Reporter on the ground in Iowa

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(Photo by Bill Kuhn)

“Boo! Boo!” erupted in the cavernous room overflowing with Trump supporters when Sen. Cruz’s face lit up the flat screens hanging on the walls. The Trumpites, only minutes before laughing loudly and feeling confident their celebrity “non-politician” was going to walk away with his first win, grew subdued. With downtrodden faces, many of which had never caucused or been involved in the political process before now, they pressed closely to the numerous TV screens to hear the details.

Standing next to a family of three, all sporting white T-shirts emblazoned with TRUMP across their chests, Richard, Mary and Alex Johnson from Norwalk, Iowa, weren’t smiling as the numbers showed how big the bubble had burst for the Donald. Mary said, “I didn’t vote for anyone in 2012, but this is just a small bump in the road. He’s gonna be president.” Despite the words, she didn’t sound confident, but hopeful.

I promised myself never to cover another Iowa caucus. But, like all seasoned journalists with a ticket to the greatest media show in the world, hard to kick the political crack. The Iowa caucus is an arcane, expensive, rowdy, wacky and deliciously sloppy process by which we begin the process of choosing our next president. What are you gonna do?

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Claiming home in Woodstock off and on since 1994, and now, in Hurley, each presidential cycle finds me fitfully returning to my Iowa roots cranking up the recorder, joining the media hounds and wrangling my way through the horde of political elites, fresh faced pols, seasoned political activists and exhausted candidates in search of the golden ring. After all, one of these candidates will become the next president and they must all begin at the beginning, which is Iowa.

Why Iowa? A state so small, so white, so rural and so uncharacteristic of this widely diverse and sprawling country remains the million-dollar unanswered question all across the nation.

First off, Iowa is first. Americans like to be first. We need to know who wins — and who loses — and Iowa is the first real test of a presidential candidate’s strength to go the distance and or be kicked to the curb.

The screen popped up, proof positive that the Texas Maverick and “true conservative,” had not only bested the Manhattan billionaire by nearly 4 percentage points, but Trump had barely eked out Sen. Marco Rubio for second by a scant 1 percent.

All waited for Trump to walk onto the stage for what was to be his victory speech to his adoring supporters. Only hours before, the energetic and pompous celebrity TV star had predicted in Cedar Rapids, IA, “We’re going to win in Iowa. We’re going to win so much. You’re going to get so tired of winning.”

Before the Iowa caucuses, the media and political pundits relied on polls to predict early winners or losers and as the recent Iowa caucus proved once again, polls are as fat, fluid and unpredictable as the current GOP presidential field.

Campaigning in Iowa, these highly tuned, ego-driven candidates must withstand the hideous 9-month march costing hundreds of millions required to organize Iowa’s far-flung 99 counties, where everyone insists on a face-to-face, usually more than once.

Eventually, these Herculean efforts must translate into securing a paltry few actual supporters — on average only 180,000-200,000 total residents participate — showing up on a frigid February workday night meeting and voting for their presidential preference.

What is a caucus and how does it work? This question can be settled sufficiently enough in plain English without a Decoder Ring or say, the Enigma in your back pocket because it’s weird.

Caucus attendees vote for a candidate or uncommitted and send those candidate representatives to the county party conventions and then onward to the state conventions. At the state conventions, a final candidate delegate count represents their party’s candidate(s) of choice at the summer national conventions, where the presidential nominee is finally selected.

OK, I admit, the Iowa caucus is nuts and yet, it survives and continues to drive the presidential selection process to a mind-bending degree.

And Iowa matters little after the caucuses because the state is only allotted a handful of delegates based on its small population. No matter. It is still first in the nation and candidates need to land one of the top three tickets for any chance in New Hampshire and the big state primaries that follow.

As he took the stage, some Trumpites were already heading for the door. Trump’s face, normally animated and brimming over with toothy smiles, appeared tense and taut. Graciously thanking his supporters and congratulating Sen. Cruz on his win, Trump reminded Iowans — and the national and international press sequestered in the back of the room by ropes and numerous security — that he was cautioned not to run in Iowa, that he would never win here, spinning second place as a win.

The presidential campaign here is a grind of epic proportion. The stakes are high. The media spotlight is scorching. The rival spitballs, left hooks and sucker punches continuous. The debate prep and fundraising is a nonstop carousel. The tedious stump speeches of a typical 18-hour day turns into a long slog until frayed nerves turn as brittle as swizzle sticks.

How did Iowa finagle its way to the top of the heap when there are more deserving states with better hotels, more savory and unsavory swill spots, and more representational demographics?

With a little luck and a few wily Democratic political activists, the Iowa caucus was created as a way to be more inclusive and wrestle the nominating process out of the hands of cigar-filled rooms and party bosses. Reasoning that Iowa should go first was based on Jimmy Carter’s surprise caucus win in 1976 that eluded all the polls.

The Iowa Democrats chose an early date and a cycle later, the Iowa Republicans followed, agreeing to a same day event, where both parties could corral the mainstream media, campaign money and desperate candidates.

Hillary Clinton was just as relieved to hammer the last nail in the 2016 Iowa caucus coffin and admitted as much with her squeaky win — though in actuality a virtual tie — over Sen. Bernie Sanders. Expectations were inline for both top Dems and that is just good enough for Hillary to survive an expected defeat in New Hampshire. Both Democrats will slug it out through spring.

Bailey and Brandy Pohlman, college students, attended their first caucus in Johnston, Iowa, where 245 stalwart voters spent over two hours shouting and realigning their votes between uncommitted, Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley camps in the shit show that is the Democratic Party caucus process.

Republican caucus-goers vote secretly on a ballot, short and sweet, but the Democrats require each candidate to receive 15% of the total caucus attendees’ support to be viable. Viability confirms a candidate has enough committed delegates that can be tallied up and counted in the caucus win/loss results.

Proudly pointing to her Bernie sticker in the middle of her T-shirt, Bailey said, “Our parents are Hillary supporters. She has the older people. I like Bernie because he’s for unions and free college tuition. Bernie relates to people our age.”

Not even Trump could deflect, misdirect, and deny that real voters in Iowa had canceled the inevitable winner and highly rated Trump Show. While the polls still show Trump by 20 percent points over his nearest rival in New Hampshire, the polls were wrong in Iowa and the establishment candidates — Cruz and Rubio — are now the safer bets.

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In the end, the Iowa caucus is all about the ground game organization and expectations.

Did the candidate exceed expectations or fall short? Can the campaign spin a new narrative to keep their candidate alive until New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary?

Trump was soundly thumped in Iowa, not only because he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, but also because he didn’t meet his own expectations. A more contrite, tight-lipped smile appeared on his face as he tried hard to spin his loss when addressing his supporters in a packed post-caucus party at the Sheraton Hotel in West Des Moines that fizzled when CNN declared Cruz the winner.

“This is just a speed bump. He’s gonna be the next president,” said undeterred Trump supporter Judy Haines flatly. “I’m afraid America is going away…like giving America away to the Muslims, to the Iranians and he’ll keep the border safe, so we won’t lose America.”

Relieved the Iowa caucuses are behind him, the Trump entourage beat it to New Hampshire…

 

Editor’s note: Bev Davis called me from Iowa just before the caucuses and asked if we wanted an exclusive piece from there. How could we resist? You can read more of her work at https://www.huffingtonpost.com/beverly-davis/. She also writes in German for  Süddeutsche Zeitung (Berlin, Germany, newspaper of record for the EU) and is currently, working on a creative memoir, A Year in Woodstock and Other Weird Places.

And special thanks to Bill Kuhn for his fine photographs from the caucuses..

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