Voices: Crashin' the Caucus

by Patrick McAlister '10

April 10, 2008

A journalist and political tourist hits the road for three days of seeing the sights during the wildest Iowa Caucuses in history

What did I get myself into?

Those words kept reverberating in my thoughts as my friends Chris Wright and, Tyler Platt, and I snaked along icy Interstate 80 on our way to Iowa, home of the nation’s first presidential caucus. To the left, right, and rear we could see nothing but snow swirling around us. All we could see ahead of us were the vanishing tire tracks.

The bridge over the Mississippi River seemed to hover over nothingness, the mighty river below lost in a sea of white. The interstate, from the Illinois border to Des Moines, was strewn with overturned cars, trucks, and even a semi.

Welcome to Iowa!

It was a blinding swirl of events not unlike the political tumult of this year’s Iowa Caucus. For the first time since 1920, there was no sitting president or vice president running in either party—the nominations were wide open. Add to this the unimaginably long campaign season and you get a caucus like no one’s ever seen before.

I just had to be there.

I was fortunate to be on break from Wabash, and to find a place to stay in Ames, Iowa with my high school buddy Tyler Platt, who had repeatedly asked me to come visit for various events. Now a student at Iowa State University, he graciously allowed us to crash at his fraternity house.

Before we left Fort Wayne, I had established a weblog with my cousin called PoliticalEquinox.com. We wanted to create a weblog with different political perspectives—one of us is a Democrat, the other a Republican. I thought ‘coverage’ of the Caucus from my perspective as an invading outsider would be a great way to chronicle my sojourn and also allow friends and family to follow our progress for the next week.

Barack Again

As we edged through the tumultuous snow coating the Interstate, Tyler explained what we’d actually be doing in Iowa. The Des Moines Register publishes on its website a listing of every public event for every presidential candidate, complete with location and whether or not an RSVP is necessary. Tyler told us he had already RSVP’d for our first event—a New Year’s celebration with Senator Barack Obama.

While I had never interacted with presidential candidates, I had heard Senator Obama speak before. Wabash Political Science Professor Melissa Butler had taken Gary James ’10, Tim Cheek ’10, and me to Springfield, IL in February 2007 to hear Obama’s announcement for the presidency. The day was so cold that the campaign staff passed out hand warmers to the thousands who gathered around the old courthouse to hear the Senator speak. His speech struck a chord with me—his strong calls for "change" and "hope" were evident even at the advent of his campaign.

At the New Year’s celebration, Senator Obama brought the same mantra that he had spoken so brilliantly in his kickoff speech. And there I learned the importance of positioning to interact with the candidate. We had arrived late and consequently stood back from the podium. Tyler had encouraged us to move up in the crowd so we could ex-change a few words with the Senator and possibly get a picture. I hesitated, not wanting to agitate the people around us.

My hesitation cost us the opportunity to interact with the senator. Although we did get close enough to snap some fantastic pictures, we did not get to talk with him directly. I had just learned my first
lesson in Caucus Tourism 101: Assert yourself.

Chatting with Chelsea

We did just that at the first Hillary Clinton event we attended. We positioned ourselves directly in front of the door that the Senator and her surrogate campaigners came through, and the first person through the door was Chelsea Clinton. I immediately shook her hand and began to talk with her about public service. We had a lively discussion for a few minutes about her mother’s public service plan and how it compared to Senator Obama’s. I took the position that Obama would better expand national public service, while Chelsea vigorously defended her mother’s plan.

I was shocked to have such an opportunity for conversation. Miss Clinton’s parents are literally two of the most powerful people in the world. I didn’t really think we would have the kind of luck needed to get such an interaction with political figures again.

I was wrong. The next day we went to another Clinton rally, this time because our hero, former President Bill Clinton, would be there. We weren’t going to take any chances—we took our seats in the front two hours before the event started. We hoped our diligence would be rewarded.

It was. Not only did the Clinton family make an appearance, but Senator Clinton’s "big gun" supporters took the stage along with her. First came General Wesley Clark, former Supreme Commander NATO Allied Forces and 2004 presidential candidate. Next came former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, followed interestingly by Cheers star Ted Danson and his wife, the actress Mary Steenbergen.

Once again, positioning paid off. After Hillary’s stump speech, the Clinton family began to make rounds. Because we were in the front row, I was able to get a picture with President Clinton. He shook my hand and Tyler snapped a picture. Chelsea Clinton came our way. She recognized the three of us from the previous event and asked if I would caucus for her mother on January 3rd. I told her that I was a Hoosier and our primary wasn’t until May 15. She then asked if I’d vote for her mother in the primary—I said I’d think about it.

Huck and Chuck

Each night after the events we would go back to Tyler’s fraternity house and document our experiences on Political Equinox. Tyler and Chris helped take pictures, and I would summarize our day. Many of my posts were done after 3 a.m.

Because we were documenting the caucus on a blog which attempted to cover both sides, we wanted to attend as many Republican events as we possibly could. We worked out a plan to get to two of them—one for Mike Huckabee and one for Ron Paul.

I was apprehensive going to the Huckabee event. I was afraid his evangelical religious fervor would make me feel awkward in the crowd. Huckabee, however, made it all entertaining. He began with a bit of a stump speech, but the rally turned into more of a concert with celebrities. Huckabee and his band played "Sweet Home Alabama" along with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough. Huckabee’s strongest supporter, Chuck Norris, spoke to the crowd and worked the rope line, and Tyler snapped a picture of Chuck Norris and me—another crowning achievement!

Ron Paul’s event was smaller and quicker—not unlike Ron Paul. He spoke at a deli in Des Moines with supporters from all walks of life huddled around him. He was genial and answered literally every question put in front of him. I was very impressed with his candor.

Miffed at Mitt

Only one candidate really disappointed me, even though finding him felt like a stroke of luck. Tyler, Chris and I were driving around Des Moines and saw the Mitt Mobile parked in front of a conference center. Getting out to snap a picture of the rig, Mitt Romney emerge from the building. I asked him for a picture and he posed with me. But when I extended my hand he shouldered it aside and hurried onto his bus. I wonder what effect the Gentleman’s Rule could have had on him if he had been educated at Wabash.

The final event we attended was Senator Obama’s victory party in downtown Des Moines. The pure joy of the assembled masses was palpable. Although we were not in a good position, we could nonetheless see the Senator and hear his words. They literally gave me goosebumps. He did not talk specifically about Republican opponents or disparage his Democratic competitors. Rather he talked of unification—a panacea of hope. Political Scientist David Gergen compared his speech to that of President John Kennedy and even Dr. Martin Luther King. I felt as thought the three of us were witnesses to history in the making.

What did I get myself into?

I’m not sure I’ve fully digested everything that happened that week. All I can say for certain is that I am thrilled I had the opportunity to see true democracy in action.

But after being at the swirling center of the American political process for just a few days, I can’t help think that regardless of who takes the White House—Republican, Democrat, or Independent—he, or she, probably doesn’t realize what they’re getting themselves into, either.


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