When we moved from Illinois to Iowa in the summer of 2005, Iowa’s role in the presidential election process was far from my mind. It was only in the last few months that I realized that those Iowa caucuses I had heard about in past election years – and thought “How quaint” as you do when you read of some odd custom of people in a far-off place – were going to take place in my own community.
I have rarely taken much interest in the election process until the election itself approaches. I think 2000 was probably the first primary I voted in (I voted for McCain), back when we lived in Michigan. I always vote when I have the opportunity, so I assume that where I had lived previously there was no opportunity to vote in the primary, or it came late enough in the season that casting the ballot seemed to be a mere formality.
In any case, I was eager for the opportunity tonight to take part in an important process – as well as see what all the fuss in Iowa was about, that the rest of the nation would be taking such an interest in. I arrived at the high school a few minutes past the official 6:30 pm start time, but I walked in with a few dozen other latecomers, and there were more cars still arriving.
I hadn’t known what to expect, but I had more or less imagined fairly small groups in a number of different rooms. I followed the crowd into the cafeteria, which was standing room only, in time to hear someone ask if there was anyone to speak for John McCain, and only silence in reply. Another candidate was mentioned (Giuliani, perhaps?) and again no one spoke up. But there was someone to speak for Ron Paul, and I listened as I tried to edge my way further into the room, both to get a better view of what was going on and to make room for more people still coming in behind me.
As the Ron Paul supporter finished his speech and someone got up to speak for Mitt Romney, I heard people behind me asking where to sign in, and they were directed to continue across the room to a door opposite where we had entered. I managed to join the slow flow in that direction, and did not hear the rest of the speeches.
Out in the hallway, there were tables set up for people to sign in according to their precinct. But apparently whoever planned the event had seriously underestimated either the number of people who would show up, or how long it would take them to sign in. There were about six tables lined up down the hallway, and a dense crowd of people all trying to make their way to the appropriate table. Those who had made it successfully through the gauntlet, meanwhile, were trying to make their way back out, and the subsequent congestion was the pedestrian equivalent of rush-hour gridlock in our biggest cities.
I managed to get into the crowd without too much trouble, but directing my steps from there was mostly a matter of luck, as well as being willing to gain a few inches in the right direction when the opportunity allowed, even though it meant that someone else trying to move those same few inches in a different direction was not able to. People were for the most part pleasant and polite, unhappy at the circumstances but willing to put up with them for the sake of supporting their favored candidate. I can’t say there was no pushing, as we were constantly being pressed on all sides by the surrounding crowd, but I was aware of no intentional shoving, nor any efforts to cut ahead of anyone else. We were all eager to get signed up so we could get out of there and let others get in.
Finally I made it to the table for Precinct #1. There was someone for Precinct #2 on my left, someone for Precinct #7 behind me, who needed to get to my left, and someone in front of me for Precinct #2, but whose name turned out to be missing from the list of registered Republicans. (I read later on our local newspaper’s website that this was a problem for many people, and that this slowed down the process of signing in considerably.) But finally I managed to thrust my drivers license through to catch the eye of the woman with the list containing my name, and shortly I sported a green “1” on the back of my left hand. Then I just had to do the entire process in reverse to get back out of the crowd, which had grown larger in the last twenty minutes…
Finally I made it to room AA28, where Precinct #1 was caucusing. I arrived in time to hear a man (who spoke with a foreign accent that sounded vaguely Eastern European, though I could be way off on that assessment) explaining that our precinct is the largest in our county, and that we need to send 27 delegates to Des Moines in March – to which end he passed around a sign-up sheet for volunteers. And following that, a sign-up sheet for alternates, and another for youth delegates. As I haven’t lived in Iowa long enough to have a good idea where or how far away Des Moines is, I decided to leave that privilege to 27 other people.
Finally he handed out yellow pieces of paper and a few pens, and listed the names of the Republican candidates to choose among. The man next to me had his own pen, and promptly wrote out “Ron Paul” on his paper. Another man nearby was asking how to spell “Huckabee.” The room started clearing out fairly quickly, as people deposited their papers in a large envelope. I finally found a pen and recorded my choice (for Fred Thompson, whom I have widely heard is not electable, but who – along with John McCain – seems to come closest to my own views on various issues, and who would have been my husband’s choice had he not been home trying to get some sleep prior to heading off to his third-shift job).
As I left, I heard a woman talking on her cell phone, telling someone there were about three thousand people there. (No wonder it was so crowded! I couldn’t help wondering by how much we had exceeded fire code limits on number of people in a classroom.) When I got home, I mentioned the number to my son, who is a sophomore and might have some idea how many people would fill the cafeteria. He guessed a couple hundred. So I figured the woman had been exaggerating.
But I read online, along with the unsurprising news that Huckabee had handily taken a leading position as the Republican choice statewide, that there had also been a wrestling competition at the high school, and that between that and the caucus there had indeed been thousands of people at the high school. [Note: I have since found out that the number of Republican votes cast was 1,226.]
Now I can sit back and wait to see how the various state primaries go, and who the eventual Republican candidate will be, and whether I want to support him or consider a third party. But in the meantime, I’ve had my first taste of Iowa caucusing. And I certainly hope that in four or eight years or whenever the next time comes that the field is so wide open, someone plans things a little better to accommodate the crowds of Iowans eager to make their collective will known.