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The Joy of Caucusing

It’s fun to live in Iowa! Who knew? But every four years, we are the center of the political universe.

More than just fun, the Iowa caucuses have rebuilt my faith in American politics. They have transformed me into an interested, active participant. The allure is hard to resist. Beyond fun, it is the hands-on closeness, and the grassroots participation that buffed away my cynical tarnish.

Going into my first caucus, I was wary. Why not just let us go into the privacy of our own booths and cast our vote? But caucusing turned out to be a hoot. There is a lot of mingling, chatting, gawking, and smiling, almost a carnival atmosphere.

In a Republican town like mine, attending a Democratic caucus gives me a sense of what worship in the catacombs must have been like for early Christians. It feels like a subversive act. I look around the room and think “I didn’t know you were one too!” In seeing others like me, I am cheered and encouraged. Like some obscure beetle that is buried deep underground, we surface every four years, soaring with short-lived glory.

caucus 1When the meeting is called to order, you literally have to stand up and go to the various corners of the room to be counted. No hiding your support. Although the candidates spar with each other, among caucus-goers there is little animosity or sense of “bad guys.”

At the Democratic caucuses, a candidate must receive fifteen percent support to be considered “viable.” If your candidate isn’t viable, you have to switch. This then leads to some impassioned speeches and horse-trading as supporters of other candidates try to woo those now without a candidate. These little speeches can be charming. American democracy at its finest: part colonial town hall meeting, part sermon, part oral report from your seventh grade Social Studies class.

Eight years ago, I watched history unfold before my eyes. The room was jam-packed with young people and first-time caucusers, all there to support Barack Obama. They overwhelmed everyone else and turned the establishment upside down. I was amazed and disbelieving. On the way home, I kept telling myself, “This has to be a local anomaly since we’re a college town.” I was wrong. It happened all over Iowa and eventually the nation.

This year, the chatter speculates that Sanders and his supporters may just be the same sort of phenomenon—rookies, true-believers, and outsiders who sweep away establishment expectations. On the Republican side, the chatter wonders if Trump supporters are simply fury and bluster, or actually have the organization and discipline to show up. We’ll know shortly.

caucus 2“Why Iowa?” is a frequently asked question. What gives this small state such disproportionate significance? The short answer is “Jimmy Carter,” whose victory in 1976 in the previously unheralded Iowa caucuses catapulted him into national prominence. It is true that Iowa is not very representative of the country as a whole. One pundit quipped, “Iowa is whiter than an Osmond family reunion in Norway.”

The typical Iowa response to such complaints is that we are diligent and conscientious. Talk to Iowans about the caucuses and words like “duty” and “responsibility” are uttered in solemn tones. (Notice this ability to draw attention to our Midwestern virtues while at the same time sounding humble.) Our task isn’t necessarily to pick the eventual winner–we rarely do—but rather to winnow the field.

“Retail Politics” is how the Iowa caucuses are described. Up-close and personal. Gone are the days when a candidate might have coffee at your house with five other people. Now the venues are more likely to be a restaurant with 75 people, or 300 in a school cafeteria. Still, this gives amazing access to the candidates. I literally ran into Michelle Obama waiting at a restaurant counter. This was probably nine years ago—early enough that I recognized her as someone, but couldn’t place who. She reached out her hand to introduce herself and then came to our table and chatted a bit. My wife and I went to a Hillary rally mainly out of curiosity. Some staffer must have figured two local ministers were good optics and we were ushered up to seats on the platform—close enough that Sophie had little chats with both Hillary and Chelsea, as if we were old friends or big donors. This year, I had a beer with Martin O’Malley. I’ve seen members of my congregation on the national news, and quoted in the New York Times. Rubbing shoulders with prominent people, connecting with your neighbors, collecting pictures on your phone, feeling like you actually matter—all this is the joy of caucusing.

Next Monday night, I will trudge through the snow to do it again.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Thank you for sharing this. I never understood what the caucus process was. This helps me to know.

  • dwolthuis says:

    I share your enthusiasm for the election cycle in Iowa. I do not, however, share your joy regarding the caucus process. I chaired the Democratic caucus in Sioux Center in 2008. Here are some stories from women. There are likely some similar from men, but I collected the these.

    1. Woman who went to Republican caucus because her husband did, saying she planned to vote for Hillary in the general election.
    2. Woman who stayed home with children because someone had to.
    3. Woman who stayed home with elderly parent, because someone had to.
    4. Woman who worked that night.
    5. Woman who voted with her young adult child (or children) for Obama because she was excited that her kids were getting into the spirit of it. She said she planned to vote for Hillary in the general.
    6. Woman who stayed home because her husband had to go to the R caucus because he was a business man in town. She did not think it would be helpful to him if she went to the D caucus, but she planned to vote for Hillary in the general.

    My prediction: No woman has a chance of winning the Democratic caucus in an area like Sioux County as long as it is public which caucus you are attending and public who you are voting for in the D caucus. Let’s get rid of these caucuses in favor of democracy!

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thanks for the feedback. I never thought of caucusing as a sign of privilege–for those with the time or those who can afford to have their views publicly known. Let me chew on that. Saw an interesting piece today that said a typical Iowan is receiving about 90 presidential ads, in various forms, per day now. As a friend put it, “We do it so you don’t have to. #YoureWelcomeAmerica”

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    I can perhaps understand your enthusiasm for the Iowa caucuses, but I certainly do not share it. For a different perspective, you might want to read the opinion piece by Timothy Egan in the NY Times ( If you get past some of the language, it provides insight on why those of us from states with a much more diverse population, economic base, and political spectrum feel disenfranchised by the current primary system. The issues driving the discussion in Iowa (and New Hampshire for that matter) are in many cases irrelevant to my state. For example, the pandering of Republican candidates to ethanol fuel requirements while simultaneously denying the reality of human-drive climate change would not pass the laugh test anywhere else. The current system also works against potential candidates from the western part of the country because the primaries are front-loaded in the east and south (with the exception of Iowa, which is still east of the geographic center but a bit west of the population center). I personally would like to see the entire primary system revamped into regional primaries that provide a fairer examination of the positions and potential strengths of candidates.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Tom, I understand your frustration and admit to plenty of Iowa parochialism, even as I enjoy all the fun here in Iowa. Let me defend Iowa a little bit. Recently, NPR ranked the 50 states as “most representative of the US as a whole”—in other words, what state’s demographics most closely mirror the nation—race, education, religion, etc. Iowa was thirteenth—not so bad. (New Hampshire was 49th. Illinois was first.) What Iowa and New Hampshire have is “small scale.” I can go shake hands and take a selfie with a candidate. If there were regional primaries or even if a big state like Illinois went first, it would be reduced to photo ops and sound bites—not the hands-on retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire. Also, here in Iowa, the claim isn’t that we get to pick the nominees, but we do weed out the field. We get rid of Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker, so later states can focus on the final selections. Change your mind? Probably not. But that’s what we say here!

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