Dispatch from Iowa

1199459391Susan McCarty, a writer, Wellesley grad and former Boston resident, now calls Iowa City home. We tapped her to give us a sense of the scene in town for caucus day, yesterday, and all she gave us was paragraph upon paragraph about how sexy (and possibly fascist) Obama’s supporters are. Well, that and a few other things. Enjoy!

IOWA CITY — At noon yesterday, I left my office for lunch and drove downtown. On every street corner people were screaming and waving flags and buttons and posters at passersby. At a stoplight, one of them gestured at me and tried to get me to roll down my car window so he could hand me a flyer, which I didn’t because it was four degrees outside, not including the windchill. The screaming, yelling, waving people on the corners had been there since I left for work at 8 a.m. At least some of them must have had frostbite by lunch. Yesterday, of course, was caucus day.

The word is that candidates have spent more time and money campaigning before this caucus than any other in history. It shows. They’ve all been highly visible, making exhaustive speaking rounds in the state, and recruiting so many volunteers it feels like half my city is stumping for one candidate or another. The bars have turned into little town halls—I don’t remember the last time I went to one without being approached by a campaigner exhibiting all the tact and slyness of a Saigon hooker. The month before the caucus, my mother, an Independent, was getting five telephone calls a day. My stepdad, a Democrat and a union man, got ten. After a while, both of them just stopped using their landlines.

My apartment has been canvassed at least four times in the last two weeks by Barack Obama campaigners alone. Which does have its benefits—while John Edwards’ campaigners are probably the most put-together, Obama’s are by far the most attractive. Hillary’s got the older, wealthier crowd, while Chris Dodd’s local campaign headquarters share an entrance with a bikram yoga studio. His campaigners, good people though I’m sure they are, must smell like crotch sweat by now.

When it came to January 3, the most one could hope for was a quick release; but I’d heard the process could take hours. As I stood in line to register as a Democrat (I’d been an Independent, just to cut down on the bulk mailings), I hoped they’d be gentle with a caucus virgin like me.

As it turns out, the caucus process is not gentle, or seductive, or even very polite. It involves a lot of counting and milling about and yelling, and by the end of the night, the lecture hall full of 600 of my neighbors resembled a psych ward more than it did a gathering governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. As the nice older woman who sat next to me remarked, “Don’t tell them how disorganized we are.”

Though my caucus site was located directly at the corner of Jefferson and Clinton streets, it was Obama who would be the clear victor in our precinct. Hillary, as it turns out, did not even score any delegates. Obama’s campaigners directed traffic into the caucus site. They stood in the frigid doorways and handed out stickers as we descended. The ostensibly impartial party chairwoman thanked Obama supporters, and only Obama supporters, for helping the party organize and rehearse the evening’s proceedings.

The process is kind of a pain in the ass to describe, and certainly to partake in. Let’s just say it consists of forming groups according to candidate and then electing delegates based on the number of people in those groups.

In my precinct, there were only two viable candidates: Edwards and Obama. This, I heard later, was general throughout the precincts. Instead of being a caucus where one candidate for the Democratic ticket won votes over three or four of the strongest competitors, the caucuses were widely split between Edwards and Obama, with few of the precincts able to elect any delegates at all from the Clinton, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Biden or Dodd camps.

When I spoke to caucusers later at bars around the city (another grand Iowa tradition: choose-then-booze), they largely felt cheated of a strong and varied caucus. Full disclosure: I caucused for Obama myself, but even I felt a teensy whiff of the Hitler Youth when my caucus almost entirely ratified for Obama. I am not, of course, even close to comparing Obama to Hitler, but the looks in the eyes of his teenage campaigners was enough to give even this openly optimistic Democrat the chills.

I wanted to write here about how the Obama supporters were so young and, frankly, sexy, because they were. But they didn’t give good speeches, and the delegates elected were largely young and adorable, but politically naive. I wanted to tell you that the whole thing was a bit of a meat market, because it was.

But it didn’t feel hot or passionate. Instead, it felt like what every Democrat worth his or her salt is wary of: a decisive (and frankly boring) victory without strong speeches or persuasion; populist all the way.

I will vote for Obama if he is nominated, and certainly, on an intellectual level, I am happy for his victory in Iowa. Especially against Huckabee, who, like many Iowa Republicans, is insane. Still, I cannot tell a lie. The truth is that last night was not an opportunity for democratic debate. It was a shining moment for the true believers. But I, for one, am not yet ready to drink that Kool-Aid.