Raymond-Sidel ’08 Caucuses in Iowa City, IA

Discarded signs and placards papered the streets of Iowa, and Rosie Raymond-Sidel ’08 and her family were finally able to answer the phone again. Raymond-Sidel, a resident of Iowa City, Iowa, was one of over 300,000 Iowans who took part in the Iowa caucuses on January 3, the first step in selecting presidential candidates. Her family had been bombarded by recorded phone messages from candidates soliciting their support. “We stopped answering the phone two weeks before the caucuses,” said Raymond-Sidel. But the annoyance caused by this unwanted attention was a small price to pay for the experience of having presidential candidates battle for her vote. And Raymond-Sidel didn’t just vote – she caucused. At the caucuses, organizers determined which candidates had the support of at least 15 percent of those present. Caucus-goers in many precincts huddled under a sign sporting their candidate’s name. Supporters of the candidates who did not make the cut could opt to rally behind another candidate. An interesting phenomenon occurs during the lull between each voter tally. Supporters of viable candidates – those with at least 15 percent of a precinct’s vote – scramble to earn the support of those backing less popular candidates. Raymond-Sidel’s own precinct had rooms designated for each candidate, so she did not have to withstand the glares of others as she supported her candidate, but she described caucus-goers as very intense about obtaining new support. Ardent supporters, she said, made impassioned speeches about their preferred candidates to try to win others over. Raymond-Sidel joked about the enthusiasm of caucus-goers, saying that she “was almost tempted to sell [her] vote.” Barack Obama won the Democratic primary in Rosie Raymond-Sidel’s precinct. There were other young voters at her caucus. Raymond-Sidel went with two of her friends, though she said their presence did not affect her voting preference. Presidential candidates from both parties had been making campaign stops in the state for nearly two years prior to the January 3 caucuses. The urgency of the campaigns ramped up in November and December of last year, culminating in a final push at the beginning of this year to garner the support of undecided Iowans before the caucuses. Candidates focused time and money in Iowa, setting up offices in the state a year prior to the caucuses. The national media follows the surge to cover the spectacle. Campaign staff and reporters occupy hotels, fill restaurants and clog the streets for months every four years. Though Iowa has a population of less than three million and has only seven electoral votes, it is of crucial importance to those seeking party nominations for the office of president. Iowa became the first event in the presidential primary process in 1972, and has been a focal point of presidential campaigns since 1976, when Jimmy Carter recognized that success in Iowa would vault him to the ranks of the first-tier presidential candidates. Raymond-Sidel said that she likes the fact that candidates take Iowa so seriously, because they take the time to explain their positions to individual voters. Raymond-Sidel said that she enjoyed a relatively lengthy five-minute response to her question from Democrat John Edwards, who kicked off a 36-hour campaign on January 1, traveling in a bus across Iowa in a last-ditch effort to convince Iowa caucus-goers of his legitimacy. Edwards arrived at Iowa City around hour 24, when he spoke at a rally of a few hundred people. Raymond-Sidel caught up with the candidate after the event to ask him a question about his stance on fair trade and was impressed by Edwards’ attentive response. She was also impressed by his enthusiastic exchanges after 24 straight hours of campaigning. Raymond-Sidel encountered other candidates, from both parties, and was struck by their friendliness. Sometimes, though, candidates’ attempts to win over voters fell flat. Raymond-Sidel recalled a specific incident in which Senator Barack Obama tried to sympathize with the plight of the middle class, mentioning the exorbitant price of arugula at Whole Foods. “Nobody got it,” she said. “We don’t have arugula or Whole Foods in Iowa.” Another advantage of the personalized attention Iowa receives is a national stage for its local issues. Candidates pledged to focus on alternative energy sources—the corn-based fuel ethanol is relevant to Iowa’s numerous corn fields. Raymond-Sidel acknowledges that this is somewhat unfair, because Iowa’s interests are not necessarily representative of the nation’s, but she thinks that the primary and caucus process is an ideal way for voters to meet their candidates. According to Raymond-Sidel, Iowans take the caucuses very seriously. They see it as a responsibility, not an obligation, to be informed and actively take part in the democratic institution. Caucus-goers in all of Iowa’s 1,781 precincts entered predetermined caucus sites—some of them farmhouses and school gymnasiums—before 7 p.m. on Thursday, January 3, at which time the doors were locked to prevent anyone from entering or exiting. “A 15-year-old probably could have participated and no-one would have cared,” as Raymond-Sidel noticed when she manned her caucus’ sign-in table. But she generally appreciated caucus-goers’ dedication to their task. That is why she thinks that, though the practicality of the caucusing and primary systems is debatable, some version is necessary. Voters take it upon themselves to learn about the issues and the candidates. “I know a lot more now about healthcare and the war than I did before,” said Raymond-Sidel. After the caucuses finished, the candidates, their staff, and the media covering the process left to campaign in other states, most notably in New Hampshire. Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee came in first in their respective parties’ caucuses.