BY: M. TOMOSKI
It was four in the morning, and I was somewhere in Illinois by the time the Democratic caucus results finally came in from Iowa. The entire night seemed to be a symptom of the chaotic enthusiasm each candidate stirred in their supporters, and the weather reports gave every indication that I might be trapped in Des Moines if I stuck around to watch the numbers tick slowly toward what everyone but the Clinton people called a tie.
Sanders’ sound bites had been roaring through the radio all day: “If there’s a large voter turnout, we’re going to win.” His team was counting on a repeat of 2008, in which young voters came to caucus in record numbers, rejecting Clinton in favor of Obama. His vote came down to committed Democrats and first-time caucus goers who were willing to brave a potential blizzard in order to have their voices heard. If they didn’t turn out before 7pm, when the caucus doors closed, the revolution would be over before it began.
In the early afternoon, the only people to show any kind of interest in Olin Hall, where the Democratic caucus would be held, were the students whose mid-day lectures had just come to a close and a Japanese news crew who waved their hands in front of a live feed in order to guarantee they wouldn’t miss a moment of western democracy at work, a tradition that held a time-honored reputation of predicting who would become the next President of the United States. So despite its modest Midwestern appearance, Iowa was important. Not because of the practical advantages it offered the man or woman who carried the state, but because of the example it set for the rest of the country as the first in the nation to choose.
As the clock crept closer to the deadline, candidates’ representatives pinned their campaign slogans to the front of the lecture hall, and by 6:30, the floodgates burst open. First time voters were registering against the walls, couches, floors and any surface they could find while a torrent of newcomers poured down the hall and up the stairs to where the line weaved its way out the front door.
First time voters were registering against the walls, couches, floors and any surface they could find.
“What do you think of the turnout?” I asked a Clinton rep who stood with a roll of campaign stickers around his arm as he watched a swarm of young people enter the building with every intention to caucus for Sanders. He hesitated for a moment and gave a nervous “It’s good.” So good in fact that nearly 500 people spent the next two hours jammed into a fire marshal’s nightmare—sitting in the aisles and each other’s laps—moving from one side of the room to the other to show support for their candidate.
On the far end of the room where 112 students crammed into a corner, one voter announced that “O’Malley has cookies!” passing a tray of his chocolate chip reward down the line.
“Bernie wants to take cookies out of politics!” a Sanders supporter shot back across the room to the sound of laughter.
The final tally for that lecture hall caucus was:
Bernie Sanders – 250
Martin O’Malley – 112
Hillary Clinton – 110
At Olmstead Hall, the Clintons gathered for an anxious celebration of the incomplete results. The room chimed with a CNN voiceover of Anderson Cooper taunting the uneasy crowd with reminders that Sanders could overtake Clinton at any moment. A supporter behind the podium cupped his mouth and encouraged everyone to shout, “Madam!” while the other side of the room replied “President!” Meanwhile in the back of the room, the Clinton staff was rearranging audience members to fill in empty spaces while Cooper’s voice announced that Sanders had won 100 percent of the vote in Johnson County, where I had met Peter Kollasch and Patricia Knox the day before the caucus:
“I don’t see Bernie Sanders as having the presidential characteristics that Hillary Clinton has,” Peter said, “but I have no choice but to support him.”
“Ethically you have a lot to lose [by not voting for Bernie],” Patricia added. “He’s bringing up a conversation we’ve needed for years; about what socialism really is … it’s not just about looking after yourself, you’ve got to look after everybody.”
With several precincts still up for grabs, former Iowa governor Tom Harkin stood in front of Clinton supporters at Drake and declared that, “A win is a win,” while the frantic crowd repeatedly refreshed their phones for the numbers and stared wide-eyed at the old man who ought to have known better than to tempt fate. After all, Harkin knows what a real victory in Iowa looks like, having beaten Bill Clinton by nearly 80 points in the 1992 caucus.
The race had come down to a coin-toss in at least seven precincts, of which Clinton won six.
By the end of the night, Clinton’s team declared that she was the, “clear winner,” but Sanders had captured 84 percent of voters under 30 to Clinton’s 14 percent and even won the support of young women by 70 points. With two tenths of one percent between them, the race had come down to a coin-toss in at least seven precincts, of which Clinton won six. The official rules state that in precincts where there are an odd number of delegates to be won and no clear winner is determined, the remaining delegate will go to the candidate who wins a coin toss.
Sanders had captured 84 percent of voters under 30 to Clinton’s 14 percent and even won the support of young women by 70 points.
“If Sanders wins the nomination, I don’t think I’ll vote at all,” one Drake student said while looking down at her phone nervously until the former Secretary of State emerged to tell the crowd that she had breathed a “sigh of relief.” After the closest race in the Democratic caucus’s history, and decades of rejection, the Clinton family curse in Iowa had finally ended on the back of a silver dollar.