Hello from the outside, sang the voters of Adel.
“The people in Washington know nothing about our lives,” said the clerk at the public library.
“They think we’re all still standing in front of our houses, holding a pitchfork,” said the Lutheran pastor.
“We’ve never had anybody who listened to us,” said the salesman of lubricants and truck tires.
It was presidential caucus day in Adel, Iowa, in the seat of the county at the centre of the state in the middle of a country that had waited three long, loud, lip-smacking years for the chance to start all over for the 58th time. By the time the day would end, long past midnight, with a blinding blizzard blowing across the mid-continent, both the Democratic and Republican nominating contests would be recast in ways that were unimaginable last autumn.
The big winners would be the sons of a Brooklyn paint dealer, a Cuban bartender and a Canadian bankrupt: Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The stunned and chastened losers would be a bellicose Manhattan billionaire and the most politically experienced woman in American history: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
More Iowans would turn out to canvass and coax their neighbours than ever before, eagerly assuming the mantle of “first in the nation” by showing up for an arcane, antique, hours-long tribulation of tabulation that still relies on pencil-points, amateur discipleship, and one-by-one head-counting in the age of super PACs and the iPhone 6.
Across the state, six deadlocked Democratic precincts would be decided— in accordance with that party’s duly-published rules—by the flip of a George Washington quarter. In Adel, population about 4,000, not a single person would stand up to speak on behalf of Jeb Bush, the son and brother of living Republican presidents. The fervent Christian who won the Iowa Republican caucus in 2012—Rick Santorum—would gain only one vote here out of 582.
The wife of the Arkansas preacher Mike Huckabee, who swept Iowa in 2008, would make a poignant final appeal for her man in the jam-packed Adel Elementary School gymnasium, then silently walk away. And a Maclean’s correspondent who turned up out of the blue, uninvited, at this inspiring exercise in corn-country democracy would be deputized to count the ballots.
Eight hours before a bugler would trumpet The Star-Spangled Banner to kick off the quadrennial kickoff, Adel had been as placid as a swing set in the snow. Jeannie Osborn was shelving books in the little town’s gorgeous new public library for $11 an hour. “I just knew that someone would finally come to Adel to interview me!” she laughed when a foreign reporter walked in.
It was not like Jeannie hadn’t already been having political thoughts; if you lived in Iowa for the past year, every single one of the candidates must have called—or emailed, or knocked—a thousand times. But that didn’t mean anything, really, because they just didn’t understand. “They would all have no idea how to raise six kids on less than $60,000 a year,” Osborn said. “They don’t understand life the way we live it.”
Osborn, a Republican, labelled herself a one-issue voter and said, “I cannot vote for someone who says that it is okay to abort babies. I’m Catholic all the way through.” But even this fervent stance left her with nearly a dozen Republican contenders to select from, all of them equally and avidly pro-life, even the ex-Democrat Donald Trump.
Down a one-lane road in the nearby hamlet of Van Meter, the chief of the village’s seven-man police force had had his fill of hope. “We have a rock star,” said Bill Daggett. “I want a statesman.”
Chief William J. Daggett of the VMPD was a former scholastic wrestling star who now was thumping the tub for the Donald. He sat in the Bob Feller Museum in Van Meter City Hall and said that he wasn’t jealous of Trump’s wealth. “I want someone who, when he walks in the room, everything stops,” he said. “I want someone who’s going to put America back on the world stage. The general American public has stood up and said, ‘Wait a minute.’ People across America are tired of politicians. We want a normal person in there.”
“Do you really think that Donald Trump is a normal person?” Chief Daggett just had to be asked.
“He’s also failed,” he answered. “He’s had, what? Five bankruptcies? But he’s not just Manhattan real estate. He knows people. We all know how much money he has, but he talks to people straight on.”
In Adel on caucus day there was a lot of Trump talk like that. “Personally, he believes in everything we’ve believed in most of our lives and been afraid to say it,” said Kevin Lange, salesman of truck tires and oils. “Ever since I’ve been old enough to vote, I’ve been saying we need a businessman in there. I see nothing wrong with him.”
“A wall on the Mexican border?” he was asked.
“I would, yeah,” he replied.
“Don’t let Muslims in the country?”
“I would say you need to be sure of vetting them okay.”
“Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists?”
“You know, yeah, that’s a pretty broad statement.”
Adel is 97 per cent white but it does have the Casa de Oro on Main Street, across from the soaring (for Iowa) clock tower of the historic Dallas County Courthouse. At lunch hour, serving the enchilada-and-tamale combo, was a young woman named Anabel whose first- and fifth-graders were studying in the same elementary school where all the caucusing would commence at 7 p.m.
“Si Trump gana, nos vamos,” Anabel said. (“If Trump wins, we’re out of here.”) Anabel said that she was a legal immigrant and a U.S. citizen, not one of those anchor babies that candidates like Ted Cruz were always railing against.
“What would Trump have to say to make you change your mind?” she was asked.
“There is nothing he can say because he already spoke the truth of what he thinks,” said Anabel. “Who wants to live with a man like that?”
There were Democrats in Adel. Nearly 5,000 of them in Dallas county, according to the 2012 voting rolls, compared to 9,000 Republicans and nearly 10,000 who listed their party as “none.” (In Iowa, you can change your party affiliation on caucus night; lots of people do.)
On a muddy scrape of gravel a mile south of Main Street was a brand-new Lutheran church. The pastor, Julie Higgs, said that it wearied her when, on a flight from California to Chicago, “the pilot points out all the scenic highlights, but when we get over Iowa, he stops.”
This changes, of course, every four years on caucus day, when CNN anchors and Beltway apostles deplane in Des Moines and feign swooning. “What I’m trying to accomplish is an improvement in civility,” Pastor Julie said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t know how you can be a Christian and a Democrat.’ And I’ve heard people say the same thing about Republicans! All of us have someone who makes us go for the remote button,” the minister continued.
“Is Donald Trump a Christian?” her visitor wondered.
“Yep, if he says he is,” the minister replied. “I struggle with that, because he speaks more hatefully than I’d like to hear.”
Two features of the Donald’s recent rallies had drawn attention. One was his use of the English belter Adele’s (with an E) recordings without her permission. The other was his citation from a book of the Holy Bible that he called “Two Corinthians” when most would say “Second.”
“I am easier on him than some others have been,” said Pastor Julie, who has been teaching from Corinthians One. “Not all Christians read their Bible out loud.”
There was one more stop to make in Adel before caucus time—the Family Fun Center bowling alley that Hillary Clinton had visited just a few days before. Perhaps remembering how Barack Obama scored a 37 in Pennsylvania in 2008, Hillary spoke for an hour but never picked up a ball, even though a blind opossum could roll better than a 37 just by flicking the ball with his hairless tail.
The owner of the 70-year-old alley was a 24-year-old southpaw who once had rolled a perfect 300. Bryce Smith was wearing a T-shirt in Hillary blue that identified the kegler as a precinct captain for the caucusing to come. “When you look at Hillary, what do you see?” Smith was asked. (He himself is running for a seat in the Iowa state legislature. His campaign slogan is “A voice for all.”)
“She knows how the system works,” he answered. “She’s seen it. She’s lived it. But she’s also in touch with another side that has nothing to do with Washington. She’s meeting people, sparking a passion in them that sparks a passion in her.”
“What do you see when you look at Donald Trump?”
“Disrespect. I see energy. I see a passion. I don’t know what kind of passion. I don’t think it’s com-passion. A passion for power, maybe.”
An hour before caucus hour, the line of participants snaked out the schoolhouse door and around the walls. This was the Republican caucus; the Democrats were split by precinct, some at the library, the rest at the church. Vets of Adel voting said they’d never seen anything like it.
The crowd was boots and hats and flannel shirts and college kids and families. At the Republican conclave, 582 voters showed up; 581 were white. They ran out of paper ballots and had to send for more. (Iowa Democrats don’t use ballots at all; they gather in clumps and count heads.)
After the anthem and the pledge, anyone in the teeming gym could come forward and speak to a candidate’s qualities for a minute or two. They started with Jeb Bush and no one rose. John Kasich? Chris Christie? Crickets.
A woman stood up and testified that Dr. Ben Carson “is more likely to humble himself in prayer than talk about himself.”
The woman who was for Ted Cruz talked about abortion; the college girl for Marco Rubio praised the size of his heart.
Janet Huckabee, whose husband, Mike, won the Iowa caucus (but not the nomination) in 2008, had been seconded to Adel. In pearls and a proper black dress amid the Dickies and jeans, she said that her man would be “the only president who would use the Constitution to stop killing 4,000 babies a day.” His vote total this night would be four.
Rick Santorum, the fervently anti-abortion candidate from Pennsylvania who won the Iowa caucus in 2012, beating Mitt Romney, got just one vote in all of Adel this time.
The spokesperson for Trump was a soon-to-be-18-year-old high school boy named Carter Franzen Nordman. The acolyte stood with Kevin Lange, the tire salesman, and said, “I don’t expect college and health care to be handed to me like Bernie Sanders promises. Kevin’s not gonna pay for my college. I am.”
“Just because we’re Republicans doesn’t mean we’re heartless and we don’t want to help people,” he said.
The actual voting took barely five minutes; ballots were stuffed into manilla envelopes and taken to tables at the rim of the gym for counting by hand. Everybody gathered around; everybody got a different total. A visiting journalist was asked to intercede and do the math. The totals shocked everyone.
Marco Rubio, 169.
Ted Cruz, 152.
Donald Trump, 117.
Not everybody in the gym was stunned. A lifelong Republican named Jon McAvoy had been touting the much younger (and famously absentee) Florida senator all week. So had Adel’s mayor, Jim Peters, who showed up at caucus in a tuxedo and a ponytail. “What do you see in Rubio?” the men were asked.
“Inspirational. A new JFK,” McAvoy replied.
Related: Is Marco Rubio the real deal?
Statewide, Hillary Clinton got the Family Fun Center bowling alley vote, but Bernie Sanders swept away the collegians; Clinton would take Iowa, but only by a razor-thin margin.
Cruz, Calgary’s soon-to-be favourite son, won 28 per cent of the Republican delegates and proclaimed, “To God be the glory.” Marco Rubio finished a close third and claimed a historic victory. Donald Trump came second and his concession speech was about as rebellious and menacing as an empty can of spray paint. Mike Huckabee abandoned his and Janet’s lifelong campaign. Ben Carson, M.D., announced that he was heading home to Florida “for fresh clothes.” (Rumour had it the neurosurgeon, exposed as a denuded emperor, was going to quit. But by Tuesday morning he was fundraising online again.)
Personal jets and media charters escaped Des Moines International seconds before the snow arrived. On to New Hampshire!
In Van Meter, Ted Cruz beat the Donald, 91 votes to 85. “This is getting really interesting,” police Chief Daggett said.
In Adel, Iowa, Anabel from the Casa de Oro had to work and couldn’t caucus. Pastor Julie did attend one of the sites, but asked that her political persuasion and choice of candidate not be publicized.
On a stunning night for prairie-roots populism, Jeannie Osborn from the public library didn’t caucus at all. “I’m claustrophobic,” she tried to explain. “They lock you in,” she said.