Guest Columnist

'The voice of Iowa is the undecided': The Iowa caucuses from the inside

Signs of Democratic party presidential candidates who did not have any supporters in Mount Vernon caucus stand on the wa
Signs of Democratic party presidential candidates who did not have any supporters in Mount Vernon caucus stand on the wall in the Cornell College Small Sports Complex on Monday, February 3, 2020. (Amir Prellberg/Freelance)

As a child, my mother brought me to the caucus to witness democracy in action. She would curtly nod to people we would see only every four years, wave to our neighbors and occasionally extend a smile to a stranger across the room before whispering to me that she had already forgotten their name. We sat on top of lunchroom tables, or against the brick walls of the middle school theater, organizing ourselves into groups. I recall the process as cordial and rather efficient, nothing like the caucus I have attended as an adult, marred by confusion and conflict.

In Cornell College’s athletic center on Monday night, people didn’t meander as they did in my memories. Around me swirled gray and purple sweatshirts, students in beanies, heads punctuated by white hair, and parents with babies strapped to them. There were a few pleasantries exchanged, one with my neighbor who was wearing a Warren sticker to match the sign in her front yard. Most of us knew where we were headed and we didn’t want anything to stop us from getting there. Find your corner and don’t move unless you have to is pretty much caucus 101.

Sander’s section was already lapping at the dividing line like a hungry wave, ready to spill over, when we took our seats. The camp was positioned directly across from Warren’s whose numbers were comparable; though stood in contrast to Sander’s supporters who were predominantly students, brown, black, visibly queer, or some combination thereof. Cheers periodically erupted when another person joined the Sanders camp.

The goal was to outnumber in droves not just pass the viability threshold; to have such a lead that when the inevitable re-alignment of moderates who supported Biden, Styer and Klobuchar occurred, the numbers would still favor Sanders. Sanders supporters knew that the leap from Biden to their camp is highly unlikely; one candidate an establishment Democrat, the other a consistent scrutinizer of the establishment.

The speeches began. A lifelong Republican who had switched parties to represent Amy was met with open arms. I was reminded of my father, similarly, a life long republican who often threatened to change parties so he could get in on the “fun” of the caucus. A tearful Styer supporter who didn’t want to have to vote for Donald Trump. These people all had a place in the welcoming embrace of the Democratic party. It didn’t matter where they had come from, as long as they were here now for the good of the cause. The pipeline to the moderate party base.

The Warren representative began, “The American dream is at risk,” the room seemed to acknowledge a moment of solidarity. Finding out what exactly that dream entails remained our charge for the evening. She shared a vision of progress and the hope for party unity, which received applause, despite a lackluster reaction from the Sanders section.

Each time party unity was discussed the collective sense of discomfort from the Bernie campaign grew, displayed through the shifting in seats, mumbles and paused applause from the folx around me. After the first round Sanders, Warren and Pete were all determined viable, and through the realignment process, the fissures in the party became more apparent.

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Most Biden supporters opted to leave rather than realign, their strong moderate position making their choice for them. A red-faced man in all gray, could be overheard speaking to a Yang supporter about voting blue no matter what, preaching party politics to a person whose preferred candidate’s ideas are balked at by the party.

A man in a rust-colored T-shirt bearing a Biden sticker began shouting “The voice of Iowa is the undecided,” attempting to align people into a viable undecided group, suggesting that a lack of decision better than supporting a gay moderate, woman or socialist. Later, I spotted him sulking in the corner of the Pete camp.

The Democratic party is clearly at a crossroads. Moderates unmovably moderate. Leftists immovably left, collectively wondering how in the hell we are considered to be part of the same party as our moderate friends. Most of the room had cleared out after viable groups turned in their preference cards. The Pete campaign was gleeful that they had picked up a few dozen folx in the realignment. Who isn’t giddy about the idea of being someone’s second choice? Warren picked up a handful.

Bernie only three.

Marti Payseur (she/her/hers) is the co-owner of Thistle’s Summit Bed & Breakfast located in Mount Vernon, Iowa. It is affectionately called “Iowa’s Queerest B&B.” She also makes a legendary sea salt chocolate chip cookie. Marti is a community activist, organizing around LGBTQ and feminist issues for One Iowa. One Iowa does not endorse any candidate.

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