By 4 AM Caucus morning in Des Moines, when I posted my last pieces for OffTheBus on the Democratic candidates, I knew that Barack Obama was going to win that night, and I concluded, having suffered through three dispiriting Clinton performances in Muscatine, Council Bluffs and Ottumwa over the last three days, that John Edwards had a chance to grab second place. Two hours to the east in Iowa City, the Edwards and Obama captains for precinct #8 would soon put a joint strategy in place based on the same assessment. I can't tell you exactly when they joined forces, or whether this was a plan hatched in the two Iowa City field offices and executed elsewhere in Johnson County. Almost certainly John Edwards, fiercely convinced that he could win the whole thing, never approved it. Nor Barack Obama. But by 9 PM at the Irving Weber Elementary School the Edwards and Obama captains had worked together, each giving up delegates, in order to deprive Hillary Clinton of at least one and possibly two delegates from precinct #8. If even only a few other Iowa teams carried out the same plan, their effort determined the second-place outcome in the Iowa Democratic Caucus.
Over Thanksgiving weekend I had interviewed David Redlawsk, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa and an experienced caucus leader, for an OffTheBus piece written by Chase Martyn of the Iowa Independent. As a teacher, Redlawsk was able to show me exactly how caucus works. I learned, for example, the importance of the crucial moment when the number to the right of a percentage decimal point comes into play, either to take away a delegate from a candidate or to award an extra one. At this moment in precinct #8, the Edwards and Obama captains would seal their bargain. Since I knew from Redlawsk that the caucus leader has the power to evict press and observers if the room grows too crowded, or not to allow outsiders in the first place, and since I was determined to observe a caucus, I asked Redlawsk to attend his. Graciously, he said yes. Neither of us knew what a chaotic evening awaited us, although I wondered at the time, when Professor Redlawsk said that he didn't expect any more caucusers than in 2004, when the number had doubled, if maybe he was wrong.
Two things strike me when I arrive early at Weber Elementary: the elderly tottering in with walkers to caucus for Hillary Clinton and the bright enthusiasm of the Bill Richardson team leader and her group. Soon they are joined by young parents, children in tow, babies in arms, as well as older couples in their forties and fifties. Most of the caucusers here are not students. The campus is five miles away, and this is a neighborhood of modest middle class homes and town homes. Quickly, it's clear that many more than the 299 who caucused here in '04 are going to show up. The caucus room fills to capacity and beyond. At first, the candidate groups try to stay together in their designated spots around the room. Soon this is futile. As people press forward, the room grows hot, and then hotter.
There are still at least 100 people waiting to sign in, Redlawsk tells us. Around me I hear a babble of tongues--new citizens about to be baptized into American politics. One such citizen, a man from China, says that cars are turning around for home because the only places to park are now far down the icy, snow-banked road. There are cries for air! air! A pregnant woman grows faint. Redlawsk asks the observers, among them a dad from Virginia come to watch his daughter caucus, to move to the back. The hallway beyond is also full; the line extends into the cafeteria, where Redlawsk plans to put half the caucus groups eventually. First, however, by caucus rules, everyone must convene in the same room. When caucus sign-in closes, the count is 570. If there had been more parking, easily over 600 Iowans would have caucused in #8.
The Obama folk, many of them first-timers, some of them Republicans who support Obama, are such a large group that despite the hubbub and the crush and the ensuing chaos, it's already clear--it's been clear since 20 minutes after sign-in began, that Barack Obama will get at least half the 10 delegates from this precinct. The Obama captain and her co-captain are superbly organized, noting and checking off expected attendees listed on a detailed print-out, working back and forth through the melee. Mercifully, Redlawsk cuts short the party agenda with which he had planned to start the evening, for the temperature is still rising. He divides the crowd, sending the Clinton, Edwards and Dodd supporters to the cafeteria, leaving the Biden, Obama and Richardson supporters in the caucus room. I'm sure that this necessary separation will change the dynamic of the evening. It will make it harder to persuade supporters of other candidates to join another group, I think. But there are other forces in play of which I am yet unaware.
Watching the Clinton supporters stream into the cafeteria, I notice that four or five of her elderly supporters are in distress. Standing in the caucus room over their walkers, the heat and the confusion have taken a toll. One old woman cries, "take me home, please take me home!" I help her into a chair in the Clinton corner of the cafeteria. Another dazed old woman sits next to her. From nursing my mother and mother-in-law, I know that the first woman is seriously dehydrated. She is a bit incoherent and refuses more than a sip of water. I tell the Clinton van driver, who has driven five or six of these old people to caucus, that he needs to take her home, but he turns away. Apparently, every vote counts. She is not the only older Clinton supporter who is disoriented and not understanding what is going on, very fast now, in the cafeteria. With his bullhorn, Redlawsk shouts out the first count. Obama 267! Clinton 131! Edwards 75! Richardson 48! Biden 24! Dodd 11! Kucinich 4, and 2 undecided. Viable! Only Clinton and Obama! Redlask shouts. People begin to mill around, stunned and buzzing that Edwards is not viable. For the old folk, not understanding what is going on, and in some discomfort, caucusing for Hillary Clinton has not turned out to be the experience they had anticipated.
What happened here? Is this an isolated situation, where the Clinton field office in Johnson County dropped the ball? If there are other stories of callousness, I suspect they will be told. But more importantly how could a national campaign, whose pitch has been "leadership" and "taking care of you," fail its core constituency in Iowa, the elderly, so miserably? Somebody in Clinton HQ should've been putting herself into an old person's shoes weeks before caucus. A directive should have come down: make sure there are chairs just inside the door where they will have to wait to sign in; make sure there are enough chairs in the caucus room, and get your elderly into them; if it is crowded, it will be hot, so be prepared, since old people don't do well in extreme temperatures; have volunteers whose job it is to sit with the frail ones and explain what is going on. The Clinton captains at precinct #8 did none of these things.
Elsewhere at Redlawsk's caucus, however, leadership of a different sort is being wielded. Although the Richardson camp has been told by Richardson HQ to go over to Obama if Richardson is not viable, the Richardson folk here balk. Their feisty leader is sure she can pull enough people from other groups to get to 86, the magic number. Before she can execute her plan, however, a few of her troops have already walked over to the Obama side of the room. And before she knows what is happening, minders from the Obama team are encircling the remainder of her forces, thereby hindering any attempts by the Clinton side to poach. Back in the cafeteria, meanwhile, the Clinton leader is happy to have acquired some Dodd supporters. Now it's time for her to work on the Edwards group in the other corner. Little does she know that it's almost over, that in fifteen minutes it will finish, all the free agents taken. Curiously, none of the Edwards supporters, even though their man is not viable, go over to the Clinton group. This should be a warning sign to the Clinton leadership, but they don't rush to the other room to see what's going on. After all, they have Clintonites over there trying to persuade some Richardson folk, don't they?
Out in the hall, where the older children are rough housing and screeching louder and louder, a deal is going down. The Edwards captain, a personable young man, and the Obama captain, a young woman with real directorial skill, are in a huddle with Redlawsk's second-in-command. All three are hunched over their calculators, looking for another magic number: the percentage to the hundredth point, in dividing up the Richardson folk, that will give the Edwards and Obama captains the result they want. They have to work fast, they have to decide fast; if a Clintonite persuades an old friend to leave Richardson for Clinton, they will have to start all over. Their shared goal, a carefully calibrated one, is 6 delegates from the precinct for Obama and 2 each for Clinton and Edwards. "If you guys are only 2 over [the number for 6 delegates], don't give us any," the Edwards captain tells his Obama counterpart. They both want Obama to have a blow-out victory, for that's the top priority in their plan to stall Clinton. Their second priority is to help Edwards secure the number two spot in Iowa. They have their priorities clear; the Edwards leader won't take any more people than necessary. He knows that Edwards has 1 1/2 delegates so far; he decides that the number he and the Obama captain have decided on is probably just enough to make 2. With dispatch, their two teams cull the Richardson supporters. The ones needed to give Edwards 2 delegates are marched into the cafeteria. The rest are moved over to Obama.
Above the din, Redlawsk shouts the final count. Obama 311! Clinton 137! Edwards 106! The Clinton team is outfoxed. The Richardson supporters, all of whom are staunch believers in their man, have been used as pawns in a larger game. How many of them would eventually have gone over to Edwards on their own? Likely not that many. They would have walked across the shared space to Obama. Without the collusion of the Edwards and Obama teams, Clinton would have persuaded some of the Richardson supporters, too. She would have had at least one, maybe two, delegates more. Edwards would've had none.
Taking a breather on a bench in the Clinton corner, as the cafeteria clears, next to me two first timers, both women from the former Soviet bloc, speak to one another in German, trying to understand what happened to their votes for Dodd. They are completely bewildered. Likely they didn't realize that sitting down at the lunchtable in the Clinton corner turned them into her supporters.
What I saw go down at Weber Elementary on Thursday night is predictive of forces that will continue to shape the race for the presidency. First of all, the Iowa grassroots in the Obama and Edwards organizations knew how the caucus would play out. Secondly, this grassroots had an overarching strategy: stall Clinton. Everywhere I went in Iowa, Democrats (and they included the many out-of-state volunteers for all the candidates) said, "really I would be happy with any of our candidates." This chipper enthusiasm did not extend, however, to one important demographic: the younger volunteers with key roles in the field. These folk like all the Democrats--except one. For them, it wasn't as much about giving the prize to their own candidates of choice as stopping Hillary Clinton. This goal has finally found a tactic more effective than railing against her in the blogosphere. The animus of the anti-war left wing of the Democratic Party against the Clintons targeted her on the ground in Iowa and succeeded in wounding her. Significant for the future is the way in which these Iowa volunteers executed their tasks. Like all young Americans today, they have grown up with a powerful sense of entitlement: to independence, to their own views, to acting on them. In Iowa, it didn't matter that they weren't paid staff out of HQ; they had just as much right to decision-making.
Weber Elementary clears out fast. By the front door, a woman with cerebral palsy waits on her motorized chair. I ask her if she needs a ride. No, she says, the van should be coming back for her any minute now.