The Iowa Republican Caucus: What You Should Know from an “Insider”

Image via iStockphoto.tomograf

My name is Sonia. I’m a 39-year old mother of four (we have two sons, two daughters), I have an undergraduate degree,  three jobs (one of which is my own small business), I volunteer in my community and am a native Iowan. I haven’t lived here my entire life given the time on the East Coast when my father was in the military, but for the most part I have.  As a student of the political process and someone who pays as much attention as I can during the course of working three jobs, the mom of four kids, blah blah blah.  Busy, like all of you.  But I also think it’s important to pay attention because I’m desperately passionate about the world my kids are going to head out into when they leave home.

I live in Carroll, Iowa.  An area of German Catholic heritage, named for Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The city of Carroll itself, population 10,103, is a historically Democratic stronghold in a county the usually goes Democrat for state and national elections.  That being said, my county is also in Congressman Steve King’s District which is overwhelmingly VERY conservative.  So, my friends and neighbors represent the far-reaching extremes of the political spectrum, from incredibly liberal to incredibly conservative.

In 2008, I attended the Iowa Democratic Caucus in my Precinct.  Last night, I attended the Iowa GOP Caucus.  The formats vary from each other almost as much as the ideology of the people within those parties.  I live tweeted @IowaCaucusMom (as best I could, I am no kind of Twitter god) the events of the night in as unbiased a way as I could muster (trust me, I’ve got opinions and plenty of them), hoping to function merely as observer of the process itself and report on local results.  As a person who is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, I hope I gave some indication of the events as they were happening.

Western Iowa is less populated than the eastern half of the state.  Towns of any significant size are fewer and further between.  Consequently, most Presidential hopefuls make a stop, if not multiple stops, in my town.  I contacted a local reporter to get the exact stats and leading up to the caucus the appearances shook out as follows: Gingrich – 3, Santorum – 3, Romney – 0, Huntsman – 0, Bachmann – 2, Paul – 1, Perry – 1.

Romney could have won Carroll County if he had bothered to visit.  Carroll is very business-minded and progressive.  A lot of folks here that own businesses, large and small, would have probably thrown support his way had he spoken with them face-to-face.  As it stands, Romney garnered a county total of 20% whereas Santorum, who visited three times, came out on top with 24%.

Additionally, I think some face-to-face visits actually hurt one candidate.  As everyone knows, Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll handily back in August.  But when she followed that up, locally, with a speech where she would not take any questions from the crowd nor would she take agriculture-based queries from local media, that didn’t sit well with Iowans. Nor should it with anyone.  If someone who wants to be President only wants to have their carefully crafted soundbites out there for consumption and doesn’t want to bother with the tough questions, people have trouble with that.

As an outsider looking in (again, not a Republican) the feeling I got from GOP voters leading up to last night was overwhelming frustration.  As was widely reported, a very large percentage of Iowa voters were undecided.  It was a large and varied field of candidates and in talking to a woman who was the local chair for Rudy Giuliani back in 2008, her reasons for the indecisiveness came down to a lack of passion for any single candidate.  To be sure, she will vote Republican for whomever gets on the ticket.  But she explained that she just wasn’t fired up about anybody, not enough to don a button or stick a sign in her yard certainly.  She wasn’t alone, I spoke with several people who had not settled on a candidate when they walked into the caucus last night.

The lack of passion for a candidate was one thing.  Another was conflict.  Some indicated that they were torn.  They liked one person and felt most closely resembled themselves, mimicked their ideals, held the same things dear.  But that person wasn’t necessarily the person they felt was viable as someone who could eventually defeat President Obama come November.  As one man indicated to me, “I’m torn between voting with my heart or my head.”  Honestly, isn’t that the conflict we all have with a lot of life’s big decisions?

The format of the GOP caucus is that people arrive, sign in, get a ballot, and on the docket is a list of speakers for each candidate that are given a limited amount of time to go up to the podium and speak on behalf of their candidate in an appeal for votes.  I think the time limit each person had was three minutes.  Not surprisingly, there was a lot of mention of Ronald Reagan.  If someone had been able to somehow produce the femur bone of the late President, the femur bone would likely have garnered more votes than Jon Huntsman.  Lots of quoting as well from John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin.  A resounding theme from most speakers is the contention that the current administration and Democratic party overall have lost their way in regards to an America as the Founding Fathers intended it to be.  After the speakers conclude, votes are collected by precinct, announced and recorded.

Speaking of Huntsman, his quip last week about how people in Iowa “pick corn,” not Presidents.  Huge mistake.  Not campaigning here is fine, but making a condescending statement about an entire state of people that you wish to eventually count as your constituents, is not a presidential move any day of the week.  Others made campaign missteps along the way, of course, but that was recent and effectively killed any prayer he had of making a showing in the results.  It was sort of like saying, “I don’t like you, I think you’re ugly, but will you vote for me for Prom King?”

There was interest on Twitter in the ratio of men to women. In my caucus, just an eyeball scan of the crowd it looked to me to be 65% men, 35% women.  Statewide results show 57% men, 43% women.  People were allowed to turn their ballots in and leave at the beginning before all the speakers if they had a conflict.  For example, your daughter has a high school basketball game you want to attend, you vote, you leave.

Now, had Santorum actually come out ahead, I would be pointing out that historically, Iowa GOP caucusers generally pick much more conservative candidates that in the end doesn’t have a prayer in the long run as they tend to be too far right to be palatable for most voters.  But since technically Romney squeaked out that eight vote win, this will mess up those statistics a bit.  Iowa Democrats, on the other hand, historically do an excellent job of picking the eventual nominee.

In my Twitter stream from the evening’s events, the most re-tweeted was this: “Ron Paul supporter flubs his line, to the amusement of the crowd: ‘Ron Paul believes life begins at contraception’.”  Everyone knew what he meant.  And to be honest, there’s a lot of tension and people feel a lot of pressure to perform well for their candidate and that moment of levity actually improved the mood a great deal.

As interesting as it all is, I do wish the caucus and primary systems would be overhauled or even done away with and simply have an election that is based on a popular vote.  It is exhausting every four years to be attacked for being an Iowan because people don’t like the way the political process works.  It is not my fault Iowa has first in the nation status, I didn’t create it nor did my friends or neighbors. It would be nice if people were smart enough to separate the process from the people.  Iowans aren’t perfect, nor is anyone else.  But we’re doing our best here, going to our jobs, raising our kids, casting our one ballot as American citizens.  Actually, if we can hurry this up, let’s get this process changed before my kids are voters.  The thought of someone saying to my daughters someday, “You are from Iowa, you don’t matter” makes me sad.  This is America, everyone’s voice matters.  I hope I was able to convey the mechanics of the Iowa political process effectively last night, even from the cheap seats.  Love or hate politics….certainly never boring.

Guest contributor Sonia Walsh doesn’t blog anymore, but is happy to share her Iowa Caucus experiences here!

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