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FROM READERS: Notes from a unique Iowa caucus

Tuesday, February 7, 2012 | 5:24 p.m. CST; updated 5:56 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 9, 2012

Philip Joens covered a caucus held by his grandparents Art Joens and Peggy Joens held in their home near Manilla, Iowa on Jan. 3, 2012.

MANILLA, IOWA — Three days from now the State of South Carolina will hold its presidential primary. But before you pack up and move your interest across the nation, I’m here to bring you one final story from Iowa; site of our nation’s first presidential caucuses.

On January 3, 2012, five people proved that size does not matter in the Iowa Caucuses. Tuesday night near Manilla, Iowa, just five of 56 eligible voters participated in the Aspenwall Precinct’s caucus.

The caucus, one of just two in the state to be hosted in a home, was held in the house of Art & Peggy Joens.

Small it may be. But this caucus still matters to all involved.

First, gathered in the living room of Mr. & Mrs. Joens’ house, the five participants said the pledge of allegiance while looking at a small American flag sitting in the windowsill.

Next, they each introduced themselves as they sipped on coffee, cookies and brownies Mrs. Joens prepared for the night. Sitting on a couch in the corner of the room were first-time caucus goers Mike and Brittney Nieland of Manning. Rose Brant, also of Manning, sat in a chair across from the Nieland’s.

Next, Mr. Joens pointed out to the group that at a bigger venue people would divide themselves into groups according to which candidate they supported. Next members of the sub-groups would tell everyone why they supported that candidate.

However, in this setting, each person got as much time as they needed to explain whom they supported and why to everyone.

Mrs. Joens then passed out blank sheets of notebook paper and handed pens out to everyone.

Two minutes later she gathered the votes in one of Mr. Joens’ hats.

She then stepped out of the living room, walked 30 feet to the kitchen, and counted the five votes on the counter.

She walked back into the living room, and handed the results to her husband. Mr. Joens then announced the results to the group. Final count at the Joens’ household

Ron Paul 3, Rick Santorum 2.

Finally, following caucus procedure, Mr. Joens took a small collection to offset the cost of hosting the caucus.

From start to finish, the process of opening the caucus, discussion, voting, and collection in the Joens Household took just 25 minutes.

Art says he has hosted caucuses at his house for 20 years; believing “it is our civic duty” to do so.

Repeatedly throughout the night, Joens told the group how proud he was that Iowa has this time in the national spotlight once every four years.

The other participants all agreed with Mr. Joens.

Mr. Nieland proudly declared “I’m very afraid that if Iowa was not first in the nation, it would lose its voice…”

“And be left behind.” His wife interrupted.

Mr. and Mrs. Nieland also stated that they believe that Iowa represents the entire Midwest’s voice.

“Everything is so focused on the coasts and the East Coast. If Iowa were not first, the Midwest may lose its voice.”

When asked what it takes to host a caucus Mr. Joens said “ Well, you don’t have to have any office with the county or state Republican Party to have it here.”

Joens told me that a person must simply serve on a small committee for the Republican Party of a given county. Next, a person on that committee can volunteer to host a caucus for their precinct at a location of their choosing. Finally, that location is either approved or disapproved by the Republican Party of Iowa based on projections for participants at that precinct.

When asking the group if they liked having the caucus in a house as opposed to a high school or the nearby Manning Recreation Center the participants had mixed responses.

Mrs. Nieland said that she had a very hard time simply finding the location of the caucus.

She said she called around to several different offices that had no idea what she was talking about. She also said that the newspaper in Manning did not publish the location of this caucus and that she did not receive several other northwest Iowa newspapers that did publish caucus locations.

Mrs. Nieland also said that once she found out where the caucus was, she had a tough time finding the Joens household, which is tucked away on a gravel road about one mile west of the town of Manilla and ten miles west of Manning.

Finally Mrs. Nieland said, “I felt very uncomfortable coming into someone else’s home.”

Brandt said that she felt very welcome in the Joens household.

Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Joens said that having the caucus in their home is easier for them.

Mrs. Joens stated that she and her husband started setting up on Monday.

While Mrs. Nieland and Brant did wonder if more people would have shown up if it were in a bigger venue, they did acknowledge that it would cost more to host the caucus.

Mrs. Joens added, “we could pay $75 to rent a place and then 3 people could show up anyway.”

Mr. Joens also added that compared to a large building “people are always more relaxed in a home setting.”

Everyone there acknowledged that “red tape” may also play a factor in the low turnout.

“I had a friend in Irwin (A town about eight miles south of Manilla) call me today and ask me if I was having a caucus. He wanted to come. But see this is not his precinct,” Mr. Joens stated.

And although the turnout was small, Brandt said she likes the caucus format to select a party’s candidate.” Even though it is small, I do like a small caucus because I get to hear other people’s viewpoints,” she said.

Mr. Joens said that the turnout in 2012 was about par for the course. “This is pretty typical. See, there are 56 people registered [as Republicans] in this precinct. Five of us showed up, so that’s about ten percent. Usually we get about a half a dozen. And that is about average for the state.”

Actually, according to whyiowa.org, voter turnout to the caucuses averages just six percent.

The 2012 Iowa Caucuses were finally decided by just 8 votes at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of the fourth January. Big or small, this caucus proved that every last precinct matters in an election.

This story is part of a a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how.


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