Eugene Weekly : Commentary : 1.10.08

Curious Caucus
Iowa’s peculiar contribution to democracy

It was Sunday. I had just rented a black 2008 Pontiac G6 and needed enough gas money to get me from Chicago’s western suburbs to Des Moines, Iowa, and back again. I cashed my Oregon kicker somewhere off of IL 38 near St. Charles, Ill. Visiting my family for the holidays in Illinois had been swell, but now I was champing at the bit to get on the ground in Iowa. After all, there were only five days until the Hawkeye State held our nation’s first presidential caucus, and John Edwards was going to need all the help he could get.

The good folks at the Edwards campaign had plenty of work to be done. They kept me and a few hundred other volunteers hunkered down and busy, turning the nuts and bolts of a massive and carefully orchestrated field operation. I drove to Council Bluffs to drop off campaign literature, as well as a woman from the Bay Area who was sent out there to canvass, phone bank and sleep on a stranger’s floor. I knocked on doors during cold spells that sometimes dipped below zero in Marshalltown, Newton and Urbandale, with union workers, an attorney, a family of four and a retired schoolteacher – from Austin, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Northwest Indiana, respectively. I made countless phone calls from a local Steelworkers’ union hall in a nearly forgotten corner of East Des Moines.

Despite the hard work of many people on the campaign, I observed that much of the goings on could easily bear a resemblance to a three-ring circus. There were the not-so-rare sightings of Time magazine’s Joe Klein or Meet The Press’ Tim Russert puttering up and down Locust Avenue. Ubiquitous news vans and third-string reporters hounded those voters and campaign volunteers who smacked of “human interest,” their microphones dangling in front of these folks like a little kid’s ice cream cone. Actress Madeleine Stowe knocked on doors, John Mellencamp threw free concerts, and even Edwards’ own mother and father called through lists of undecided voters with the rest of us.

On New Year’s Eve, I was on my way to the Des Moines International Airport to pick up some volunteers when a young woman driving in a minivan and talking on her cell phone ran a red light and struck my car at an intersection. Nobody was hurt; the Pontiac, however, was totaled. I mention all of this only because after the police report had been filed, the wreckage towed off in different directions, I managed to persuade (or was it guilt trip?) the young girl’s parents – who had come to take their hysterical daughter home – to caucus for Edwards.

And speaking of accidents, at some point I had the misfortune of crashing a Hillary Clinton party at Trophy’s Bar and Grill off the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway. There, three sheets to the wind, was none other than former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe singing karaoke along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” I couldn’t help but think that while all of this was going on, 10 men and one woman were running for president of the U.S., campaigning furiously throughout a state with nearly 800,000 fewer people than Oregon. That thought alone could sometimes make my head spin.

But there was a redeeming moment to all of this, and it came on the eve of Jan. 3. About 225 Iowa Democrats showed up at the Ankeny 1 precinct caucus in the Media Room at Ankeny High School to hold their curious caucus. I watched the whole thing along with a small handful of other observers. Publicly, a community of friends, family, and neighbors decided on whom they wanted to represent them as their next president. They crowded into tightly packed corners, chided one another and debated. They ate Snickers bars and homemade cookies. They cracked jokes and laughed.

Like many other places throughout the state, Sen. Barack Obama dominated. The young voters and first time caucus-goers showed up for him. It was truly impressive, maybe even a little inspiring. In the end, Obama got three delegates, Edwards got two and Clinton and Biden each got one. A few diehard Richardson supporters had gone home, bummed that their candidate failed to garner 15 percent of the original vote. For all of the hoopla, the hundreds of days the candidates spent in Iowa, the incessant pandering and grandstanding, the thousands of volunteers knocking on doors and making calls, and the tens of millions of dollars dropped on advertising, we got a little piece of democracy in that room that evening. I went back to where I was staying that evening wondering if it was worth it.    

Shane Dixon Kavanaugh is a Democratic political strategist who volunteered on John Edwards’ presidential campaign in Iowa. He grew up in Eugene and now lives and works in New York City. See EW staff member Suzi Steffen’s live blog from the caucuses at