This is Iowa, and it’s less than 3 weeks before the Iowa Caucuses, so the conversations these days are all about politics. Our phones ring at least once a day from the pollsters. They say, “So glad you picked up! Thank you so much for taking the time!” (Last night while I was drafting this blog, the pollsters called to ask for Tim. The day before, they called for me: pollsters always ask for you by name, which is weird, I admit.)
In town, people ask each other, “Who are you caucusing for?” A lot of people say “Bernie Sanders,” which is what the polls are saying too, that he’s pulling ahead of Hillary.
Every Friday we have date night, and last Friday, for a change, we went to see Ted Cruz at the Teluwat restaurant in Cresco. I don’t plan to vote for the guy, in fact, I think Cruz might be a little wacko. But they make a fabulous blackened salmon with rice and veggies at Teluwut. And after so many years in public speaking, I really like seeing what people sound like in person. We arrived twenty minutes before showtime and to our surprise, the restaurant was packed. Standing room only. No tables. But just as we were about to give up, a high-top table opened us. Fabulous, we said, getting menus. The New York Time’s reporter who was hovering nearby said, “Did you even know this was going on tonight? Or did you come for the food?”
“Both,” we said smiling. This is dinner theatre for us, baby.
We watched through the window as the giant tour buses arrived. Several other people around our table came up and asked us the same question: if we had any idea that Ted Cruz was coming. How do they know we aren’t Republicans? (I was wearing patent leather boots and black leggings, you know, because it was date-night, even if it was just Cresco, Iowa. Was that it?)
The Democrats aren’t traveling around quite as much as the Republicans, at least not to our neck of the woods. But a couple of months ago we saw Martin O’ Malley when he visited town. A standing room only crowd filled the coffee house, and he stood on a bench at a booth. He had lots of energy, and rather sensible answers to questions, and generally charmed the heck out of us; then he ended with a song on guitar. “He was better than I had expected,” my husband and I agreed. We thought, yes, I’d vote for him. But maybe not until next election. “He needs some more seasoning,” we decided.
Hillary gave a talk at the local college back in November, but I didn’t hear about the event it until 10 minutes before it was about to start–certainly not enough time to drive to town and stand in line for the expected security.
Bobby Jindal came and gave a talk at the Pizza Ranch, some months ago. I wanted to go, but Tim warned me that my picture might show up in the local paper, because “There might only be five or six people there.” And he turned out to be right. The next day’s paper had three pics on the front page from the Jindal event, and in the pics were the same four people, wearing their red t-shirts, talking with the politician.
Tuesday of this week, it was just announced that Marco Rubio added a stop in town this coming Monday. I had to hit “refresh” on the RSVP button just to confirm what’s seems impossible: his talk is taking place at 7am. (I don’t do anything at 7am, let alone dress up as a Republican to attend an event.)
It’s a big deal to be an Iowan these days. We take our vote very seriously. People attend these events. They want to see their candidates up close. Martin O’Malley admitted as much at the coffee house. “I know you like to see us, the candidates, one, two, or even three times. I had a woman in Fairfield, Iowa, tell me she had seen me twice already. So I asked her, ‘How am I doing?’ She said, ‘Oh, you’re getting better.’” Then Martin O’Malley laughed.
But let me tell you the main difference between a normal primary and the Iowa caucus: we talk about it. “Who are you caucusing for?” the pollsters ask us, and we also ask each other. This is what we do during caucus season. At the supermarket we ask each other who we are voting for. At the New Year’s Eve Party we attended, we asked each other there too. And this is not a normal thing. When an election is done by secret ballot you wouldn’t think of asking people ahead of time, “So, who you voting for?” It would be considered so very rude. But a caucus is different. It’s a public event. A caucus is a 3-hour meeting held at a school cafeteria or library. When you show up, the first thing you do is choose which group of people you’re going to sit with, to indicate, rather publicly, who you are voting for. And so in the weeks ahead, there is no point in being secret. This is how we do it in Iowa. We talk. We are deciding together.
Ted Cruz did okay at the restaurant that night. He wasn’t as creepy or as scary as I had thought. He did talk for an hour and seemed more energetic that I would expect, but mostly, he was rather un-astonishing. He looked like an ordinary guy in a striped shirt who happened to yell out, “Defund Planned Parenthood!” to thunderous applause. I admit I was much more taken by the brief conversations we had with the New York Times photographer and reporter. The photographer was taking a picture of his beer sitting our our table, so I asked him who he was. They were traveling through Iowa, six towns a day, for several days in a row, and it was 3 degrees outside. “You’re following Ted Cruz through Iowa? I’m sorry,” I said to Eric, the photographer. “Actually, he’s a friendly guy.” “Well, that’s nice,” I said, genuinely happy for the journalists. Back when I lived in Los Angeles I had lots of friends who were professional journalists and photographers. I would have enjoyed to talk with them more. “We read the New York Times every day!” I said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. I didn’t get to confess I felt more in common with them than with the folks swooning over the politician. “We can’t get the Times on paper of course; it’s digital, but that’s better than nothing.” He just smiled awkwardly, which made me feel like just another starstruck Iowan. Then Cruz entered the fray and the photographer put a lens on his camera. “We’ll watch your beer for you,” we said. “Thanks!” Eric replied.
On the way home I said to Tim, “Next time we go to an event like this, I’m not wearing these glasses of mine, these horn-rims? Especially not with red lipstick. I think that’s why they knew we weren’t for Ted Cruz. My glasses.”
“That’s possible,” he said, driving.
“Next time I’m going to dress like a Republican.”
“And what would look like?”
“I’ll wear that hooded sweatshirt I have, the one from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.”
“Do you think Republicans go to a lot of national parks?”
“I don’t know. But there were a lot of people wearing sweatshirts there tonight. I have one. I could wear that.”
(Below is a crowd picture from the event that “our” photographer took while we watched his beer. We were on the far left, but (thankfully) cropped past the blonde woman in the back.) (Eric never came back for his beer.)