PERRY, Iowa — My feelings about the caucus process are summed up best by what a man in the front row yelled at the caucus here Tuesday night.
“Why can’t a person just come vote and leave without having to listen to all this stuff?” he hollered. “It doesn’t take two hours to vote in a primary!”
Perry (population 7,022, according to the 2010 census) is in Dallas County, in the Des Moines suburbs. In 2008, according to the sports editor of the Perry Chief, the town paper, Dallas County went for Mitt Romney by two votes. It’s one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, and the more conservative candidates seem to sense a chance to swing it their way. Rick Santorum rallied here yesterday morning. Rick Perry came by last night.
With 99 percent of the state’s precincts reporting, Santorum led Romney by a mere five votes. Every vote matters.
How are they cast?
Well, take Perry, where more than 300 people packed into the elementary school cafeteria, listening politely to 13 volunteer speakers.
“You guys are probably wondering what the heck a 16 year-old from the state of Tennessee is doing speaking at your election,” the speaker is saying. This is actually the most auspicious beginning to a speech so far. “Back since the beginning I’ve always been really involved in politics,” he continues, “which sounds weird, I know.” It quickly emerges that he has come to support Michele Bachmann.
The next speaker? “I am a Texas railroad commissioner,” he says. “I came up here from Austin on my own nickel to support Governor Rick Perry, and I hope y’all will support him too.” (Perry wins only 16 votes.)
The next man to speak is actually from Perry, which comes as something of a surprise. “If they’d told me ahead of time that I only had two minutes, I would put my notes on a smaller piece of paper,” he says, affably.
Next Dave Webster, who boasted jokingly earlier in the evening that he’d gotten the entire precinct to go for Mike Huckabee in 2008, comes to the microphone. He delivers a passionate speech. “How you feel?” he asks. “Are you sick of it? Does it feel in your gut that it’s wrong? That we’re doing the wrong thing over and over again? That they can’t see the forest for the trees,” Webster says, adding, “There’s a right, there’s a wrong. We all know where we are. And I encourage you to support Rick Santorum.”
Before his speech, Webster confided to me, “There’s no way in hell he’s gonna win. But I’m gonna stand up and speak for him. . . . I’d vote for Mickey Mouse.” After all, “this is not the national vote. This is the Iowa vote.”
The speeches all follow a pattern. The speaker begins by admitting that he or she had no idea, at first, whom to support. Some of them go on for more than a minute before coming up with any distinguishing characteristics. Three turn out to be for Newt Gingrich, two apiece for Ron Paul, Bachmann, and Santorum, one for Perry, and three for Romney. “Like many of you, I was pretty well undecided about who to support,” says a man who ultimately favors Santorum. “They all seemed pretty close to me. . . . Yesterday I was down at Hotel Pattee and stood 10 feet from Rick Santorum and said, ‘What are the three things you’d do when you’re inaugurated?’ I was hoping he’d say, “Number one, I’m going to kiss my wife.’”
Providing context at the beginning of the evening, Ron Harland, an official with the Dallas County Republicans, notes that the whole country used to be on the caucus system. Then, around 1900, something happened. A realization dawned.
The final speaker, a Ron Paulite with chin-length curly hair, appears nervous and keeps turning his head so that the microphone fails to catch him. He begins to tell a parable about a shepherd and a giant — “These giants, they were real. They dig up their bones every day. They had two rows of teeth. They practiced modern day sacrifice and cannibalism” — and I can’t help thinking the rest of the country might have had a point.
We all know how political decisions are made. Last-minute, off-the-cuff, because you have the feeling that Gingrich might probably be pretty tough on military issues, or that Santorum seems pretty all right, or that — “Those white-hairs. I know damn well they’re not gonna vote for a Mormon,” Webster says. “They won’t say it. But I know.”
But need we show this to the world?
All three Perry precincts go for Santorum, concluding a caucus that began, long before, with the caucus chair hushing the yelling man. “That’s the caucus process,” he says.
So it is.