“An hours-long delay in reporting results from the Iowa caucuses raised serious questions about the process.” — CNN, 2/3/20
“The caucuses are like a cross between ‘The Lottery’ and a Christopher Guest documentary.” — Anne Lamott, 2/3/20
The morning of February 3rd was clear and cold, with the fresh “meh” of an early-February Iowa day. The people of the villages began to gather around seven o’clock; in this particular village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole satellite caucus could fit in the Patterson’s craft room, so it began right on time.
The children assembled first, of course, because this always happened on a school night, for some reason, and there was no on-site childcare available. The feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them, because they’re alive in 2020.
Soon the men began to gather, surveying their own vaguely disappointing children, speaking of tractors and Patrick Mahomes and the return of Dunkaroos, and how they were honestly still pretty hungover from last night’s Super Bowl party. The women, wearing faded Anthropologie housedresses, came after. They exchanged bits of gossip about The Bachelor as Bobby Martin ducked under his mother’s grasping hand and ran, laughing. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly and took his place.
The caucus was conducted — as were the Halloween program and perhaps more concerningly, the teenage club — by Mr. Patterson, who had time to devote to civic activities. People felt bad for him because he had no children and his wife was a Marianne Williamson supporter.
The original paraphernalia for the caucus was lost long ago. Mr. Patterson frequently spoke to the villagers about making a new primary system. Still, every year the subject was allowed to fade away without anything being done, like it was with CBS and the The Big Bang Theory. Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten, the villages had commissioned an app, as well as handy, if completely redundant, paper candidate preference slips. In these modern times, it was necessary to use something that could make things more complicated and hackable. The night before the caucus, officials tried testing the app a couple of times, but they all had Jitterbug phones and couldn’t figure out where the app store was.
There was a great deal of fussing to be done before Mr. Patterson declared the caucus open. There were the lists to make, explanations of delegate equivalents, whiteboards to dig out of storage. One neighbor, Mrs. Hutchinson, had clean forgotten what day it was and showed up two hours late but still found the whole thing had yet to begin. In total, the run-up took three hours and 37 minutes, and most of the assembled villagers (including, regrettably, the village’s only non-white resident) gave up and left. Did I mention it was a school night?
Mr. Patterson cleared his throat. “Now, I’ll read the names. You’ll go to that candidate’s area in the room. This is the FIRST alignment. A candidate needs 15 percent, not counting the attendees who leave, to be viable. If your preferred candidate doesn’t have enough support to be viable, you can declare yourself unaffiliated, switch to a viable candidate, lobby your neighbors to gain enough support to make your candidate viable, storm out complaining about Bernie, or just stand where you are and quietly weep. Keep your paper folded in your hand until we have done all the alignments. Everything clear?”
The people only half-listened to the directions; most of them were quiet, wetting their lips, not looking around. Then an older woman shouted, “Wait, so where do I download the app?”
“No, the app is for the caucus officials to upload results,” replied Mr. Patterson. “I mean, at least, in theory. It’s frozen.”
Now cranky Mrs. Morris spoke up. “But who created the app? I heard it was Hillary people.”
Mr. Patterson sighed and ran a Google search. “It’s a fledgling tech company called Shadow. And yes, there are former Hillary Clinton staffers on staff, but I have to believe that’s because of the insular nature of polit—”
“Wait, the same Shadow that Pete Buttigieg’s campaign paid $100K to?!”
The room grew quiet; the only sound was Pete Buttigieg on CNN, announcing he’d won the caucus. This signaled it was time to begin.
The names were called. Someone had taken the BIDEN sign and written OK, BOOMER over it in Sharpie. That corner was empty, so no one much minded. After some time, Mr. Patterson said, “All right.”
For a minute, no one moved, mostly because no one still had much of an idea how any of this worked. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Patterson, “You didn’t give my husband time enough to get folks to align for Bernie. I saw you. It wasn’t fair!”
“Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called.
“Shut up, Tessie,” Bill Hutchinson said. And he got a LOOK from the other women. And one of the other women quietly, angrily mumbled, “Ummmmmmmm…”
“I think we ought to start over,” Mrs. Hutchinson said, as quietly as she could. And inside, most people agreed. But it was 11:30 and that would mean acknowledging that they had just wasted five hours. On a goddamn SCHOOL NIGHT.
Mr. Patterson gathered the slips of paper. “I’ll get these results counted.”
Someone from the back bellowed, “App’s still frozen.” Someone else called, “I’ve been on hold with the backup hotline for two hours.”
A girl whispered, “I hope it’s not Deval Patrick,” and the sound of muffled laughter reached the edges of the crowd, before it became breathlessly quiet once more.
At last, someone picked up on the other end of the hotline, swore, and hung up.
Mr. Patterson decided to hand-count instead, but the slips were all over the map. One elderly couple voted for Alex Trebek, which everyone agreed was a lovely tribute, but wholly unhelpful. Buttigieg and Warren passed the viability threshold. Bernie was a few short. Mind you, he was the top candidate one village over, but peer pressure is weird.
Bill Hutchinson went to his still-fuming wife and forced the slip out of her hand. On it, in black marker: BERNIE. He held it up, and there was an angry stir in the now feverishly tired and tipsy crowd who’d been enjoying the provided White Claws and various cream-cheese based Crockpot dips. The crowd howled at Tessie to re-align or declare unaffiliated so they could finally go home. She held up her slip defiantly and snarled, “I hope he runs as a third-party candidate.”
“All right, folks.” Mr. Patterson said. “Finish this quickly.”
Tessie held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair!” she said. “The people deserve student loan forgiveness!” A balled-up slip hit her on the side of the head. It didn’t hurt but it was RUDE. This was the Midwest, after all.
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, “FEEL THE BERN!!!!” and then they were upon her.