February 03, 2016

RINO for a Day—Inside the Iowa Republican Caucuses

I am a Republican.

There. It feels better to have that secret out there. It has been a terrible burden to bear.

I haven't always been a Republican, though I did grow up in one of the most reliably Republican congressional districts in America—Nebraska District 3—which covers pretty much everywhere in Nebraska that isn't Omaha or Lincoln. Republicans in partisan elections can rely on running up 70-80% of the vote in this largely rural district where you find fifth and sixth generation family farmers and ranchers, and county seats with populations in the low-to-mid thousands. Social life revolves around school, church, and Huskers football. Guns and God (and running the dang ball) are a way of life, not a punchline. My hometown actually sits on the banks of the Republican River.

Still, in my very first Presidential election, I voted Democrat, supporting Jimmy Carter in his 1976 victory over Gerald Ford. I suppose technically my vote only counted in the highly influential Weekly Reader presidential poll, considering I was a first grader and couldn't get around that pesky 26th Amendment. Still, my guy had won, so being a Democrat meant being a winner. So I was a Democrat. Of course, I'm still bitter about the other big election that fall, when my elementary school voted on the color of the new tornado slide. Informal recess polls had red and gold neck-and-neck during election week, but somehow blue pulled off the upset victory. I still suspect those shady 5th and 6th graders committed election fraud.

The Iowa caucus system strongly resembles a school election. Voters are crammed into churches, schools, and community centers. The pledge of allegiance is recited. Some self-important busybody serves as chair because nobody else wants to run the show, and everyone mostly wants to get home to watch Netflix. Speeches are given and ignored. In lieu of a raffle or bake sale, envelopes are passed around for cash donations, with a reminder to keep it below the mandatory reporting threshold; nobody wants to do homework.

My first two forays into the caucuses were as a Democrat in 2004 (Edwards) and 2008 (Obama). Those were the first caucuses of the social media era, and turnout was substantially greater than anticipated. Democrats those years were motivated, organized, energized. We left the caucuses feeling that our votes mattered.

This year, I had planned to skip the caucuses. I had switched my voter registration to Independent in 2010, and the Democratic race seems to hold little actual suspense—it's your standard race between a candidate who would fail an open-book exam in Economics 101 and a candidate who would need a cheat-sheet to pass Intro to Ethics.

But then, around Thanksgiving, a sign appeared.

No, really. An actual freaking sign. In fact, it was this particular billboard mounted on a fence in my neighborhood:

Donald Trump billboard (12/8/2015), West Des Moines.
2016 Iowa Republican Caucuses.
This sign is four blocks from my house. It is mounted overlooking the corner where my street intersects with one of the busiest parkways in the Des Moines metro area. In an unintentional homage to the modern Republican Party's core constituencies, the sign sits smack between the biggest evangelical mega-church in the metro and the largest shopping mall in the state. Given that I run, walk, and drive past that corner several times each day, I've gotten to see a lot of that sign. And as the caucus season progressed, it drew plenty of attention from visitors and the media.

As Donald Trump might say, the sign is yuuuuge.

Now my significant other and I enjoy watching Trump's reality TV show, Celebrity Apprentice. On the show, Trump can be a bullying buffoon, but he's an entertaining buffoon. Trump as President? Not nearly so entertaining. For that matter, I wasn't particularly enamored of several other Republican candidates. But what could I do?

Then, Monday morning as I passed the Trump sign on my way to work, it occurred to me—why not caucus as a Republican? If I'm not thrilled with the Democratic candidates, why not help support a better (i.e., more tolerable) Republican candidate? At the very least, why not see who these people are who think Trump should be President? Maybe the Trump sign guy would even speak!

Iowa allows same-day voter registration, including changing parties to cross-over and vote in a primary or caucus. A quick form to complete online and print out, and presto! I was a newly minted Republican.

Caucus night was exciting. It was a five minute drive to the large Catholic church where our precinct (West Des Moines 221) and four other precincts (the efficiently numbered West Des Moines 222-225) would gather. We arrived at 6:40, and the line stretched around the building. More doors were opened, and the lines collapsed into a black hole inside the church with folks jostling to get in the right registration line. Based on official tallies, 1,203 people voted at our location, with the largest group (406) being from our precinct.

Organizers had not anticipated the large number of caucus participants. There were too few people working registration. Ballots ran out and had to be printed. Lines ground to a halt. In the midst of the chaos, candidate Carly Fiorina was giving a TV interview, presumably setting expectations for a "win" as outpolling Mike Huckabee and Deez Nuts.

Suddenly, a murmur broke out. There, walking through the crowd as if he were parting the Red Sea or walking the Oscars red carpet, was Donald Trump. The crowd acted like he was a Hollywood star, maybe George Clooney on a bad hair day. Trump smiled and basked in the crowd's adoration, gave brief remarks to a TV crew, then headed to the front of the church. Love him or hate him, the Donald exudes charisma.

Donald Trump arrives at the Iowa Republican Caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016 .
Despite the registration backlog, the caucus was brought to order at 7:15 PM. At least 800 people were crammed into the fellowship hall, with the remaining 400 or so of us out in the adjoining entry room, many still waiting to register. A Boy Scout troop posted the American and Iowa flags, and we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance, because we're Americans, not Socialists, dammit. The temporary chair appointed by the state party was then elected to be permanent chair because nobody else wanted the hassle. And then, as I remained 25 people back in the glacial registration line, the main event was underway.

Each campaign was given three minutes to bore or annoy the crowd with a last minute sales pitch to those oddballs who, despite months of campaign mailers, TV ads, debates, and candidate appearances at local fairs and pancake dinners, still found themselves undecided mere minutes before voting. Carly Fiorina and Donald Trump each spoke for themselves at the beginning, followed by precinct representatives for the other campaigns in alphabetical order. Here are my summaries of their speeches. Keep in mind I was trapped in the undertow of the registration line the entire time, so my notes were minimal. Paraphrasing is likely to be inaccurate, while direct quotes are probably unusually inaccurate paraphrases.

Fiorina:  Drawing on her experience as a failed CEO, Carly gave a wonderfully upbeat speech filled with corporate jingoism meant to distract from her campaign's lousy performance in the 4th quarter of 2015. She closed with an appeal for "enough votes to attract a leveraged buyout or vice presidential nomination."

Trump:  The Donald is loud! He's successful! He's rich! He's an outsider! He will be a winner! Every other candidate is a loser! Free walls for everyone! Mexico will host an open bar with free margaritas and walls! Note: The WALL (TM) thing has me curious. Is Mexico using MasterCard, and if so, what kind of airline miles or cash back multiplier are they getting for construction-related purchases? Will Mexico pay for my new backyard retaining wall? Because that would be amazing.

Santorum:  Rick's wife, Karen, reminded the crowd that the Muslim terror group, ISIS, wants Rick dead, which is sad and puzzling because they share those strong Christian values of demonizing gays and returning civilization to the good ol' days of the Dark Ages. Also, the electoral system is rigged against those who dare to speak against the Republican establishment, particularly if your name happens to rhyme with "Dick Mantorum." Karen closed with an anecdote about how Rick likes to make blackberry jam. But either she forgot to bring jam, or there wasn't enough for those of us in back. Trump would've had jam for everyone, and it would've been award-winning, amazing jam, and Venezuela would've paid for it with a post-dated check. Anyway, no jam, no vote.

Bush:  Jeb! can win Florida. Jeb! can win Ohio. In a close election, Jeb! can win in the Supreme Court. Basically, Jeb! has a very particular set of skills, and at this point, he expects you to vote for him, because if you don't, he's going to torture you with more cheesy super-PAC ads.

Carson:  Doctor Ben is a regular guy. He'd totally drop by your house on Thanksgiving. "By the way, we're all neighbors. You're supposed to love your neighbor. How many of you even know your neighbor?" [crowd shuffles uncomfortably] [Note: This was a totally real quote.]

Cruz:  Ted is a good person. Ted believes in God. He reads the Bible. Ted believes in the Constitution. It's not clear if he has read the Constitution. Ted will ban gay marriage, abortion, and the designated hitter. Ted makes the apple-iest apple pie. Ted is not only not Canadian, he is the only candidate willing to carpet bomb ISIS in Canada.

Huckabee:  No one spoke for Huckabee. For the first time ever, I agreed with every word said by Huckabee's campaign.

Kasich:  Only John can save the United States. Only you can prevent forest fires.

Paul:  Rand's niece, Lisa, spoke. "Dammit Jim! Rand is a doctor, not a career politician!" Note: This message would probably work better if Rand wasn't badly trailing a world-renowned neurosurgeon who actually has never held political office.

Rubio:  "Marco is very religious, but doesn't want to flaunt it. He keeps it private. Like this past Sunday when he came to Mass at this very church. And again both the Saturday and the Sunday before that. Marco loves Mass at this church." Also, Marco is the best candidate for beating Hillary in the general election. There are three important points to remember about Marco:

1. Experience
2. Judgment
3. ???


Official ballot, West Des Moines Precinct 221.
Iowa Republican Caucuses, 2/1/2016.

High tech ballot box, West Des Moines Precinct 221.
Iowa Republican Caucuses, 2/1/2016.
"White" label distinguishes white ballots from Precinct 221
from different colored ballots from other precincts at the caucus site.
Following the campaign speeches it was time to vote. In the Democratic caucuses, participants physically gather themselves into groups by candidate, then spend an hour playing a ritualized version of Red Rover as each campaign poaches people from and lends people to other campaigns to maximize their delegates while minimizing the delegates of selected rivals. The Republican Party, however, is much more modern and simply casts a statewide straw poll using cutting edge technology designed to expedite voting and thwart election fraud—paper ballots and golf pencils. Basically it was just like that Weekly Reader election back in 1976, except instead of the sainted Mrs. Pearson counting the ballots, it was a committee of party hacks in a back room, supervised by the caucus chair who also totally coincidentally was also Marco Rubio's precinct captain.

After dropping our ballots in the color-coded and completely secure homemade ballot boxes—our precinct was awkwardly designated the "White" precinct—we had the option of leaving or sticking around for a business meeting about organizing the precinct and electing county party leaders and committees. We skipped out before we could be drafted to make glitter signs and hang crepe paper in the gym or whatever.

Unfortunately, it turns out I was on the wrong end of this grown up Weekly Reader poll. In selecting a candidate to back, my first criterion was "Don't Be Batshit Insane". Right away that knocked out Trump, Cruz, Carson, Paul, Santorum, and Huckabee. Christie is a jerk. Fiorina lacks experience. I could find myself supporting Jeb!, Rubio, or Kasich even if I don't agree with some/many of their policy positions; unlike the rest of the field, they seem qualified to govern.

In the end, I went with Jeb! while my precinct went with Rubio. In fact, Rubio (160 votes) essentially tied the combined votes of Trump (86 votes) and Cruz (75 votes) who finished second and third in the precinct. The aggregate votes for the five precincts at our location had a similar pattern, with Rubio (455 votes) far outpacing Trump (240 votes) and Cruz (228 votes). Although Rubio finished third overall in the state, he clearly attracts the support of middle-class suburban voters who will be critical to the success of any candidate in the general election (statewide precinct level results have been compiled by the New York Times and the Iowa Secretary of State).

So much for the good signs. The bad omen is that Trump and Cruz are both still ahead of Rubio and the rest of the pack. Trump looks to win New Hampshire. Trump and Cruz are both strong in South Carolina. Rubio or any other "establishment" or "mainstream" Republican candidate will need to find a way to tap into the anti-establishment energy driving this campaign or be left in the dust.

Although the presidential primary marathon has only begun, Iowa's turn in the spotlight is blessedly over. Now it's up to the next wave of primary states to further clarify who will represent the Republican Party. As for me, my 48 hours as an Iowa Republican have been exhilarating and embarrassing. At least if Trump is nominated, I can say I played my part in the resistance. But sometime in the next few weeks, this Republican will turn back into an Independent.

In the meantime, I have a hankering for some homemade blackberry jam.

Standing room only at St. Francis Church, West Des Moines.
Iowa Republican Caucus, 2/1/2016

Standing room only at St. Francis Church, West Des Moines.
Iowa Republican Caucus, 2/1/2016

Donald Trump enters the Iowa Republican caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016.

Crowds waiting to register for Iowa Republican Caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016.

Crowds waiting to register for Iowa Republican Caucuses.
St. Francis Church, West Des Moines, 2/1/2016.