Voices: The Real Iowa Caucuses

Right now, there are hundreds of young, idealistic political operatives from both parties strewn across Iowa, committed to trying to make a difference in next Monday’s all-important Iowa caucuses.

In all likelihood, they won’t.

Take it from me, I know. Long ago, in a different campaign and different time, I was one of those young, idealistic activists. And, while the operative word is “was” (being neither young nor idealistic nor politically active any longer save for voting), it was the Iowa caucus that ripped that middle adjective away.

In the fall of 1983, I was your prototypical 25-year-old, not unlike a lot of the people tramping across Iowa right now – a tad short on money, fueled by a certain Ronald Reagan shining-city–on-a-hill/Bobby Kennedy-esque view of politics … and trying my best to put off getting a real job.

So when a dean at my alma mater, UCLA, called and asked if I would be interested in going to Iowa to be part of then-California Sen. Alan Cranston’s nascent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, I jumped at the chance and packed up my 240Z.

Go east, young man.

I was to become part of Cranston’s vaunted Iowa “organization.” The senator’s edge in the campaign, according to pundits and party alike, was that he had a vastly superior organization in Iowa. This political machine was going to allow Cranston to compete with the Democratic front-runner, former vice president Walter Mondale.

This much-trumpeted belief — that the candidate with the best organizational strength has the best chance to win Iowa — remains prevalent in American political punditry.

It is also wrong.

For example, on the Republican side, it is the Jeb Bush campaign that is betting the ranch that a superior ground game will change his fortunes. “Advisers to Jeb Bush told donors on a [recent] conference call that . . . their field organization would help them beat expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire,” CBS News reported in January. Said David Kochel, Bush’s chief strategist, “A tie tends to go to the team with the best ground game.”

Breaking news: Organizational strength means diddlysquat in Iowa. Having a political machine in Iowa simply means that you hired more out-of-work, twenty-something political science majors than the other guy, or gal.

Back in 1984, I was in charge of Cerro Gordo County, in the northernmost part of Iowa. It was, in retrospect, a lost cause, being located a mere 35 miles from Mondale’s home state of Minnesota. But that didn’t deter Cranston’s crack Cerro Gordo organization (my girlfriend and me and a few other slackers), and so we spent eight weeks calling supporters (who didn’t care what we had to say), meeting with our “precinct leaders” (three retired folks with nothing better to do), and only occasionally driving off icy roads into snow banks (twice, actually.)

On the night of the caucus, Iowans gather in a neighbor’s home, or the local gym or library. At my caucus, people munched on cookies, drank coffee and shared their reasons for this candidate or that position. After some polite Midwestern conversation, it was time to vote. Each candidate’s supporters were told to go stand in a different part of the room.

This was it, the moment of truth.

Three people walked over to Cranston’s corner. Three.

When I tried to tell people why the senator deserved more votes, I was politely but firmly told, “Young fella, we don’t need no California kids coming in and telling us how to vote. We’ve done this a few times.” I backed off, watched and listened some more, and then tried again. This time, they weren’t so nice about it. Lacking the requisite 15% needed to be tallied, Cranston’s few supporters wandered over to other parts of the room.

And just like that, the Iowa caucus was over (and so too, little did I know, was my political “career.”)

Cranston lost in Iowa (finishing fifth, behind “uncommitted”), limped into New Hampshire, lost again and soon dropped out. We, his once-ballyhooed organization, scattered to other campaigns, or home. It was two months before I received my last paycheck.

Picking the national front-runner is a serious business, and Iowans take it seriously. But they do not make their decision because of a candidate’s political machine, or money, or grandiosity. It’s a more visceral gut check, which is, in retrospect, not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all.

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