THE BLOG

Three Days in the Life of the Iowa Caucuses

05/25/2011 12:20 pm ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Guest blogger: Cathy Duvall, Sierra Club Political Director

Day One, January 1:

It's both the first day of the year and my first day in Iowa. And while every year brings unknowns, one thing is certain -- we will elect a new President this year, starting right here in Iowa.

My rental car says it's 5 degrees outside as we drive to our first event, a rally with Republican Governor Mike Huckabee and celebrity supporter Chuck Norris. Huckabee's style is folksy, his message populist coupled with strong religious overtones. He mentions standard Republican themes of family, defense, immigration then talks about energy security, which produces the strongest applause from the audience. He wraps up his comments before donning a guitar and playing Lynyrd Skynyrd covers, joined by former Congressman turned MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough and a local band.

It's clear from his stump speech, jokes and down-home style, and distinct enjoyment while performing with guitar in hand, that Huckabee is having fun. He is connecting with his base but on his own terms. "If I'm elected President, what happens to the band? Well, we play the White House!" His message targets his evangelical supporters, but with values that voters across the religious, and frankly political, spectrum could support. He is talking about what he really believes, is articulate and comfortable with that conversation, and it shows.

With a reported 2,500+ members of the Fourth Estate in Iowa, a sizable portion of the audience has a notebook, camera or recorder. We see Tim Russert observing the scene from the back of the Val-Air Ballroom, so I take a few minutes to see if he agrees that Huckabee is having the most fun. Russert reported that in fact he and the other man from Hope, Bill Clinton, had indeed been discussing Huckabee's ability to tell a good joke on the stump. One thing is sure: Tim Russert is having a blast watching the most open Presidential contest in our lifetime. He was downright giddy, giggling at the opportunity to attend events and observe the final hours up close. For political junkies, Iowa is the place to be.

Day Two, January 2:

If the media is ecstatic and giddy about the wide open races, the atmosphere at the campaign offices is 180 degrees different. We dropped by each office, wishing well, and paying our respects. As I peered into the eyes of my campaign friends, I saw they are exhausted and stressed beyond belief. They want the caucus to be over, but only with winning results. It's an emotional rollercoaster from hell.

We put together a very full day from the smorgasbord of events available -- Senator Dodd at Java Joe's Coffee Shop at 7:30 am; Senator Clinton at a Methodist church in Indianola shortly thereafter; Senator McCain hastily packed into his campaign office in early evening; and concluded with a late night rally with Senator Obama at Hoover High School. These major candidates were true to form and very illuminating.

In my personal focus group, Senator Clinton won. Introduced by Mary Steenburgen, who spoke movingly from the heart, Hillary gave an issue-packed speech. She speculated that oil would hit $100/barrel later in the day (as it indeed did), underscoring the need to for energy independence. She framed her discussion on the incredible opportunities we have if we do -- solving global warming and creating jobs -- and the need for leadership from the White House to help organize these opportunities to allow America to be itself: creative, innovative, and a technological leader. She was the best on the stump on our issues of any candidate I've heard. The crowd knew that too, and the applause throughout her five-minute discussion of a clean energy economy was loud and sustained -- the loudest and longest applause of all during her hour-long speech.

One key place to be Wednesday evening was with the 2008 Comeback Kid, Senator John McCain. He has come back to life with poll numbers in New Hampshire showing him either even or leading. His resurgence in the race and particularly in Iowa adds to the high degree of volatility on the Republican side. It's unclear if the momentum is towards him or just away from Huckabee and Romney, but he focused on the theme that he will be ready to lead on day one. Functionally, he has no organization, so it's too late to win Iowa, but he could win with a solid third place here, take New Hampshire and be propelled on to the nomination. He opened his speech talking about how we need to restore trust in America, although his introductions by Senators Brownback, Thune, and Graham brought out his true colors.

The most popular event, complete with hundreds of reporters and more than fifty cameras, was Barack Obama. He has run a picture-perfect campaign -- the largest events, seamless choreographing, best constituent and political outreach, a gold-standard field operation complete with the most hard IDs and touting more than 90,000 doors knocked this last weekend alone. Yet through his hoarse voice, he had the least amount to say. Good themes, great speech, mentioned our issues ever so briefly, yet no real substance. His strongest point is to paint his inexperience as the underdog, and inspire people to overcome that label. And inspire them he did. The crowd -- large enough to fill a high school gym -- was extremely fired-up despite the late hour and freezing weather outside. Between 30 to 40 percent of the audience would be first-time caucus attendees; so it could be a strong win or chalked up to just another Bradley or Dean.

Day Three, January 3:

We're continuing to make the rounds today -- beginning our day with a high-energy John Edwards rally at the United Steelworkers local union hall on Des Moines' industrial eastside. The rally capped off days of frantic day and night campaigning by Edwards -- the only one of the top three Democratic candidates not to suspend formal campaigning today.

We continued our personal campaign tour, stopping by the offices of Biden, Dodd, and Richards. Now we're just counting down the hours until decision time.