Through some stroke of luck*, I've made it to a caucus location at an evangelical church in Johnson, Iowa—just down the street from Rick Santorum's caucus night party at the Stoney Creek Inn. The stage is still set for Christmas services—there are five Christmas trees on stage, and a baby grand piano; the place is about three-quarters full. Santorum's wife, Karen, is here and, by all accounts, she gave voters the hard sell (although it was Santorum's Florida campaign chair who gave the official endorsement speech).
One quirk of the caucus system is that, at each location, each candidate has an official endorser. An endorsers' pitch can have a big impact on how voters come down. None of the voters I spoke with were 100 percent sure who they were going to vote for. Here are four snapshots from the crowd:
- Tara Helwig: "I'm not completely sure. I'm swayed a little, but it's possible I'd switch." Her candidate for now? "Mitt Romney. I just kinda feel like"—she motions to her friend sitting next to her—"we were discussing this. He's the one with the most experience in the area I'm most concerned about." That's the economy. "I'm not saying for sure; I'm not saying definitely. I chatted with [Ann Romney] and she answered some of my questions very well." But not her questions on Santorum's experience on the economy. That's key. She voted for Romney in 2008, too.
- Lee Sellneyer: "I guess for me, maybe Romney and Santorum." He'd met Karen Santorum a few moments earlier, and it's part of the reason he's thinking of voting for him. "She basically just talked about his issues, the economy, right to life. I mentioned being NRA and she said she was. I'm impressed that she's doing it. It's a lot of effort." He voted for Huckabee in 2007.
- Alan and Barbara Morton: "I think we're getting close," says Alan, wearing a Packers hat. They're leaning toward Rick Santorum "because we talked to his wife," Alan says. "We've been flipping back and forth between Herman Cain and Rick Perry and Rick Santorum." Their one concern about Perry: He's not on the ballot on Virginia—and just as important is how he responded to that. They docked points from Perry when he filed suit in federal court to reverse the state GOP's decision, pointing out that it contradicted his 10th Amendment arguments. They voted for Fred Thompson in 2008, "and then he dropped out."
- Liz Smith: "I'm not 100 percent," but she's leaning toward Ron Paul. "I just think he's different—he's way different from what we have." What could sway her away from Paul? "Possibly hearing more of the candidates' stances on education." (As it happens, that's pretty much all Bachmann's endorser talks about.) Smith voted for Obama in 2008, but says she won't make that mistake again.
As I write this, they're voting. It's mostly quiet, although one guy is concerned that the press will be allowed to vote (we won't be). The endorsements were fairly low-key, the highlight probably coming when Ron Paul's endorser bragged that Paul had voted to authorize the use of force to go after "Obama." It was a slip-up, and he apologized for it, but he was greeted with laughs and a round of applause.
*By which I mean "no traffic"; these events are open to the public and press—they even allow you to register to vote right before you go in. Voter fraud, it turns out, only becomes a serious issue when you allow Democrats in.