By 6:45 at tonight's Democratic caucus in Eldora, Iowa, party precinct chairman Ed Bear is regretting that he didn't bring the PA system he uses as an auctioneer. Since the 1960s, when he first took on precinct duties, Bear has seen between three and 100 people show up to caucus. Tonight, there are 120 overflowing the folding chairs and tables in the cafeteria of Eldora's elementary school, out of fewer than 1,000 eligible Democratic voters. A school janitor helps swing one more long table out of the wall, where it was folded up like a Murphy bed.
Bear closes the doors at 7 p.m. sharp, as the party has instructed him to, but announces that he doesn't like the rule that bars the door to latecomers and lets in a few straggler Obama supporters. Business begins with an attendance tally, done by hand based on sign-in sheets. The sheets include a bubble that voters can fill in to indicate their candidate preference, but almost no one does. They're keeping their precious votes close till the very end.
These Democrats come from half a dozen small towns in Hardin County, about an hour and a half northeast of Des Moines. (The Republicans are at the high school next door.) This is farming country: towns surrounded by miles of snowy fields broken up by the occasional windmill. Downtown Eldora has the proverbial single stoplight and a 19th-century courthouse with a pretty brick clock tower. Some of the people caucusing work at the state training facility for juvenile delinquents. There's a doctor in scrubs and a carpenter in painter's pants and a stained white sweatshirt. And there are a lot of farmers. They raise corn, soybeans, cattle, and especially hogs, of which the county has a state-high 1.2 million. It also has a lot of retirees. I spot a lot of old faces and only one teenage one. (It belongs to 18-year-old Megan Thompson [Obama], who is here with her mother [Clinton.])
After quick figuring on a calculator, Bear, a blue-eyed 65-year-old who is a real-estate agent (the auctioneering business is a sideline), a Hardin County supervisor, and a church-going Baptist, announces that it will take 19 supporters for a candidacy to make it over the 15 percent threshold Iowa requires for "viability." The room goes suddenly silent. "I'm almost afraid to say this, but I need you folks to divide into your presidential preference groups," Bear says.
Clarence Lange, a retired farmer, breaks the tension with a shout. "Clinton, over here!" he calls. Earlier in the evening, he chided an undecided and younger friend, Paul Lawler. "When you age a little, you get to know how to make up your damn mind." Lawler keeps hedging: Since his original candidate, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, dropped out of the race, he has bounced around among the rest of the field. When the Clinton supporters move to stand and sit with Lange, Lawler heads away from them to the front of the room, where Bear is heading a small Bill Richardson group. Across the center aisle, Cindi Schossow, the Obama precinct captain, is gathering her comrades. The Edwards supporters take the back of the room.
After all these months and tender loving care from candidates, after all the money and ads, it takes about five minutes for the room to sort itself out. Pauline Lloyd and Terrie Harms, Clinton precinct captains, hand out signs, which several of their backers hold high. They look formidable, and it's quickly apparent that they have the biggest numbers.
But there's still work to be done: the courting of seven Richardson supporters and one retiree for Dodd. "It looks like we're in trouble," Bear tells his fellow Richardson people ruefully. The eight "nonviables" are up for grabs. And they matter mightily to the rest of the room, since Eldora's 14 delegates to the county convention (the second step in awarding the real statewide delegates) will be awarded proportionally.
A lot of these people know each other, and that matters to the vote count. When Harms hears Bill Hendries, with whose family she is living this year, say he's considering Obama, she crosses the room at a run. "What? What?" she yelps. "Get outta here. I'm gonna lock the door on you when you get home."
Still, there is uncertainty in the air, because most of the Democrats have never caucused together before. There are a bunch who are making their caucus debut (I'd guess at least two dozen). And the party recently redrew its precinct lines, bringing together little towns that used to caucus separately. Earlier in the evening, this new format made Clinton supporter Pauline Lloyd edgy. She arrived before 5 p.m., long before any other volunteers, and with the help of her friend Michele Baker made the parking lot Hillary's by lining it with her signs—shades of the victory to come, at least in Eldora.
Hillary won Lloyd's heart by shucking off her shoes when they met at the end of a long day this fall, and she wants her woman to win big. Now she and another Clinton precinct captain, Terrie Harms, head over to the knot of Richardson supporters. From the other side of the room come Schossow for Obama and a couple of Edwards backers. "Now's the time to make your sales pitch," Bear says. But he has already made up his own mind—he's going over to Obama. Three other nonviables move off in predetermined directions—they didn't have high hopes for Richardson, so before they arrived tonight, they'd settled on a second choice. Bear picked Obama as the best chance for "complete change." The Obama group cheers for him and then gives a whoop for K.D. Burkett, a social worker and the only black voter in the room. "Obama doesn't have enough experience, but I do think he has enough intelligence," Burkett explains. He has forgiven the candidate for a DVD that Burkett deemed empty-headed when he watched it after getting it in the mail last summer.
Meanwhile, Schossow is trying to snag Paul Lawler. "We're not going for it!" he tells her, apparently speaking for himself and the remaining two undecideds. Schossow backs off, and Lawler heads over to Clinton. Lange shakes his head and asked what took him so long. "Well, she's the one who has the experience," Lawler says. "That's what I said all along!" Lange retorts. There's one last voter to woo: Glenn Wells, the Dodd supporter. He shakes off a heated pitch from the Edwards camp about health insurance and quietly sits down on a Clinton chair. "I grew up in Arkansas, and when I was in law school, my professor was Bill Clinton. Before he started chasing skirts. Ha!" He's probably lucky that the Clinton camp is too busy cheering for him to hear.
Bear asks the three viable groups to pick leaders, who count heads. The final tally: 54 for Clinton, 36 for Obama, and 30 for Edwards. That means six delegates for Clinton and four each for Obama and Edwards; two more votes for either Clintonor Obama wouldhave shifted one more delegate their way. The last order of business is a motion to approve the delegate count. Lloyd and Baker call it out from the floor, and the room fills with a hearty "Aye!" On this, there's agreement. And besides, it's time to go home.