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Iowa caucuses: where democracy can build community

Civic engagement

Across Iowa, the caucuses were an intimate and high-energy affair, and for at least one participant, it was a statement of belonging.  

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    A young boy high-fives Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as his wife, Melania, watches at the Seven Flags Event Center in Clive, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2016.
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It’s been fashionable to complain about the Iowa caucuses.

They’re too time-consuming. They exclude people who have to work or are unwell. And if you arrive after your caucus starts, too bad. You can watch the proceedings, but you can’t vote.

What an odd way for America to launch its presidential nomination process, maybe even a bit undemocratic, foreign reporters observed here on Monday. But there’s a certain beauty to the caucus system, they admitted. It gets people out of their houses, listening to friends and neighbors speaking on behalf of candidates, and discussing the issues of the day. The caucuses build community.

This year, the excitement on both sides of the aisle was palpable. But perhaps no crowd was more raucous than the Bernie Sanders supporters. At the Democratic caucus at Valley High School in West Des Moines, about 300 people showed up – double what was expected. Even after Senator Sanders got slightly fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, spirits were still high on “his” side of the room.

One young man, an immigrant from Pakistan, told a French reporter excitedly about his decision to caucus for the first time, now that he’s an American citizen, and become a delegate for Sanders at the county party convention. The Pakistani persuaded his friends – including immigrants from Afghanistan and Russia – to come caucus, too.

One of the young men said, “Maybe Donald Trump himself doesn’t understand, but I’m afraid he will trigger racist people to come out.”

Caucusing for Sanders was a way to fight back, the men agreed.

“What I liked the most [about this caucus] was all the young people, and all the enthusiasm,” says Peggy Huppert, former chairman of the Polk County Democrats, who was serving as a kind of mother hen to the young men. “We elected four delegates, and they’re all under 35. There were some older of us who wanted to be delegates, but we stepped aside and are going as alternates.”

Iowa Democrats didn’t set a record for turnout. That happened in 2008, the year of Barack Obama, when 239,000 people turned out. But the 2016 figure was still robust at 171,000.

Meanwhile, Republican turnout of 180,000 did set a record, beating the 2012 total by about 60,000 people.

Some precincts ran out of ballots and had to print more on the spot. Others ran out of forms to register the wave of new voters and existing voters who were changing their registration to match the party with which they wanted to caucus.

“We registered many new Republicans and actually ran out of registration forms, so I punted and used older paper that I had brought from home, just in case,” says Connie Schmett, a longtime Republican activist who organized the big joint caucus for Precincts 3 and 4 in Clive, Iowa, near Des Moines.

Ms. Schmett’s caucus was a pretty high-energy affair, with about 1,000 attendees, one of the largest in the state. While most caucuses feature surrogates speaking on behalf of candidates, no fewer than four actual candidates appeared at the Seven Flags Event Center in Clive – Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum.

Senator Rubio of Florida arrived before the caucus began and greeted voters as they walked in, posing for the obligatory selfies. When the time came for speeches, Rubio took the stage with his wife and four children. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick spoke on behalf of Sen. Ted Cruz. Then there was a stirring in the back of the hall, as Dr. Carson walked in and was invited to speak.

But the biggest stir of all came when Mr. Trump arrived, his wife, Melania, on his arm. As he passed by, he leaned toward a Danish newspaper reporter and observed, “Big crowd!”

Each of the candidates delivered short versions of their stump speeches, then were on their way. The Trumps departed in a crush of security, the lights on their motorcade flashing.

When the ballots were counted, Rubio was the clear winner, followed by Senator Cruz and Trump.

Later Monday evening, at Trump’s “caucus watch” party at the Sheraton hotel in West Des Moines, supporters booed when Cruz’s victory was announced. But they stuck around to see The Donald and his family and to hear his concession remarks.

“I'm a little disappointed,” said Linda Weaver, a Trump enthusiast from Indianola, Iowa, who said she’s attended most of his rallies. “I don’t think it’s over by a long shot, and I’m not giving up.”

When asked what she thinks of Cruz, Ms. Weaver questioned whether he’s eligible to run for president, a point that Trump raised over and over in recent weeks, owing to Cruz’s birth in Canada to a Cuban father and American mother. (Most legal experts agree that Cruz is eligible to run.)

A quick drive over to the Holiday Inn by the Des Moines airport for the Sanders party revealed a packed ballroom jumping with Sanders supporters, many of them young, waving signs saying, “A Future to Believe In.” Sanders was neck and neck with former Secretary Clinton, and he came out with his family to declare “a moral victory,” even if the race hadn’t been called yet. (The Associated Press called it for Clinton Tuesday afternoon, with the former secretary of State securing 49.9 percent of the delegate count, and Sanders winning 49.6 percent.)

To Sean Pierce of Des Moines, a recent college graduate, Sanders’s better-than-expected performance in the caucuses has made his year of volunteering for the campaign worth it.

“He’s a really relatable candidate,” says Mr. Pierce, who works as a sound engineer. He has $28,000 in student debt, so lowering interest rates on such debt is a top issue for him.

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