Caucusing for a cause

For AHS students, January 3rd was a return to the normal as classes began after winter break. But for many it was also the day of a long awaited event, marking the date of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses – the first chance for many upperclassmen to vote in a political election. “It was very interesting,” senior Nikki Kerns said. “It was the first time I’ve really done anything political.” Kerns was one of many young voters drawn to the caucuses to support Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Participation of newcomers to the political process pushed Obama past Democratic party rivals for a victory in Iowa. The unexpectedly high turnout of voters crossed over to the Republican side as well. In total, almost 350,000 Iowans participated in the caucuses, 100,000 more than were expected. “It was super packed,” senior Marc Heitzman said. Heitzman, a Republican, caucused at the middle school where several precincts were held. His particular precinct had an interesting makeup. “I live next to Green Hills retirement center, so there were a ton of old people,” Heitzman said. “Someone said we should split into groups of supporters, but someone said, ‘Let’s not do it like the Democrats!’ and everyone started cheering.” The difference between Republican and Democrat styles of voting has been the subject of controversy. Republicans use a conventional method called a primary, voting by ballot and assigning delegates based on which candidates receive the most votes. Democrats, on the other hand, caucus by splitting into preference groups for each candidate and then assessing support by a head count. If a preference group has less than fifteen percent of the voters in attendance, they are considered non-viable and must join a viable group. This method has been criticized for hurting lesser known candidates, who were often non-viable despite a solid showing of supporters. “I would rather have a primary,” Kerns said. “It’s more logical to have each vote count. I was with Obama so there were a lot of people in mine, but if I was for a lesser candidate, I would be more affected by it.” Advocates of the system have other concerns. “Iowa’s [caucuses are] known as the winnowers,” Government teacher Kirk Daddow said. “The supporters of our current system say our job is to separate those who should move on and those whose who should not.” The results ultimately cost three highly respected Democrat candidates their presidential bids. Within a week of the Iowa caucuses, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson all dropped out of the race after losing supporters due to the viability rules of the Democrat caucus. Theses casualties were a reminder of the impact of the Democrat caucus rules, and also the impact Iowa has on the nomination process. “Living in Iowa, it’s kind of a big deal. Your state is finally recognized by the nation,” Heitzman said. “It gives the candidates a lot of momentum.” Candidates pulled out all the stops in their pursuit of voters. One of the most popular methods was publicizing celebrity endorsements. Leading up to the caucus, Ames’ guest list included Ted Danson, Ron Howard, Scarlett Johansson, James Denton, and Kevin Bacon. “People shouldn’t pay attention to [celebrities],” said Daddow, who saw Bacon at a John Edwards rally at the high school. “They are useful to draw a crowd, but their endorsement means no more than one from your next door neighbor.” Celebrities may have been quick to come to Iowa, as critics of the nomination process plotted to end Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, claiming Iowans have too much say because they are not representative of America’s diversity. While this debate will continue in the years to come, Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee’s campaigns are still buoyed by Iowa victories. Weeks after the Iowa caucus, the votes of Iowans- and some AHS students- are shaping the race for president.