Iowa caucuses: Where modern democracy meets charades at Speakers’ Corner

Clearly it’s a good thing Democrats and Republicans hold their caucuses separately - Iowans have a reputation for decency, but there are limits

David Usborne
Ellsworth, Iowa
Sunday 31 January 2016 21:27 GMT
Supporters listen to Democrat Bernie Sanders addressing an event in Iowa City
Supporters listen to Democrat Bernie Sanders addressing an event in Iowa City (AFP/Getty)

It’s meant to be all very neighbourly, Democrats and Republicans in communities all across Iowa getting together on a winter night to discuss who they think who would make a decent President, and then taking votes on it. But this is politics.

So it is that Howard Marsh, 57, a retired schools administrator, knows where the Republicans will be meeting in his town, Eldorado – in the recreation room of a nearby juvenile detention centre – but doesn’t know where the Democrats on his street will be meeting to caucus. “Some place where the sun don’t shine,” he almost spits.

Clearly it’s a good thing Democrats and Republicans hold their caucuses separately. Iowans have a reputation for decency, but there are limits. And there is still scope for tempers to fray, even with that partisan segregation. Because before Iowans vote at these meetings, they also debate a bit. And argue. Which is why they can take up to two hours before the collating of results across the state can begin.

It’s all a little nerve-racking for Abbey Coster, 46, a mother of six children who works nights in a hotel 30 miles from her home in Ellsworth, population 500. For better or worse she has volunteered to act as “precinct captain” on behalf of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas at her Republican caucus, to be held in the community room at the same non-denominational church in town where she worships every Sunday. She has never done anything like this before.

Each candidate chooses their own captain for all of the 1,600 precincts, who must make final pitches on their behalf. Ms Coster isn’t sure how much time she will be given but assumes it won’t be more than five minutes. “I do tend to be a bit long-winded,” she accepts. She thinks her main job will be to explain why Mr Cruz’s opposition to an ethanol subsidy for corn growers won’t hurt farmers in the area – a tough sell.

With at least some of her children in tow – minors can watch but not vote – she will also explain why Mr Cruz, who as a US Senator has been a thorn in the side of his own party, is the only one who will stick to his conservative word. “Since he was elected he has done what he told voters he would do, exposing everyone else as hypocrites who go to Washington and bend and sway to the special interest.”

Republicans’ caucus rules are simple. Once Ms Coster and each of the plethora of other candidates’ precinct captains have said their piece, everyone present makes their choice, generally in a secret ballot. They write down their preference on a piece of paper and pop it into a box. It’s all tallied, and everyone goes home.

Everything you need to know about the Iowa caucus

Democrats begin the same way, and have only three candidates to choose from: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. But after the first speeches everyone of voting age is asked to divide into groups, one for each candidate. If one group has less than 15 per cent of all the people present – a probable fate for many O’Malley supporters today – it will be declared invalid and a new round of cajoling begins. Those in the sinking-ship group must either persuade enough people to change their minds and support their candidate – or abandon deck and stand with another group. Which is what all the others in the room will be urging them to do.

It’s modern democracy meets charades, meets Speakers’ Corner – all inside an echoing school gym or, in a handful of remote communities, in somebody’s front room or garage. With a bit of luck the results will gathered in by midnight, the results declared – and the candidates and their accompanying circuses decamp almost immediately to New Hampshire for its more straightforward primary elections in eight days’ time.

And leaving Iowa, at last, in peace.

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