Golis: Once upon a time in the late, great state of Iowa

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On a bone-chilling New Year’s Eve, a thousand people crowded into the Memorial Union at Iowa State University in Ames. The candidate, a young Illinois senator, was more than an hour late, but no one in this happy crowd seemed to mind.

When Barack Obama finally arrived (at 9:40 at night), he announced that the next morning’s Des Moines Register would be publishing poll results showing him seven points ahead of the presumed front-runner, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Here was the moment Americans found out that a young African American with a funny name just might be the next president of the United States.

It was our first night in Iowa.

It was also, we now know, the last time people could pretend that the Iowa caucuses deserved to be first-in-line in deciding the country’s future.

Four years later on caucus night, the Republican Party announced that businessman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had won the GOP caucuses ─ only to discover 16 days later that Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the actual winner. The admission came too late to help Santorum.

Then came Monday’s dumpster fire after which the Democratic Party of Iowa spent most of the week trying to publish complete and error-free results. Candidates and their handlers were furious, Republicans were gleeful, and one more time, Americans were invited to wonder if their public institutions can be trusted.

Ironically, Santorum, now a talking head on CNN, posed a relevant question: If Democrats can’t manage a simple election, why would the country trust them to manage the health care system?

As political tourists, we were happy to be there for the week of the Iowa caucuses in January 2008.In a couple of days, we saw up-close five candidates ─ Democrats Obama, Clinton and John Edwards, and Republicans Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. (Huckabee won the Republican caucuses and then quickly faded from the scene.)

You can’t throw a snowball without hitting a candidate for president, one Iowan told me.

At the Clinton event, which was down the hall from our hotel room, we asked a woman if she was going to talk to the candidate. “No,” she answered, “I talked to her last week.”

Iowans who participate in the caucuses take their roles seriously.

On caucus night in the cafeteria of Thomas Jefferson High School in Des Moines, about half the attendees raised their hands when asked if they had experienced one-on-one conversations with one or more candidates.

Soon, these neighbors began the business of sorting out who would be the winner in their precinct. Obama voters in that corner, Edwards voters in that one, Clinton voters over there … and so on.

There’s an old-fashioned charm to this organized chaos. Political junkies like to invoke the spirit of town hall meetings.

But even when the parties could count the votes without messing up, Iowa was always a problem for a society that values democracy.

The caucuses only record the votes of the people able to attend evening meetings. If you have a night job or young children or a disability, you may not get to vote. In a state of more than 3 million people, only 170,000 participated in Monday’s caucuses.

Meanwhile, a state both predominately white and predominately rural can hardly claim to be representative of a country that is neither.

In a country so large and diverse, presidents will not be chosen at town hall meetings.

We are left to consider all the time and money invested by candidates, their staffs, thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands of voters. It all went up in smoke in the time it took for the Iowa Democratic Party to demonstrate how not to manage a crisis.

In Iowa, what could go wrong did go wrong ─ even for the long-respected Des Moines Register Poll. At the last minute, editors were obliged to cancel its publication after it was disclosed that some polling interviews didn’t include the names of all the candidates.

“If this isn’t a mess,” said MSNBC news anchor Brian Williams, “it will do until the mess gets here.”

And so Iowa politics became a laughingstock.

History will record that the Iowa caucuses generated a kind of retail politics that couldn’t happen anywhere else.

But those homespun charms can no longer disguise a process that was never democratic. It didn’t help, of course, that the outcome of the Democratic caucuses remained contested at week’s end, or that the Democratic national chairman urged Iowa Democrats to recanvass some returns.

In the beginning ─ in Iowa ─ Obama promised to overcome the toxic partisanship in Washington. (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America.”)

It’s a promise that becomes sad and ironic in the context of today’s politics. We need look no further than a drawn-out impeachment fight and President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday for proof that the country will not be finding common cause anytime soon.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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