At first-ever Iowa caucus in DC, confusion, chaos and civic pride

Disorganization at satellite caucus reflects broader problems in Iowa

For the first time, the Iowan-on-Iowan politicking that characterizes quadrennial presidential caucuses happened outside the state, and about 100 people attended a caucus Monday at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers headquarters in downtown Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
For the first time, the Iowan-on-Iowan politicking that characterizes quadrennial presidential caucuses happened outside the state, and about 100 people attended a caucus Monday at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers headquarters in downtown Washington. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:54pm

Iowa voters Susan and Jim Swain were prepared to board a flight from their winter home in North Carolina to participate in Monday’s caucus. But Iowa in February is cold. So they were happier to drive five hours and stay overnight in a hotel to fulfill their civic duty in Washington, D.C.

The Swains, both 66, were among about 100 Iowa voters who gathered Monday night in a basement conference room at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union’s downtown headquarters to participate in the satellite caucus, one of 24 held outside of Iowa for the first time this year. Three more were held in foreign countries.

“We kind of miss the fact that we’re not sitting there with our neighbors,” Susan Swain said. But the trip, they said, was worth it.

“The primary reason I get excited about this is because of the chance to exercise my rights,” Jim Swain said.

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The satellite locations were created by Iowa’s Democratic Party to address concerns that the caucuses, which demand several hours of in-person participation, were inaccessible to some voters. 

Participants — including longtime Hill staffers who had worked alongside some of the candidates, members of the military and young people caucusing for the first time — largely deemed the event a success.

But like the caucuses at home, the Washington event was disorganized and, at times, chaotic. The Swains, originally from Cedar Rapids, said they had not met anyone who could tell them how the results would be counted (it’s complicated). In what appeared to be a last-minute decision, members of the media — who outnumbered participants — were told to leave the room during deliberations.

Just like home: No results

There were no official results available as people left Monday night — the state party stunned candidates and media by saying it would not release them until Tuesday afternoon. Washington attendees said that Sen. Elizabeth Warren secured the most delegates to the state party convention, followed by former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Other candidates did not get enough support in the room to secure delegates. 

Caucus officials did not respond to inquiries Tuesday. Results of the out-of-state caucuses will be reported as “at-large” counties and weighted by the number of participants, according to an explanation on the Iowa Democratic Party website. 

Barbara Larkin, who has worked in and around the Capitol since the 1970s, has kept her Iowa voter registration “because that’s home.” She said she normally flies back for every caucus but changed her plans when the satellite location was announced. 

She came to show her support for Biden, whom she knew personally from her days as a staffer in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office when Biden was a senator and helping to pass an assault weapons ban in 1994. 

“I don’t think we have the luxury right now to have a candidate who has to learn the ropes as they go,” she said. 

Ericka Petersen, from Iowa City, could not go back for the caucus this year because her husband was on a work trip and she was alone with her two children, 3 and 1. So it was a relief, she said, that all she had to do was borrow a double stroller, bring along an iPad and hope her children stayed entertained long enough for her to caucus for Sanders. 

“This was quite an endeavor,” she said. “But it was so important to be here.”

Babies and Bernie is ‘so Iowa’

Across the room, Rocco Zappone, 64, sat with dozens of people registered to vote in other states who were allowed to attend as observers. As a lifetime resident of Capitol Hill, he was thrilled at the chance to see a caucus in action.

“I’ve always been curious about the caucuses,” he said. “But I never felt that I had a really good feel for how they actually operated.” He gestured at Petersen, who had rested her Sanders sign on her stroller while she tried to eat a sandwich and feed french fries to her kids, while a clutch of photographers and video teams documented every bite. 

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 3: Aurelia Peterson, 3, left, and Jude Peterson, 1, eat food before the start of a Democratic satellite caucus at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Hall on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Aurelia Peterson, 3, left, and Jude Peterson, 1, wait for the start of a Democratic satellite caucus for Iowans at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers headquarters on Monday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“One of the most interesting things I’ve seen so far is, there seems to be a Bernie supporter there who brought a baby,” he said. “That seems so Iowa to me. You know: family.”

But for all the earnestness of participants and observers, the event was also a messy display, reflecting the confusion and controversy in Iowa that threaten to upend the caucuses for good. The venue was moved from Woodley Park to downtown at the last minute, reportedly to accommodate a larger crowd. 

But the windowless room was still too small. So in a move at odds with the spirit of transparency of the caucus process, reporters were told to wait in the foyer and stay several yards away from closed doors, where muffled shouts and applause periodically filtered out. 

Inside the room, organizers seemed to be making on-the-spot decisions that surprised several participants.

“It was disjointed,” said Luke Huisenga, an Iowa City native who has not been able to caucus before because of his military service. “It was not as organized as I have heard it was back home.”

Drew Veysey, who was there to caucus for Sanders, said he was prepared to deliver a pitch to the room on behalf of the Sanders campaign but was told he wasn’t allowed because he isn’t a paid campaign staff member. The directive contradicted his understanding of the rules and experience from previous caucuses.

“It was extremely bizarre,” he said.