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Election 2008

An Iowa House Party

Kyle Gassiott

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Caucus Hosts
(Kyle Gassiott)
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Barack Obama's "Citizens Guide to the 2008 Iowa Caucus"
(BarackObamadotcom)

My first Iowa Caucus was back in 2004 on a cold January night. The place was crowded, I was confused, some people yelled and after a few hours we somehow ended up picking three candidates to support.

The caucuses are weird. After a year or more of seeing politicians on TV or maybe stumbling upon them in the street, you and your neighbors have to agree on who you like best. Mostly it happens in gyms and community centers, but in a few places it still happens in people's living rooms.
That little bit of domestic democracy is so rare, though, that it's been enshrined at the State Historical Society in Des Moines.

Jack Lufkin is the curator of an exhibit called "Caucus Iowa" there. Part of it includes a mock-up of a typical Iowa house-wooden porch railing, pictures of corn fields above the sofa. For real. In the Republican living room, we see people like the precinct chair, a long-time caucus-goer and some media standing around.

They're actuallyl life-sized cut-outs of people in various caucus poses-arguing on the couch, putting their ballots on the coffee table. The dirty secret is that these Republicans are actually staff at the State Historical Society, posing.
Lufkin explains how their caucus works.

"The Republicans do a straw poll, its more of a vote and its informal you can do a hand-raising thing or write it on a piece of paper," he says

And that's when the caucus can get ugly, because that means that your neighbors know who you voted for. In the caucus of 1980-Jack's first one-that got him into trouble.
"I was a big Howard Baker supporter and I blurted that out and boy this woman lit into me, and I was like whoa!" he remembers. "And I won't repeat what she said…"
But Republican caucuses are genteel compared with Democratic ones, because the Democrats have to physically move from one place to another as they coalesce around their allotted three candidates.

"Well, they don't get the exercise we do!" laughs Gracia Willis. She and her husband Jim are hosting a Democratic caucus in their home near Rocwell City, known as the "Golden Buckle on the Corn Belt." Their precinct got merged and the number of house caucuses dropped to one--theirs. So they could have up to 40 people in their house on January 3rd.
Gracia grew up in this old farm house. She and Jim view it as a kind of community center.

"Our first caucus was in a home, and it was very comfortable for us," she says. "And I feel comfortable having it here rather than going through some janitor and finding a place to rent."

And as Jim will tell you everyone's welcome on Caucus night, even the Republicans, though "they might have to go into the garage."
Last week the Willises held a kind of a dry-run caucus, to know what to do when people start moving and yelling. Okay,maybe not yelling-the Willises say nothing's gotten too crazy in their years of hosting a caucus here. There was the time the couple split over Howard Dean versus John Edwards. You can actually imagine the campaigns caring about something like that.

Tonight's meeting turns out to be more like a mini-rally for Barack Obama. A campaign volunteer of his, Katie Malkin, phones into a statewide conference call at 7:30 PM.
"Hello?" comes Obama's voice over Malkin's cell phone. "Wow, this is pretty exciting..."
The reception is bad, and the five people here huddle around her phone on the floor as Obama talks to us.

"I need each of you to talk tonight to your friends your co-workers and other members of your local precinct on January 3rd," he intones through the static.

After that, Gracia and Jim take us on a tour of the house.

"So, will this all be open for people on caucus night?" I ask.

"Yes," Gracia Willis says. "They'll be able to go into my studio for one group, and the library for another, depending on how big the meeting is."

The Willises, as you might guess, are going to be supporting Obama on January 3rd. But the main thing she wants everyone to know about the caucus in their house?

"I'll have it cleaned up by then."

More stories from our Election 2008 series

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