Iowa Caucuses: Primus Inter Pares

In which our man Durst dissects the bizarre midwestern herding ritual and beats lesser pundits to the most ridiculous analysis of the outcome.

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The caucuses returned the Hawkeye State to center stage of America’s electoral circus, and all but one of the clowns were in attendance. John McCain didn’t show. You know: POW-MIA. IOWA. Just a mite too close.

The only problem is, nobody knows exactly what happens at these things. The one guy who did know died in ’77. It’s rumored to have begun with early Iowans throwing small runish stones which were then interpreted in a hollowed-out stump full of pig entrails by men wearing overalls. Kind of like musical chairs without the music. Or the chairs.

The biggest difference between what goes on here and a primary is that “caucuses” is much more fun to say. Go ahead, try it in a sentence: “I fell down and broke my caucuses.” And people don’t just pull a lever in a caucus. They attend. They discuss. Then they move off into designated candidate corners, but if not enough people hang with you (at least 15 percent of the assembled), everybody has to wander around looking for a second or third corner they feel comfortable herding into.

Speaking of cornering, the campaign staff which corners the breath-mint and deodorant markets could hold a huge advantage here. And when you think about it, there are worse ways in choosing a candidate than by picking the one with the best-smelling staff. After all, something like that might have precluded Watergate.

I don’t care what you call it, caucus, primary, or pork-lips-and-linoleum-eating competition: In the end, like it or not, someone’s going to end up a winner and someone is going to end up a loser. Happy face/sad face. Some will be drinking champagne toasts surrounded by network cameras and others will stop off at the local Kum and Go for a quart of Old Milwaukee Light and drink it in their rental. And this peculiar midwestern voting ritual is no exception. Except of course if you listen to the spin. My favorite part is when a staffer awkwardly attempts to explain how his candidate coming in last was a key part of a carefully orchestrated long-term strategy.

In politics, it’s not enough to be a winner, you got to be a Big Winner. By definition then you would think Gore and Bush are obvious winners, given that they won. But you watch, pundits will crawl out of the woodwork claiming they lost, because they failed to win by enough.

Bradley came in second, so he’ll declare himself a moral winner. Although the celebration will be as muted as a saxophone full of scalloped potatoes, considering his last place finish in a field of two. Forbes came in a strong second so he’ll assert he’s the Big Winner. But so will McCain and Keyes who maintain they’re the big Big Winners for exceeding expectations. McCain because he didn’t even campaign here, and Keyes just because he’s a black guy running for the Republican nomination.

Bauer and Hatch are medium Big Winners because they can pack up and go home. But the biggest Big Winners of all are the residents of Iowa, who don’t have to suffer through another invasion of carbon-based manure spreaders for another four years.

The biggest Big Losers? The people of New Hampshire, next on the list of the soon-to-be-fertilized.

Will Durst, host of PBS’ “The Citizen Durst Report,” is looking forward to New Hampshire the way a lobster looks forward to melted butter. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

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This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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