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What It's Really Like to Attend the Iowa Caucuses

In the high school auditorium where I had once seen my 17-year-old neighbor perform in "Grease," I tried to convince shouting members of my community to come on over to the Hillary side.
February 2, 2016, 10:30pm
Photo by Win McNamee via Getty Images

On Monday, February 1, I caucused with my neighbors in Precinct 24 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Our precinct and a few others met in the auditorium of Washington High School, located on the southeast side of the town.

Cedar Rapids is the second-largest city in Iowa, with a population of 128,429 in 2013. Yet, despite those bragging rights, no matter where you are in town, you are always five miles from a field of soy or corn. The center of town is a cluster of factories—Penford Paper, Farmland, and Quaker Oats. Sometimes, the wind here blows Crunchberries, other days a heavy yeasty smell lingers in the air. In 2005, the history center had an exhibit called the "Smells of Cedar Rapids." They don't do that anymore.

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When I walked into Washington High School, I saw the lady who walks her corgis by my house every morning at 6:30 AM, the lawyer who bikes to work even in the snow, the long-haired professor who teaches at the college down the street, the man who runs the local theater, a lady I recognized from my favorite coffee shop, the mother of my daughter's best friend, my friend's husband, another friend's ex-husband, the ladies from my cooking club, and the mother of the girl who was watching my kids right at that moment.

There was a crush of people in the hall. I noticed neighbors who are conservative, in line to switch their voter registration so they could caucus for Bernie. I also saw a lady from my church, whom I hadn't known was a Democrat, and we waved to one another proudly comparing stickers—Hillary.

This wasn't my first caucus. In 2008 and 2012 I attended the Republican caucuses; both times I was there as a voter (Ron Paul) and as a reporter. Republican caucuses in Iowa are cast by secret ballot: You check in, you go into a room, there is some party business, and then the caucus chair invites people to give short speeches for each candidate. The speeches are usually polite, although, in 2012, I heard a man declare that there was a vast Republican conspiracy against Newt Gingrich. He was booed off the stage when his speech went over the allotted time period. (Apparently, the conspiracy didn't work, as Gingrich won over Perry by three percent in our precinct that night.)

The crowd in the hall at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. All photos by Lyz Lenz

This was my first time caucusing as a Democrat. After signing my name in the designated space and filling in a bubble corresponding to which candidate I was going to caucus for, I went into the auditorium where my party's caucus was to take place. Different sections of the room were marked off for the various candidates, as well as for observers and the press. The far right side was for Clinton, the far left for Sanders. The middle section was divided up between the press, observers, undecided voters, and O'Malley supporters.

The event opened with some fairly perfunctory party business, like voting for the caucus chair and secretary. Hardly anyone was paying attention, and the few who were angrily shushed the others.

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Next we had to physically count everyone in the room who was caucusing. There were audible groans and a few false starts; eventually, our chair decided we should raise our hand and call out our number. In all, according to our count, there were 435 people caucusing.

It makes slightly less sense that our differences would come up against each other in the high school auditorium where I had once seen my 17-year-old neighbor perform in Grease.

Then the fun began. We had to physically count who was caucusing for each candidate. It took us almost half an hour, but in the end we counted 177 for Sanders, 225 for Clinton, 17 for O'Malley, and 14 who were uncommitted—a number that does not add up to 435. The chair contended that it was because people had left the room. She offered a motion to recount just in case, but there was a loud groan from the audience in response. We didn't recount.

The Iowa Democratic caucus is like a giant game of adult political red rover. Each precinct has a certain number of delegates to divide among the candidates—ours had six—and these delegates are divided among the viable candidates; the largest groups get the most delegates and have a better chance of their candidate winning the nomination. In order for a group to be viable, they must have 15 percent of the caucus attendees in that precinct. For our precinct with 435, each group would have needed 66 people in order to be viable. This meant that the O'Malley group was out of luck.

The Hillary side

Now we were supposed to realign, a process in which people from each group attempt to convince the others to join their side—the unviable groups want people to join them to make them viable, and the people in the viable groups want others to join them to get more delegates. Before the realignment officially began, Sanders supporters were already crossing over to the O'Malley section. "Please sit down," the chairwoman said, "we aren't realigning yet!"

A few listened. A few still stood. "Those jackals," I heard a woman behind me mutter.

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"Okay, you have half an hour to realign," the chairwoman said. She already sounded tired, and it was only 7:30.

"Come on," a woman wearing a flowered top said to our row. "Let's go." I jumped up to join her and followed her down to the O'Malley contingent. I approached the first O'Malley supporter I saw, but the woman in the flowered top interjected, "He's my friend," she said, giving him a hug. "He'll make the right choice."

After I left them to it and went in search of someone else to court, I witnessed a group of Sanders supporters standing near a cluster of seated O'Malley advocates. One man in a black fleece jacket stood in front of them, shouting. "Hillary is a criminal!" he intoned. "She is more of the same. She is corrupt. It's ridiculous to vote for her just because she's a woman." I couldn't tell if anyone was listening to him, but he didn't seem to care.

Beside the shouter, I saw a lady with blonde hair. She was my neighbor, an English professor. "What were we thinking?" she asked, laughing at the general chaos in the room.

"Come on over to Hillary," I said.

"Oh, I think I will," she responded mildly.

The O'Malley camp was sparse before realignment.

Not everyone was so easily convinced, however. Another woman I knew—the mother of one of my daughter's preschool friends—insisted that Sanders was the only one who could break Washington's gridlock; a bald man with a beard yelled that Hillary had taken bribes and that it was "stupid" to vote for her just because she's a woman; a woman with a long braid slung over her shoulder demanded that Clinton account for all her campaign contributions.

No other caucus is like this. Nowhere else is neighbor forced to argue face-to-face with neighbor, our passions and fervent beliefs rising to the surface. This is what is both so beautiful and awful about democracy—at its essence it is a tangled mess of our orthodoxies, and lives.

Here, we voted with our bodies, our physical movements outlining which candidate we chose. In that scrum of politics and people, it makes sense that there would be spit and handshakes, elbows bumped, and hugs given. It makes slightly less sense that our differences would come up against each other in the high school auditorium where I had once seen my 17-year-old neighbor perform in Grease.

Once the realignment period ended, we made our way back to our seats. At that point, there were no more O'Malley supporters, and no one else uncommitted. We did a final count: Sanders 188, Clinton 239. No more realignment. Now just the six delegates to divide between the two viable groups: With rounding, that gave each candidate three delegates. The Sanders section cheered. Our chairwoman called for order and then left to report our numbers.

There was still some business to attend, like the matter of who would act as each delegate, but the initial business was done. Everyone filed out. Back to dishes, hungry stomachs, sleepy kids. Back to the world where politics was the subtext once again.