More than a thousand miles south of Iowa, 106 residents of the Hawkeye State gathered in St. Petersburg, Florida, yesterday to take part in one of the weirder sideshows in the bizarre circus that is the American presidential contest: the caucus.
In a stuffy community room at St. Andrews Lutheran Church, the older, nearly all-white crowd — I counted a single black woman among the voters — seemed incredibly un-Floridian in their patience. They sat through the three-and-a-half-hour process patiently; quieted down whenever the meeting's grande dame, Donna Winter, demanded it; followed the detailed and occasionally arcane instructions without complaint; and, it seemed, enjoyed the whole thing.
Ms. Winter has the demeanor of a U.S. history teacher, her former profession, and either a perfect or perfectly ironic last name for her current role. She thanked people for coming, said that 106 of the 119 folks who signed up attended, and noted that some drove hours to participate in the satellite caucus.
"If you were at home, you'd be in your own homes, your own neighborhoods," she said. "So I thank you for being here."
"But it would be cold!" someone from the crowd shouted.
"It would be frozen!" another chimed in.
After a test run of four sites in 2016, the Iowa Democratic Party increased the number of satellite caucus locations to 87, including four each in Florida and Arizona. In addition to St. Petersburg and Port Charlotte, two cities in the Panhandle — Miramar Beach and Gulf Breeze — also held caucuses.
I've always been a political junkie. I was at the Republican National Convention in 2012 when Clint Eastwood muttered at that empty chair. I've sat through more city council meetings than most elected officials, and I had more fun than any person should have overseeing local coverage for the Los Angeles Times in recent years.
I'm now a journalism professor at Florida International University. About six months ago, I persuaded my bosses to let me teach a course focused on the presidential election. As part of that work, I saw a Wall Street Journal piece explaining the caucus process and noting the greatly expanded satellite options. If journalism is about covering history, this was it, and my students and I needed to go.
So first thing yesterday morning, we packed up our cameras and notepads and headed west on Alligator Alley.
Outside the church, caucusgoers were met by supporters of the various candidates. I saw a few people supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but they were greatly outnumbered by fans of Sen. Bernie Sanders. All were Florida-based.
"Here in Florida, we have Bernie's back, and we hope they do in Iowa as well," said Mike Fox, wearing a "Run Bernie Run!" shirt.
Prior to the beginning of the process, another Bernie supporter spruced up his area with small candies and mints. When I asked if that was cheating, she laughed and told me that "'Medicare for all' includes dental."
Inside the church, though, it was a Sen. Amy Klobuchar crowd. After Winter gave the sign, the Iowans ambled over to their choices, and Klobuchar's first-place finish was all but assured.
That's just the first round. If your presidential pick gets 15 percent or more of the total people there, that candidate is considered "viable" and you're locked into your decision. If your candidate doesn't get to that threshold, you can try to persuade others to join your group in a second round, join another group yourself, or simply give up and go home. Appearing to choose the last option, a lone Tulsi Gabbard supporter forlornly left the room after the first vote.
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In the first round, people selecting Warren totaled 11, a number that fell below the 15 percent threshold. But in the second round, after some defections from the Sanders camp — which had also failed to secure at least 15 percent — Warren's total grew to 18, making her candidacy viable.
Despite the mess in the statewide reporting of the outcome, the results locally were clear. The Iowa snowbird set in Southwest Florida strongly prefers Klobuchar, with nearly half of the voters choosing her at the caucuses in St. Petersburg and Port Charlotte. In second place, in both locations, was Buttigieg.
Beyond that, the tallies varied slightly. Warren came in third in St. Petersburg, and former Vice President Joe Biden came in fourth. In Port Charlotte, Biden came in third, but Warren received no votes in the final tally. In both cities, Sanders and businessman Andrew Yang were also shut out.
Though long, tedious, and occasionally confusing, watching the process was an educational and journalistic experience neither I nor my students will soon forget. Now if only the people in Iowa could tell us who actually won the damn thing.