Iowa caucus drama plays out in a high school gymnasium

The caucus process is unique, confusing and utterly beguiling

Nancy Isgrig was one of just five “undecideds” when the caucus got underway in the gymnasium at Pleasantville high school.

Hillary Clinton was very qualified, she said, seated on the bleachers. She also thought Bernie Sanders was a good candidate and she had come to the vote to listen to people speak, ready to be persuaded.

The quiet drama that took place in the gym, normally home to the school’s Trojans basketball team, was being played out at more than 1,600 locations across Iowa on Monday night. The caucus process, whereby people actually talk and debate and make the case for their candidates, is a unique and engaging event that kicks off the US presidential election process.

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Nancy Isgrig was among those undecided

It seemed that the supporters for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were reasonable evenly divided, with the Vermont senator having a slight edge; Ms Clinton’s supporters stretched up seven rows of seats, while Mr Sanders occupied nine.

Martin O’Malley’s supporters totalled just three. They could not understand why the man they considered an excellent candidate, did not have more support. “I think he doing this so that he can run again later,” said Steve Simpson, one of “the three”, who could easily fit on the bottom row of seats.

The caucuses operated by the Republicans are reasonably straight forward; after someone reads a speech on behalf of a candidate, people got outside and vote.

The caucuses operated by the Democrats are a little more exotic. After people go and assemble in their groups, there is a chance for neighbours and friends to persuade each to come and join their candidate’s huddle. 

And so they did. For half an hour people talked and debated, with passion and no small vigour.

“In four decades of public life there has not been one black mark against his name,” one of Mr Sanders’ supporters was telling one of the undecided.

“Just how long will it take to take us to full green energy,” another person could be heard to say.

The debating and cajoling went on for a full 30 minutes, a period that was broken by three loud cheers, two from Mr Sanders’ camp when they secured two of the undecideds - one of them being Ms Isgrig - and one from Ms Clinton’s camp when one of the O’Malley three sat with the former secretary of state’s group. (Another O’Malley supporter more quietly made their way to Mr Sanders’ group.)

Ms Isgrig said she had decided to go with Mr Sanders because he of his willingness to raise the issue of corruption. “Bernie knows that Washington is corrupt and he says so,” she said.

The chairman of the event, Matt Russell, who works at Drake University, was responsible for the final tally. He said 163 people had taken part in the event. Ms Clinton had ended up with 75 votes, Mr Sanders with 85, with one for Mr O’Malley and two still decided.

The divvying of the all important delegates went 5.52 to Ms Clinton and 6.25 to Mr Sanders. But, Mr Russell explained, because you can’t send a fraction of a delegate, Ms Clinton’s number was rounded up to six and Mr Sanders rounded down to six.

After all that drama, the two candidates came out exactly even.

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