SIOUX CITY, Iowa — The caucus for Precinct 20 took place in the multi-purpose room of the Augustana Lutheran Church, a place where hand-made quilts hang beneath basketball hoops. The silver-haired chairman, James France, greeted me with what I’d come to know as an Iowa friendliness; it was absent only in people who had received one too many canvassing phone calls in the run-up to the Feb. 3 caucuses that country was watching.
First votes in the 2020 presidential election: Who would emerge a winner?
I was there as a “non-voting observer,” but I was not the only one. Mr. France introduced the three women who were signing in voters: they were all volunteers from Nebraska. Like me, they wanted to figure out what the Iowa caucuses were all about.
A spontaneous fit of curiosity-meets-opportunity had landed me there: an invitation to spend the three-week run-up to the Iowa caucuses with the Tom Steyer presidential campaign.
Who would have thought that the prospect of spending January in Iowa would be irresistible?
“It will make you feel young again,” the Register’s City Editor, Kevin Courtney, suggested.
Either that or it would do me in.
“How soon can you be here?” asked the Iowa organizer for Iowa.
“As soon as I can figure out how to fly to Sioux City.”
“Can you drive?”
“Can I what?”
“Do you own a coat?”
On Google maps, I looked at the vast expanse that Interstate 80 traverses through Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, on the way to Iowa. I decided to drive for two reasons: One was a song, Simon and Garfunkel, 1968, “America,” in which a couple sets out “to look for America.” It had been too many years since I’d done anything but fly over America on my way to Paris, Delhi or Ulaanbaatar. Who in the year 2020 was out there in this country we call America?
Also, I reasoned, if I drove I could pack enough to survive three weeks in January in Iowa. I filled my car with sweaters and wool socks, a sleeping bag, the coat my brother used to wear in Alaska, and a bag of oranges (do they have oranges in Iowa?). And I set off to look for America.
It is hard to change your mind, once you are on Interstate 80 past Reno, because you have to find an exit, and these are as rare as tulips in January. I remembered, years ago, driving through Wyoming with my two children. “Let me drive,” my son Sam requested.
“You are 7 years old,” I replied. “You cannot drive.”
“But no one will care,” he said. “There’s no one here.”
Twenty years later, it felt much the same way. But the lonely stretches inspire you to talk to anyone you meet: the hotel concierge in Elko, Nevada; the clerk in Casey’s gas station in Rawlins, Wyoming, a barrister at Starbucks in North Platte, Nebraska. Only the woman in the Laramie Hilton had heard of Napa: “Hoity-toity,” she said, studying my driver’s license. “Not really,” I said. “We are farmers too.”
But they all knew about the Iowa caucuses.
The Iowa puzzle
It’s really only since 1972 that Iowa has become a political Brigadoon, springing to national attention once every four years, when its caucuses can make or break presidential campaigns. But even before this year’s massive screw-up in tallying the results, the caucus had become controversial. The little farming state, population 3.156 million (more than Wyoming at 577,737 in 2018) may cast the first votes, but how much does it reflect the U.S. in 2020?
Nonetheless, Iowa had become the testing ground for candidates to stump at stops at Dunkin’ and other local hot spots. The people in Iowa, I learned, don’t talk about Biden, Sanders, Steyer or Warren. It’s Joe, Bernie, Amy, Tom. “I like Tom,” one woman told me, “but I’m leaning toward Liz.”
By the time I arrived in Iowa, the state had probably doubled its population with reporters. I found a place to stay in a farmhouse in Nebraska, just across the Missouri River from Sioux City. The owner told me that she and her husband had bought the house to renovate; then he left her with $12, a load of debts and a torn-up house. The bank was going to foreclose when a financial adviser suggested she turn the upstairs into an Airbnb. “I said, ‘What’s an Airbnb?’ Tina said. But she tried it and was amazed to find people from all over the country turning up in Lyon, Nebraska. She charged $23 a night for a cozy room with an electric fireplace and a view of a great deal of snow.
A community organizer is the entry-level job on political campaigns. In my far-away past, I’d worked in politics until my congressman boss, the late Pete Stark, fired me, telling me that I belonged on the dark side, journalism. I’d worked for Jerry Brown in 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984, and Bob Kerry in 1992, but I had never done this — canvassing door to door, calling endless lists, looking for people willing to talk and to tell you what’s on their mind — and who they might vote for.
When I parked my car near the Steyer office, I stepped out into a pool of ice water up to my shins, then alternately sloshed and skated my way to the door. The campaign, however, provided Arctic-ready coats, hats, heavy mittens and crampons for boots. Also, golf balls. Golf balls? So you can knock on doors without taking off your gloves and losing fingers. I, however, had forgotten to take my oranges out of my car, and they had frozen solid. They would have worked as well as golf balls although I might have also put a hole in someone’s door with one.
I joined a staff of three others. Each morning, we called voter lists; each afternoon we set out with “turf” lists uploaded in 2020 to smartphones to knock on doors; in the evening while we thawed out, we made more calls. We worked 12 hours a day; we ate a lot of pizzas. I have never been so cold in my life, but knocking on doors, from stately old Victorians to shacks with holes in wooden porches and windows taped over with plastic, I heard stories about America in the year 2020.
Here is what surprised me: Sioux City was not so white as stories would indicate: I met immigrants who were Latinix, Vietnamese and Somali. A Somali man wearing flip-flops came down his rickety steps to talk so I wouldn’t have to climb them. He would vote for Tom, he assured me, as soon as he could vote.
“I am voting for Trump,” said another man shoveling ice on his sidewalk. “What do you say to that?”
My best reply to this is: “If we all felt the same, the world would be a bit boring.”
“Yep,” he said. “And you know who my second choice is? Elizabeth Warren.”
“Ah.” This was to avoid expressing bewilderment. “Really?”
“You know why? Because they both just say what they want.”
“I have to give you that.”
“And also, you know, I like women.”
I soon discovered that the people who knew who they would vote for were rare. The over-riding concern? They wanted to choose someone who could win in November, and they didn’t know who that was.
What was on most peoples’ minds? Health care. “My husband and I thought we did everything right,” one woman said. “We saved for retirement. We paid off our house. We made our plans. We were going to travel. Then my husband got sick. All of our retirement is gone. Am I going to the caucus? No, I am taking care of my husband.”
She represented a flaw in the caucus system, even before the 2020 app fiasco emerged: the number of people who wouldn’t be participating. To caucus, you would have to be in line by 6:30 on a Monday night. The meeting begins at 7. There are no absentee ballot options. A truck driver said he would have been there, but he would be on the road; a 97-year-old woman said she had never seen such bad times as these, but the truth was, she didn’t get out much any more. A dad said he’d have gone but his daughter had a basketball game. A lot of people just shrugged. Estimates as to how many people actually cast a vote range from 15 to 25 percent of eligible voters.
Here was another concern: Fox News. “I don’t let my children put it on in my house,” one elderly woman said staunchly. “And I can hardly talk to my friends who keep watching it.”
A young guy told me he’d used the parental control button on his parents’ remote to disable it; he did this in sports bars too.
The environment? Not so much. In the Hyvee supermarket, I declined a plastic bag, explaining I had a canvas one. “Where are you from?” asked the curious clerk.
“Oh! What part?”
She became concerned: “Are you alright from the fires?” This was my Iowa experience. Every night was I melting the ice out of my hat and my boots; they were grappling with everything from floods to tariffs, but this lady was worried about the wildfires from 2017.
On the Sunday before the caucus, I knocked on the door of a cottage on the outskirts of Sioux City. According to my turf list, an 85-year-old woman lived there although the lady who opened the door, was so chipper and spry, I’d have guessed she was maybe 75.
It turned out she was a long-time activist, who had worked at caucuses for many year. She had stories about taking tea with candidates. She also had a sign for Gore/Lieberman, 2000. “It would have been a different world,” she said.
I was curious: Who would she choose at the 2020 caucus? “No one,” she said wistfully. She had to work that night, the 4 to 10 shift at a convenience store. But she’d be voting in November, she added, and she showed me another sign from her collection. It read, “When women vote, Democrats win.”
“Just be careful on the sidewalk,” she said as she dismissed me. “I don’t know if I got all the ice off, and you Californians aren’t real good with ice.”
The caucus night
The thought of this woman was what prodded me to leave my car and its heater for the 20-foot walk to the church on the night of the Iowa caucus. It was 18 degrees and the wind had ice in it.
Unlike like most elections, politicking is allowed at the caucus; it is part of it. A table was set up for each candidate. As participants arrived, they visited the tables asking questions, collecting buttons. One of Steyer’s that said simply, “Impeached” was popular.
At 7 p.m., Mr. France called the meeting to order. He reported that 68 voters were signed in, 25 of whom had just registered. Speakers were invited to make a presentation for candidates before the first alignment in which voters would stand for their choice. A candidate would need 15 percent of the voters, in this case 11 people, to remain “viable.”
I spoke for Steyer. I said I liked his stand on the environment; I perceived a room of blank stares. Remembering all the stories I’d heard about trying to pay for medications and juggling three jobs, it dawned on me that it’s hard to care about the long-term future when you are having trouble envisioning your own tomorrow.
Tell your story, the campaign had advised, so I abandoned my speech and said I’d been asked a lot why I’d come to Sioux City. It was because my grandparents, immigrants from Denmark, had come there and prospered. I had even run into a woman who had known my uncle, although I had not.
“He was a big shot,” she said. “But he was a Republican. And his wife — that would be your aunt Velma — she was terrible. Never stopped talking about her brother, the congressman. A Republican.”
I had told her that my dad ran away to California and turned Democrat, much to his family’s alarm. At least, this got a laugh, and when it was time for the voters to stand for their candidate, the one person who came to the Steyer table, introduced himself. He was an immigrant, too, from Greece.
For the first alignment, 34 people scurried to Sanders’ table; 12 went to Biden, 4 for Warren, 4 for Klobuchar, 2 for Buttigieg and 2 for Yang. Translated into Iowa terms, it meant that Sanders and Biden were viable, their voters locked in, and the others were free to choose again.
Staff from other campaigns descended like hungry birds to carry off my one voter. I knew it was beyond my political skills to try to abscond with 10 of someone else’s voters; besides I was worried about my one vote. The Yang representative jabbered at him non-stop; the Sanders guy, who had come from England to volunteer, kept trying get a word in, while the Klobuchar rep jockeyed for attention. The man cast me an alarmed look. “Who should I go to?” he asked.
“If I were you, I’d join Warren,” I said. He did; so did enough others to give her 11. Warren was now viable too. She and Biden each got one delegate; Sanders got two. My one vote asked me if I’d like to go out for coffee, but I said I had to be getting home to California.
Every day on my way to and from Sioux City, I drove through Winnebago Indian Reservation, where two things stood out: a herd of bison and a sign for the Hey Hey Girl shop, which sold crafts from a women’s collective. Before I left Iowa, I was finally able to stop by. The owner told me she and daughter had just opened it; she also recounted the story of the reservation and the long road her people had traveled, moved from place to place by the government until they’d come up with the money to buy this land.
The search for America: It seemed to have takes shape in the stories of the woman with the farmhouse Airbnb; the 85-year-old woman who still had to go out to work; the Native American woman and her peoples’ struggle to regain their home.
A blizzard hit in Wyoming and closed Interstate 80. I called my daughter in Napa to tell her I might be delayed getting home. “You didn’t try to use that app in Iowa, did you?” she asked.
And to think that I had bought her a pair of earrings at the Hey Hey Girl shop.
Did I draw any conclusions? No. Would I make any bets? No. Do I now understand the Iowa caucus? About as well as anyone else at this point.
I will offer this notion: Don’t underestimate women this year.
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