As Caucuses Roll, The Gloves Come Off

Hillary Clinton took the stage Monday night with her husband and daughter.
Hillary Clinton took the stage Monday night with her husband and daughter.

Over 400 people, 3 election officials, 2 rooms and a lot of raised hands. Witnessing an actual democratic caucus in Iowa was nothing short of fascinating.

It’s also worth noting that I’ve seen college and high school student government elections held in a more “professional” manner.

For better or worse, a caucus is democracy in its most fundamental form. Watching and listening as the three elected caucus officials counted off supporters of Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders one by one, hand by hand, left me wide-eyed and a little shocked. “This can’t be how it’s done,” I kept saying to myself. “There has to be something to make this more official, a little less ‘sketchy,’ [for lack of a better word].”

But sure enough, when the hands were tallied, an announcement was made about the viability of each candidate (sorry, Martin), a realignment took place, delegates were awarded and cheers rang out through the Kum & Go Theatre in downtown Des Moines.

Bernie Sanders mopped up in Precinct 56, with nearly 300 votes to Hillary Clinton’s 169. After the O’Malley supporters fell short of the 71 supporters needed for their candidate to be viable, many flocked to the Bernie camp (a trend that was undoubtedly true throughout Iowa, one of the reasons the race was so tight). By the end of the night in this small, jam packed theatre, Sanders had picked up 5 delegates to Hillary’s 3.

While part of me was surprised at the lack of formality in the caucus, it was also heartening to see so many people at this precinct come out in droves to take part in such an important election. Turnout here for 2016 surpassed that of 2008, according to local officials, when Barack Obama’s charisma and vision shocked the political world with a turnout tsunami.

But the intrigue of Feb 1 didn’t stop there. Despite early indications Hillary Clinton would eek out a several point victory, Bernie Sanders wasn’t going quietly into the cold Iowa night…in fact, as I write this at 11 a.m. on Feb 2, the race has only just been called for Clinton (by a whopping margin of .2%) and Sanders still has yet to concede.

After regrouping post-caucus, a few of us hopped in an Uber and headed to Drake University for the Clinton “victory” rally. A packed house of wired Hillary fans went wild when the candidate took the stage (without being introduced or shaking supporters’s hands).

What was remarkable about Clinton’s speech wasn’t that she declared a premature victory, which she surprisingly did, but rather her tone. Of all the lessons political observers will draw from Iowa on the GOP and Democratic sides, this is the one that will stand out to me: the gloves are off between Bernie and Hillary.

Clearly agitated and fired up, Clinton only spoke for about 10 minutes with her husband and daughter flanking her during the speech. The anger was palpable–whatever game Iowa caucus goers were playing, Hillary was not having it.

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She defended her progressivism and declared the race to be a contest of ideas that will decide the future of the Democratic Party–lofty stuff for a speech that was supposed to be a celebration.

When the speech was over, there were no celebratory selfies with supporters, no mingling along the rope line. The Clintons were out, on there way to New Hampshire, where polls show Sanders with a big lead. Meanwhile, at Sanders HQ, the crowd cheered “She’s a liar” as the former secretary of state gave her speech.

So, I’d say things are about to get interesting (not that they were dull until now). For months, the race between Sanders and Clinton has been relatively tame–no longer. Now that the first votes have been cast, Clinton may have avoided catastrophe, but she’s feeling the bern more than she’d like to be. And with New Hampshire only a week away, I think it’s safe to say the Clinton squad is going to turn up the heat themselves.

-ARC

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