By the day of the Iowa caucus, I had spent over 30 hours at Democratic campaign events. I had eaten cookies emblazoned with Hillary’s name, run across ice to shake Obama’s hand, and received not one but two Christmas cards from the happy, smiling Edwards family. And I was still a flip-flopper.
Before my alarm could even go off on January 3, an East Coast friend called to tell me I should caucus for Barack Obama. I was frog-voiced when I answered the phone, but I still managed to grumble the mantra that sustained my indecision since September: “But Edwards’s health-care plan is stronger.” “You only like Edwards because of that T-shirt you have!” my friend shouted, referencing the “John Edwards Is a Hottie” shirt I bought back in 2004. This was completely false. Not only was I genuinely leaning toward Edwards because his health-care plan was more universal, but his leading-looker status had been thoroughly undermined by the presence of Barack Obama’s high cheekbones.
The Iowa ward in which I caucus is one of the most important in the state. It’s the voting ward for Grinnell College, a small, nerdy, politically active liberal arts college located smack in the middle of the state. The high density of voters—and their high turnout in previous years—gives the ward 36 delegates, the most of any single ward in the state.
In a statewide popularity contest where candidates claw for a handful more votes than their opponents, student voters can significantly swing the results. One hundred and forty Grinnell students who were born and raised in other states made the trek back to the Iowa ice just for the one important day. Personally, I crossed the Iowa border in a car filled with a Californian (me), a Minnesotan, and a kid from Wyoming almost exactly 24 hours before casting my caucus vote.
Some native Iowans and conservative candidates (including Clinton) call this carpetbagging. I say, I’ve lived through the God-awful Iowa winter for four straight years; my pittance of a reward should at least be a disproportionate weight in who becomes the nation’s next president.
Since September, the candidates have been showing up wherever they think more than 20 Iowans might be gathered, their campaigns snowballing with whatever odd endorsements they can gather. I saw Elizabeth Edwards speak at an old-folks home. And the sexy plumber from Desperate Housewives stumped for the well-manicured son of a mill worker at colleges across the state.
Obama had his share of strange events, too. On New Year’s Eve, Bright Eyes played a pro-Obama gig for a handful of kids at a bowling alley in tiny Carroll, Iowa. And the night before the caucus, the thought-stoppingly beautiful Scarlett Johansson ate pizza with my college’s basketball team (male and female) while extolling the virtues of Obama. Bright Eyes bowling? Scarlett Johansson doing anything? Ample temptations for those crucial Youth Voters.
Somehow, though, I remained unconvinced. Despite the months of buildup, I was still torn between Edwards and Obama. Hillary lost my vote with unsavory campaign tactics (robocalling, planting questions) and because my one-on-one interactions with Edwards and Obama had been refreshing and encouraging. Staring straight into Hillary’s eyes, when I shook her hand at an event in Newton, Iowa, was like looking at a hard-boiled egg.
The doors to my caucus site—the college auditorium—opened at 6:00 p.m. and I flooded in with a herd of older town residents, their little wide-eyed kids, and familiar students. Unlike the Republican caucus, which is done in a logical manner where voters mark their candidate choice on a piece of paper and place it in a box, the Democrat caucus is a convoluted process involving physically herding voters to one candidate’s squad or another. In under an hour, I would have to stand before a room full of 480 judging peers and show them my choice.
I desperately tried to gain insight by asking the people in the voter registration line who they were voting for. The girl behind me was from Indiana and wearing an Obama sticker. Her face turned dangerous when I asked why she wasn’t voting for Clinton. “I would never vote for a woman who doesn’t leave her husband after he cheats on her,” she said. My search for good advice was looking grim.
Right inside the hall doors I ran into one of Edwards’s local organizers, a tall, good-looking guy who had spent the last three weeks stapling information packets, knocking on doors in subzero weather, and sleeping very little. I told him about my Edwards-Obama bind and he gave me one of the informational packets, reminding me of the points that swayed me months ago: Edwards is the most solid progressive on every issue. He’s got experience, he’s got a relaxed way with people, he’s got solid plans for ending poverty while Obama has hope, idealism, and rhetoric.
The caucus was less raucous than I expected. There was no music, shouting, or balloons. Instead, sticker-covered Democrats mingled, snacking on deli sandwiches provided by the Clinton campaign and discussing their choices at reasonable volumes.
After weaving between suspender-clad Joe Biden supporters to my friends (an alarming amount of them standing around for Obama), I ran into a friendly faculty member proudly wearing an Obama pin. “Trust me, health care with a mandate cannot win,” he said, shaking his head at my support of Edwards’s plan. “And Obama’s been working with poverty longer than anyone.”
But but but, the issues, I asked. How can I vote for centrist Obama rather than anticorporate workingman Edwards? “I’ve met the man,” the faculty member whispered back just as the moderator calls for quiet. “He’s brilliant.”
“The doors are now locked,” announced the ancient county party chair over the loudspeakers at exactly 7:01. Someone in charge began calling out candidate names and their supporters cheered, slowly filing out of the room to be counted. As the room emptied, it became embarrassingly obvious that I had commitment issues. More than half the room disappeared for Barack Obama. I hid among the Edwards supporters when Hillary’s name was called and was so shocked by her small turnout that I did a quick headcount as they walked past—only 40 or so voters, not even enough to snag representation from this ward.
If I didn’t run the gauntlet of my peers soon, I would be mistaken for a Kucinich supporter. This was it—after months of waffling, I had to take the plunge. I thought about where I wanted to be at the end of the night. Slinking into the Edwards section supporting my choice with policy talk? Or running to Obama and excited to be part of something new, different, and a little wild?
It was so quick and easy to shake off the high-minded belief that supporting someone young, enthusiastic, and idealistic is an irrational choice. There were no seats left in the counting room, so I had to sit on the stage, staring straight out at all the Edwards and Clinton campaigners while I munched a cookie an elderly volunteer had frosted with Obama’s O. I felt proud. I felt excited. I felt like maybe, because of this day, America will be a more progressive, more tolerant, more inspirational country one year from now.
By 7:24, Hillary supporters began tearing off their stickers and either moping out of the caucus or into another candidate’s camp. Half an hour later, the final results were tallied. Obama took more than half of our ward’s votes, Edwards a third and Hillary exactly zero.
After most of the voters left for home, my circle of Obama-supporting friends and I did what I hope every other young voter did after winning the caucus: We opened four bottles of wine in the back of the caucus hall and watched the returns come in on CNN.