Like many Iowans (go Iowa!), I caucused last Thursday. I was living in Colorado in 2004, and I was too busy being in my early 20s in 2000, so this was the first time I did my civic duty and got my duff to the elementary school down the street.
Before I continue, let me paint a picture of what living in Iowa is like during caucus season, or at least this caucus season: It's cold and gray and often foggy. Also, there is politics. My husband and I don't watch much TV, but at the Iowa campaign's height it didn't matter; the phone was ringing multiple times a day, and at one point T answered the door only to be greeted by the Obama precinct captain while holding a little plastic Guitar Hero guitar. (To be fair to T, I was playing, too.) I live in Iowa City, and it really did seem as if every candidate was here every other day; I'm sure people living in other Iowa towns and cities felt the same. T fielded most of the phone calls, but he reported on some of the best: I was a personal fan of Huckabee's strategy to decry the evils of "Massachusetts Mitt." This was pre-Huckaburger for me, so the general zaniness that is the Huckabee campaign--Chuck Norris, I'm talking to you--was still unknown to me.
This is not to complain about the attention. On the contrary, I grew less--not more--frustrated as the campaign went on. At the beginning, I cynically suggested that your average Iowan would consider voting for anyone who talked to him/her, and that was dumb. I didn't know what it meant for candidates to be on the ground, and for voters to receive them. Don't get me wrong: Everyone likes to be talked to, and Iowans are no different. But two things struck me this go-round. First, the exposure was so great that most Iowans had multiple opportunities to see most candidates, so novelty or awe of celebrity was, I think, dispelled as a significant factor pretty quickly. Second, people in Iowa take caucusing seriously. I know that's the reputation, but I'm not sure you can really know until you see it. I haven't had a lot of faith in American participation (mine included) in the political process over the past few years, so I guess I started at a deficit with my thinking there.
Moving on, here is what things looked like in my precinct on caucus night: 661 people waited in a line that snaked through the school's halls only to end up packed in a small gym. (This was about 200 over the last caucus turnout, which was considered very large.) While in line, I was alternately excited, nervous, and thirsty. I thought I was supposed to try to convince others to join my camp (Obama's), and I wasn't confident I'd be assertive enough. Everyone kept glancing at everyone else's chests to see what stickers they were or weren't sporting. My husband and I were caucusing for different candidates, and as we stood in the gym's entrance, all we could see were posters high on the walls and a sea of heads. What we didn't see were discernible camps.
I saw the Obama posters in the far corner of the gym, and T and I decided to part ways. I walked about three steps forward and found myself in...the Obama camp. Its parameters were that wide. T later said that, when Obama supporters were asked to raise their hands for the first count, it was a sight, all those hands.
So, clearly, I supported Obama, and I still support Obama, but that is not the point of this post. The point is that caucusing was miserable in that it was hot, you had to stand for almost three hours straight, there was arguing, there was shouting, and there was confusion. As far as I could tell, people in Clinton's camp were mad at the Obama precinct captain for bringing a PA system (too loud), while we in the Obama group stared longingly at the Clinton camp because they had bottled water--we only had brownies. I couldn't see what was happening in the other camps. But I digress.
Afterward, T and I felt good. We felt really good. We were part of a huge swell of caucus goers, and to me, that kind of participation is the single best thing to come out of this race (and probably out of the Bush administration, now that I think about it). The feeling of counting, of caring, of knowing that people can be stirred by more than fear and anger if the message is compelling enough. And yes, the subtext here points back to Obama, but what I'm trying to do is illustrate the pride of the moment, because the pride was important, but it was only one feeling among many.
In the middle of all this pat-myself-on-the-back pride, I had to check myself. Of course, having a friend watch your kid so you can hang out in the gym down the street for a couple of hours is not a sacrifice, really. Fighting, living a life of service, dying...those are sacrifices. Caucusing was cool, yes, but it just made me think that we have the chance to set the bar higher for ourselves, especially now that we'll soon be able to count on a president (whoever s/he is) to be more than just mediocre on his very best day.
Back to the campaigning, I felt like I was being paid attention to in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, but, naturally, I felt pandered to as well. I'm generalizing, but Iowans aren't stupid. They know that candidates will tout the "rich tradition" of the Iowa caucuses a mere 24 hours before they and others will suggest that the Iowa caucuses don't really matter, that Iowans are either notoriously bad at picking candidates or that the caucus system is so backward that it doesn't merit the attention it gets. I read a lot of blog posts that took some cheap shots at Iowa and Iowans. (Yes, there is corn here. Sigh.) And I felt defensive at various points and probably took too much too personally, but a lot of these people made good points about kinks in the process. The caucus system is certainly flawed. Iowa is not the center of the universe. One caucus does not an election make. But now that the candidates are no longer bringing me flowers, now that I'm putting away my Midwestern, see-saw analysis of whether the candidates really loved me or if they were just saying they did, now that I'm thinking instead about how buzzed those New Hampshire-ites must feel, I'm letting myself feel lucky and happy to live where I live. Except for the cold. Something must be done about the cold.