Iowa – LAX Terminal Three

So, here I am in LAX. I’ve hijacked the last two plugs in the terminal, and I’m being cornered by a small, Aussie child who’s fascinated by my laptop. “Lachlan!” his dad keeps calling, and Lachlan sprawls on the floor, contrite as all get out. They have a 12 and a half hour flight, but they get to end up in Brisbane. They say it’s going to be nice and warm. I believe them. Des Moines is thirty below cold right now, and I don’t think all the long underwear in the world is gonna help.

My route goes from home to Detroit, where I’ll have a three hour layover before hopping on a puddle jumper to Des Moines. I won’t lie to you that I’m having all kinds of Buddy Holly images right now. It’s bad travel mojo to think about that stuff, but all I know about flying in small planes in the Midwest in winter is that it’s a bad, bad idea. Of course, people do it all the time, which makes me feel that much worse. The Law of Conservation of Ream says that if things go right most of the time, you’ll have some bad shit rain down on you soon enough.

The picture from the newspapers is one of a three-way tie between Dean, Kerry and Gephardt, with Edwards expected to get strong numbers. He’s kept out of the dogfight that’s been going on between the first three, hasn’t gone negative, hasn’t done anything different than his hard-working, youthful Senator with great hair and a charming accent bit. I was shocked to read a report that said Edwards was 50. He still looks too young to shave, let alone run for President.

Dean won’t be in Iowa tomorrow. He’ll be down in Georgia, hitting the pews with Jimmy Carter. I first thought this was a brilliant move, a way to recharge while having a photo op with a beloved Democrat. Now, however, I’m starting to think the smart thing would’ve been to talk with Carter after Iowa and New Hampshire, to stay out and keep pounding the pavement and getting the voice and the message out there. Of course, it could be that the brains in HQ know something I don’t know. There’s talk of the polls being inaccurate because there’s no way for pollsters to contact potential caucus goers on their cell phones. Dean’s counting on getting a lot of new people to caucus, and I’ll probably be one of the poor shlubs whose job it is to go to the pizza parlors, grab all the eighteen-year-olds by the collar and haul them off to caucus.

I keep thinking the best line to take with kids is one of rebellion. “Piss off your parents: vote for Dean!” I expect to see it all over MTV and Teen People, but we all know that teenage rebellion means rejecting not only your parents’ values, but everyone’s values. Not voting is weak, as far as rebelling goes. Everybody already doesn’t vote, if you look at the turnout numbers. No, the best way to rebel is to vote for someone who is a complete and utter loon. All of the Washington kids should have banded together to vote for Vermin Supreme in the DC primary. That would’ve sent a message: “We’re taking our right to vote and really abusing it. Haha!”

Maybe there’s an army of college and high school Deaniacs who are going to flood the caucus, thereby crushing Gephardt’s union machine, Kerry’s veterans, and Edwards’ flocks of little old ladies who think he’s just the cutest thing ever. Who knows? Not me. I’m not one of the Bright Minds of Journalism. I’m just a guy who’ll be going door-to-door to identify voters and convince ‘em to go out on a freezing cold night to argue candidates with their neighbors.

Here’s how the caucus works. All the Democrats within a precinct go to their caucus site, which could be someone’s living room or a gym or a bar. When everyone shows up, the convener does a headcount and some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. He figures out what part of the room makes up the magic number, fifteen percent.
The convener then asks everyone to show who they’re supporting. This could be done by having everyone gather in a different part of the room, depending on the candidate. Dean guys in this corner, Kerry guys over here, Gephardt supporters by the credenza. The convener then checks each group. If any of them do not have at least fifteen percent of the total bodies present, their candidate is no longer viable, and he’s out.
Then things get interesting. Everyone who still has a viable candidate can go and beg the various nonviable people to join their side. The newly uncommitted voters go to various camps, and they do the headcount thing again. This goes on for about two to three hours, when everyone finally quits out of sheer desperation. I don’t know if anyone can use out-and-out bribery, or they’re just limited to good ol’ cajoling.

I’m also not sure how it all ends, if the point is to get the majority of voters in a precinct or just a good sized chunk of them. I’ll have to ask one of the other volunteers, preferably someone who hasn’t answered questions about procedure for the past month. I’m sure everyone who was excited about coming to Iowa is simply praying for the goddamn thing to end. I know that’s how I usually feel at the end of the primaries. It’s also the same feeling I have after a triathlon: I’m exhausted, sore, ready to throw up and want nothing more than to eat six burritos and go to sleep for a week. Then I wake up and want to go out and do it all over again.

Everyone is raising the rah-rah level to new heights. Edwards was on NPR today talking about how his supporters have knocked on 100,000 doors, and how tomorrow they’re going to knock on another 50,000. The Dean blog said something about hitting 35,000 doors today. I don’t know if Edwards was using some kind of politician math or telling the truth. I didn’t think he had enough people to go that kind of legwork.
I’m pretty sure we do. While our machine may not be as finely-tuned as Gephardt’s (he’s using UAW and Teamsters to canvass and do Get Out The Vote work, and if there’s anyone who knows organization and persuasion, it’d be those two unions), we may just swamp everyone with sheer numbers. I keep reading Dean has between 3,500 and 5,000 people coming to Iowa this weekend alone. I know we had to send for more rental cars in Nebraska ’cause all of the ones in Iowa are taken.

Really. Earlier this week, a trainload of Deaniacs left Emeryville, CA for Des Moines. As the train approached Omaha, Nebraska, one of them got a phone call from HQ: “Could you guys get off the train and drive the rest of the way? We’re out of cars, and the closest ones we could find were in Omaha. Would you mind caravanning them out here?” If there is anything Dean supporters dig, it’s an insane idea like that. Off the train they went, into the freezing Nebraska morning, to meet with a few Deaniacs who’d driven out from Iowa earlier that morning. Insane, and one of the many reasons why I dig this campaign. You think I’d come to Iowa if I didn’t think the people sitting around me would be half-mad?

Earlier this evening, as Anne and I were washing dishes, I said I hope this would be worth it. The primaries, as I’m learning, aren’t just about winning votes; it’s about how many you think you’ll win. Dean can go on to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, but unless he wins by a healthy margin, he’s going to get killed. Yes, there is a practical number of how many delegates he’ll win to the convention, but it’s also a matter of setting the tone for the rest of the primaries.

If we completely crush everyone in Iowa, and then do the same in New Hampshire, it lends credence to the perception that Dean is the anointed front-runner, sent by the gods to go forth and kick the bejeezus out of George W. Bush. If he wins by a hair, it’s going to be an ugly fight because everyone else will think they’ve got a shot at the title. While I may have a grasp on the rules of the game, I still have no idea what kind of a spread will mean victory or defeat. Ten points? Twenty? Thirty? Everyone says politics is a game, but I think it’s more go than Starcraft.