if she joined them—which would generate an extra delegate—she could have that extra seat. Faith wanted that so she could press the case about VA funding and make sure her resolution wouldn’t get overlooked at the county level. I asked why she didn’t go with Kerry, since he had staked his campaign on veterans’ issues, specifically condemning Bush for cutting VA funding on the eve of the Iraq war. Kerry, she reminded me, wasn’t viable in this particular caucus, but moreover, he hadn’t yet convinced her. She appreciated Kerry’s record, but noticed how long he struggled to come up with something to say. “You have to strike a chord here,” she said.“Your ideas have to resonate.” In 1,992 other rooms across the state, people were concluding differently, but that may only have proved her next comment, which was that if Kerry did start to resonate, it’s because Iowa forced him to. “It’s always a good idea,” she said, “to get some manure on your boots.” ✯