FETTUCCINE Fake-Out: the 2004 Iowa Presidential Caucus

I’m from California.  Politics here ranges in spirit and style from Kabuki to Spielberg.  We Golden State folks just recalled a poker-faced career politico, duly elected governor by a reasonable percentage of the population, and replaced him with an inexperienced B-Grade actor who smiles handsomely for the media cameras and can’t pronounce the state’s name.  Not much takes me by surprise, politically speaking.

On January 7, 2004, I boarded AMTRAK in Colfax, CA, joining thirty or so enthusiastic, passionately committed souls of all ages from across the state, heading east on a “Peace Train” to support our Democrat of Choice in the Iowa Presidential Caucus.  We sang patriotic and political songs, swapped diverse life tales and campaign paraphernalia, and discovered how we all shared the same soul-felt vision for world peace and justice embodied by our candidate.  When we arrived in Osceola, Iowa, and shuttled the short distance to Des Moines, we were all eager to stretch our wings and spread the gospel of fearless paradigm change, and to participate in a grassroots, unique aspect of American democracy in action — the Iowa Caucus.

We immersed ourselves in the exploding political scene: canvassing neighborhoods in shifts, endlessly phone calling “undecided’s” and likely supportive “1’s and 2’s” from computer generated precinct lists, penning volumes of personal postcard notes, working coffee receptions and speaking events — and attending caucus training sessions to learn about this upcoming process.  We “grokked” the 15% viability concept and played pretend caucus using musical genres in place of candidates (I lobbied successfully for the “Blues” preference group), learned about last minute voter registration and the sanctity of the 7pm closed-door deadline for inclusion in the official headcount, absorbed what chaos to expect during “re-alignment”, and how to propose resolutions for the state platform.  Most importantly, we learned that as Californians we could observe (but not vote in) the caucuses from the rear of the rooms, wearing our t-shirts and campaign buttons, but not handing out literature nor stumping for our candidate (unless we were publicly elected officials ourselves).  It was made very clear that only Democrats duly registered in the specific precincts would be included in the head count. All participants would have their names checked against a master list upon entering the room and get asked to register immediately and provide verifiable residence if not on the list. It sounded complicated, staff support heavy; but if lots of Iowans regularly participate in the caucus process, I figured it must work.  Shortly after the caucus I learned that only a tiny percentage of Iowa residents actually participate on a regular basis.

Fresh hopes upon arrival! Observing the hordes of media folk swarming the pre-caucus hubbub, I imagined all Iowa must take part.  In one day, I found myself interviewed by the LA Times, NPR, SF Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor (quoted on their front page story as an out-of-state volunteer), two radio stations, three alternative weeklies, and a German Internet news reporter.  This worldwide newsworthy event would demonstrate how a large number of American citizens select their presidential delegates in an honest-to-gosh functional grassroots system.  With literally thousands of campaign volunteers like myself pouring in, from many other states, Canada, Europe and Japan, I hoped Iowa residents would feel honored, not overwhelmed, by our presence in support of this first important step of the 2004 Presidential Campaign.

After two days in Des Moines, I was sent to a to a small town near the Minnesota border to assist the single paid campaign staffer for my candidate in a rural county.  Her greatest support appeared to come from a handful of articulate, intelligent college students who canvassed around class schedules and published their own newspaper, which presented the candidates’ opinions on a wide range of issues with more clarity than most major news media. After telephoning what felt like every single possible supporter in the county at least three times, and canvassing quaint neighborhoods solo in single digit and below temperatures for hours on end, I was so ready for the Big Event.

At 6pm on Caucus Night, the campaign coordinator dropped me off at the nearby college with flyers, stickers and placards, ready to observe, oversee and persuade last minute “undecided’s’ entering any of the three designated caucuses in the specific building. An out of state native as well, the coordinator headed off to the caucus located in the precinct where she resided, in hopes of getting counted based on her several months’ Iowa residence.  (I learned later she participated unchallenged.)

The aggressively enthusiastic “Take Back America” mob seemed to be running the event and closely guarded the entrances to all precinct rooms with extra campaign workers.  I set up my campaign materials next to another candidate’s crew, a genuinely genial cluster of southern college lads, who confided privately that they all preferred my candidate’s platform, but as “this senator had paid for their trip to Iowa,” they were working for him.

By 6:30pm, the communal meeting space in the college cafeteria was bedlam. Lines of impatient, frozen people wound everywhere, swathed in parkas and mufflers. People sprawled on chairs and couches to fill out voter registration forms. I loaned out countless pens and found myself asked un-answerable questions about the caucus and registration procedures. If there were any people in charge of the caucus, independent of the one campaign’s staff and volunteers, I never saw them.  As the crowd filed into the three assigned rooms by 7pm, I decided to observe a precinct room where there was no designated captain from my campaign, to cheer on (silently) our supporters there. I moved to the back wall of the room and lowered my large placard as the three college-aged girls caucusing for my candidate stared dejectedly at the obnoxiously loud, sign-waving members of other preference groups hooting and stamping around them. They signaled me to PLEASE join them with panic in their eyes. I felt sure I’d be thrown out summarily, but I couldn’t resist climbing on a chair behind the girls and raising my placard and voice high in support of our peace-loving candidate. No one noticed, or offered objection, or asked to see proof of my Iowa residence. I noticed numbers of people wandering in and out the door randomly, joining one group or another, now way past 7pm.  When the three college girls “re-aligned” with another preference group as instructed, I slipped out the door.

I took a deep breath and dived through the next precinct door, sure I’d be stopped. No one noticed. My presidential preference group here, plentiful and rowdy, waved me down to the middle of the room where I repeated my “Chair-top Performance” of the previous room, much louder this time.  It felt like a San Francisco Peace Rally. Chaos reigned supreme with much posturing and blatant name-calling from several preference groups; heads were re-counted several times, given the ebb and flow of people wandering in and out. I may have been counted in the melee.

Amazed, I decided to try my luck in the third precinct room.  Just as before, my preference group welcomed me, the California voter, with wild abandon, and no one questioned my active presence. Our viability was celebrated with delicious enthusiasm although the hostility and resentment from several non-viable groups was palpable, particularly from the one group who seemed to feel “entitled.”  I almost got counted again, shouting “not me” to avoid inclusion.  At the end, I sauntered out into the lobby very puzzled and then distressed as I realized I could have been counted in all three precincts if I’d chosen to abuse the system (and may have been counted in the second room, anyway). Other people had wandered in and out like me and weren’t challenged. Were they counted? How was this fair and accurate?  Was this scenario an isolated case of lax rule enforcement? Or was this how it always works?  If so, what do the final delegate tallies actually represent as a “legitimate” electoral indicator?

When I got to my candidate’s post-caucus low-key celebration at a local bar-restaurant, I learned to my dismay this sort of “irregularity” had occurred elsewhere. In one precinct, our preference group was viable at first count. After 7pm, a rush of people poured through the door and blended into the crowd. In spite of our group’s precinct captain’s protest, the precinct chair insisted on a recount and that the new undocumented arrivals were “on the honor system” and deemed legitimate.  Suddenly, our group lost viability, as others gained it. Another long-time precinct captain told me she did not recognize half the people who turned up at her caucus location.  When I asked her if the newcomers were checked out or were registered, she shrugged her shoulders, “I hope so; it was too chaotic to know for sure.”  In another precinct, our group was denied viability after “re-alignment”, apparently at the whim of the precinct chair, who supported a different candidate’s group. I wondered if this sort of “caucus irregularity” was happening across the state or just in this one remote locale.

Musing somberly over the questionable fairness of the process and the validity of any so-tallied results about to be blasted worldwide by the nation’s media, I ordered a plate of Fettuccine Alfredo at the bar’s restaurant.  After the third bite, I noticed the food tasted strange. I looked closely at the food in the dim light and saw it was macaroni and cheese.  A metaphorical image flashed in my brain.  The American public and the world ordered and expected high-class fettuccine at the Iowa Caucus but got misled with macaroni and cheese instead.

Why should the public accept this Caucus fake-out any more than a second-rate plate of food masquerading as the real thing?  Send back the food. Demand the truth about a skewed process that in reality represents the preferences of only a very tiny percent of a non-representative, homogeneous population anyway.  No one will ever know who truly won the 2004 Democratic Iowa Caucus — by landslide, by a nose, or by a forkful of macaroni and cheese mash-up. It  became the high point of the 2004 Presidential Campaign for me. As I took the train ride home to California, bone-tired and politically-enlightened, I considered not ordering any more fettuccine. Certainly not in Iowa.

PHOTO: My candidate, Dennis Kucinich, “America’s Most Courageous Congressman”      Visit: http://www.kucinich.us


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