By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008
DES MOINES -- The Iowa caucuses, stripped bare, are all about numbers. Let's start with 99, the number of counties in the state. Then 1,781, the number of precincts where caucusing takes place. Followed by 230,000, the estimated number of caucusgoers (some 150,000 Democrats and 80,000 Republicans). All of this has given rise to a numeric lexicon within the various campaigns, which describe caucusgoers by numbers: A "1" is a solid, reliable supporter; a "3" is still undecided; a "5" is definitely caucusing for someone else.
But campaigns didn't make room for citizens who could be called "0."
That would be Jim and Diane Redfern.
Somehow the inescapable campaigns for Thursday night's caucuses barely made it to the Redferns' trailer park in Val Vista, just 15 minutes south of downtown, not too far from the headquarters of Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. It's the Other Iowa. The Iowa of the uninterested and disengaged, of people who won't bother to show up because they work nights or they're cynical or they simply don't care.
Only a handful of mailers arrive at Val Vista. Automated phone calls from candidates rarely come. And not a single Clinton or Obama or Huckabee poster, button or bumper sticker can be seen. It's where you knock on five, seven, 15 doors -- up an icy hill, then down a snow-covered cul-de-sac -- and get a variation on the same response: "Nope, sorry, not caucusing."
The Redferns, both native Iowans and both retired, struggle to remember if they've ever caucused.
"Once, I think," Jim, 75, finally says.
Adds Diane, 72: "Sometime in the '70s."
"Every four years the candidates roll in here, saying this and that. When I see ads on TV, it comes in one ear and out the other," says Jim, a registered Republican.
"There's more to Iowa, you know, than the caucuses."
* * *
There are really two kinds of Iowans. The Iowans who immerse themselves in the caucus process, breathing every moment of it, and the Iowans who'd rather do without the whole thing and can't wait for the caucuses to end.
This is the tension of Iowa civic life every four years: that the caucusing of a small minority of Iowans effectively transforms the state into the political fulcrum of the nation. In a state of 2.9 million people, less than 8 percent of them are expected to participate in this quadrennial electoral exercise. (Out of 1.9 million registered Iowa voters, 12 percent show up.) But caucuses are to Iowa what hurricanes are to Florida. They're inextricably linked, forever married. Iowa, the land of ethanol, cornfields -- and caucuses. Iowa, the exporter of pork, soybeans -- and caucuses. Iowa, the birthplace of John Wayne, home to "The Bridges of Madison County" -- and caucuses.
Like clockwork, the Hawkeye State's outsize role is scrutinized as the presidential nominating calendar looms. Too small, too rural, too white, critics argue. Folks ask: Why not move the caucuses to, say, Ohio, which is more representative of a demographically shifting country? Why not hold successive regional primaries, with the South, the West, the Midwest, the East all taking a turn? Why not go somewhere warm?
Many Iowans defend their first-in-the-nation status; Iowa's own Sen. Tom Harkin (D) brushes off the criticism. The unique political deal that Democrats and Republicans brokered for Iowa more than 30 years ago is all Iowans have come to know.
"The vast majority of the people who caucus are party regulars," says Harkin, who overwhelmingly won the caucuses during his unsuccessful White House bid in 1992. "In the year or so of this campaigning, they've met all the candidates, often more than once. . . . Sure, other people -- a lot of people -- are left out. But it doesn't have to be that way."
To many, like the Redferns, the caucuses are akin to a crying 3-year-old begging for attention. You learn to block it out after a while. For others, though, it's an adrenaline pumper, a welcome jolt to one's political system. They live on it like coffee.
John Olsen and Roger Henning epitomize this Iowa split. On the ground floor of the sprawling Jordan Creek mall, about 20 miles west of Val Vista, Olsen runs the USA Button Poll kiosk a few feet away from where Henning sells Crocs.
Olsen's caucus-based business is brisk. Before the caucuses, buttons reading "I Only Sleep With Democrats" and "Homeschoolers for Huckabee" sell for $2 a pop. The best-selling T-shirt is a "She Can Do It! Hillary for President" for $9.95. But the definite eye-catcher, stopping shoppers in their tracks, is a life-size cutout of Clinton, in a black pantsuit, yours for $36.95.
A shopper tells Olsen, a Democrat: "I can take that up to Izaak Walton" -- a shooting range in nearby Ames -- "and use it as target practice."
"I get that all the time," Olsen, 38, who's also a substitute teacher, replies with a sigh. Olsen attends town hall meetings, candidate forums and parties at night.
On New Year's Eve, his wife and two sons were home while Olsen, camera in hand, made his way to Clinton's party downtown at Capitol Square.
Henning, by contrast, is sick of it all. He does not attend political events. He caucused once but can't remember for whom. The 45-year-old Republican says he's tired of the Clinton cutout, the buttons, the tees, "this whole damn caucusing thing." Too much money spent campaigning, too many promises made, yet everything stays the same, he adds.
"Take health care. They've been talking about health care since Bill was in office. And now it's the same thing Hillary's yapping about," says the father of two. He works two jobs -- selling Crocs at night and installing broadband connections by day. "No time for politics," he says.
* * *
There's the primary calendar: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, etc. Then there's the Iowa calendar, which includes the Iowa State Fair, the Iowa Straw Poll, the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, drawing hundreds of campaign aides, volunteers and journalists.
But at Val Vista, there's no political calendar of any sort.
It's New Year's Eve, a little past 5 p.m., and the Redferns have just had some bread, shrimp cocktail and steak, grilled in George Foreman's Lean Mean Fat Reducing Machine. Now they sit at the dining table enjoying an after-dinner smoke -- "We're too old to stop," Jim says -- talking between slow drags of their USA Gold Ultra Light 100s. The 5 p.m. news is on the TV , but Jim turns it off when a Mitt Romney ad comes on.
Jim was raised in Guthrie Center, about 50 miles west of here, and Diane's from the Des Moines area. Neither went to college. They raised three kids. Jim worked in property management. Diane was a secretary. Four years ago, they bought this mobile home and moved to Val Vista, where most of their neighbors are low-income, all living on fixed incomes. The Redferns get Social Security, and Jim works part time at an auto shop nearby, delivering parts.
"All that money, all that money that's being spent on the ads, it makes me sick," Jim says. "The caucus is all the media could talk about. On the TV. On the newspaper. I just said to Diane the other day, what are they going to put in the newspaper after this is all over with?"
Diane gets up, pours herself a glass of water. Then sighs before saying: "Politics stays the same, but everything's changing. Prices are terrible. I do the grocery shopping. It's just unreal. Unreal. Paper products, laundry products, dairy products. Milk's almost five dollars. Not quite, but almost."
Jim takes another drag. "I'm 75 years old. Never had much use for politics. Or caucuses."
Here in the Other Iowa, Friday, the day after the caucuses, cannot come soon enough.