Here is the story of my journey to Iowa for the Presidential Caucuses. It was a life changing experience for me. I hope you enjoy it!
Dec. 31st: I knew I wanted to go to Iowa to campaign for Barack Obama, but I wasn't sure how to do it. So, I called the Iowa campaign office, located in Des Moines. Here is how the conversation went:
Me: Hi, I want to come to Iowa to volunteer for Obama. What can you tell me?
Voice: When are you coming?
Me: January 2nd-4th (the caucuses were the 3rd)
Voice: (barely hiding the disdain in her voice) You have to train for a week before you can even volunteer, and the caucuses are only 3 days away.
That was pretty much it. I wasn't given a plan B, but I was now more determined than ever to go. Did she basically tell me not to come? I decided shortly after this phone call that nothing would stop me from going. Even if had to operate off the grid, Jack Bauer style (without the torture), I was going to Iowa, and I was going to make a difference. I had thoughts of going to several rural counties in Eastern Iowa, and then I thought I had settled on Des Moines, but my lodging fell through.
Finally, I called the field office in Iowa City. This is where I had initially wanted to go, because it's closer than Des Moines, I've been there before, and it's a cool college town. I talked to the volunteer coordinator named Samir, who said they could always use an extra hand, but that there might not be that much to do on caucus day. Samir was way off on this one...
Jan. 2nd: I'm all packed up and ready to head out from Columbus, Ohio. Once I cleared the snow off the hope mobile, I was ready to go.
I stopped for lunch in Champaign. I knew exactly where I wanted to go. A restaurant that Lew and I had visited during a football trip in '02. I checked the Yahoo directions, and the exit number it gave me did not match the Route number I saw on the sign. What to do? I decided to exit. When I arrived at the corner of University and University (the nexus of the universe, for you Seinfeld fans), I knew I was in trouble. I basically used the force to guide me as route 150 snaked its way to downtown Champaign. I ordered the $4.50 grilled chicken sandwich and called Lew. It took him three hints to remember the name of the place...Legends.
My journey continued, and I grew a little bit tired. It wasn't until I crossed the Mississippi river that I realized just how special this trip was going to be. The river was much wider than I remembered and half frozen. I have to say I was pretty pumped up at this point. It was as if Thomas Jefferson was riding shotgun, saying, "Almost there, Fulch!" Feeling very at one with nature, I stopped at the next rest stop to snap a few pictures of the sunset. Unfortunately, the stupid traffic kept getting in the way.
When I exited route 80, I could see my hotel. I don't know if it was the single digit temperatures or the 8 foot tall piles of plowed snow, but my first reaction to Iowa is "Hell has frozen over!" I arrived at the hotel in Iowa City. I was pretty amped up. I sent Lew a text message that said, "Right now, I feel like I can take on the whole Empire by myself...Empire=Hillary".
On the way to the headquarters, I had some trouble finding parking, and the building the Obama headquarters was in housed a few other recognizable names:
I arrived at the Obama headquarters with a smile on my face. I said, "I'm Brian Fulcher just in from Columbus, Ohio. And I did not come here to lose...plus, I brought cookies!" Suddenly, I was popular; thanks Meg! :)
Samir in gray, Claire seated foreground
I was handed a long, out of state volunteer info packet. The gist of it was this: do not caucus, and do not talk to the press. I remembered a voice..."You have to train for a week..." What a crock! The best part of the packet detailed the volunteer tasks. It read:
1. Canvassing: and then it explained what canvassing is.
2. Phone banking: then it explained what phone banking is.
3. Speechwriter/strategist/personal assistant to the candidate: Unfortunately, this position doesn't exist...
I noticed a lot of tired people jammed into a small office. I decided to make it my mission to work hard AND have fun! My first task was data entry. Now, it's not as glamorous as it sounds! I tallied up the phone calls that people made on a sheet of paper. It didn't take me long to figure out the system was flawed, and so I quickly worked to improve it.
I'd been there an hour and figured it was time for a break (hey, I'm supposed to be on vacation here). I headed to Subway and encountered a beggar. He asked me for some spare change, and I usually don't do this, but considering the fact that it was 5 degrees out, I gave him 50 cents. He said, "Thanks, man. I've filmed six episodes of my reality show, and I have a business plan to make $4.6 billion." It sounded to me about as realistic as most reality shows.
A man walked into Subway as I was eating my turkey breast sub, he saw my Obama hat and told me he was a precinct captain. We talked for a few minutes, and I sort of shyly gave him one of these fake business cards Meg made up for me and told him to call me if he needed anything.
I got back to the office and the cookies had been destroyed, and half of the plastic bag had been eaten. Steve, the precinct captain from Subway, came in shortly and said he could indeed use my help. He needed me to put some caucus notices on people's doorknobs in his precinct the next day. I checked with Samir, and he said go for it. I was going canvassing, baby!
Then, it was back to the hotel for a swim in my private pool. I say "private" because I don't think there were 10 other people staying in the entire hotel, and there was no one around.
Jan 3rd: After a leisurely breakfast, I arrived at the HQ at 9:30. Steve was supposed to meet me at 10. So, after my patented, "Happy caucus day!" I asked, "What can I do in the next 30 minutes to help Obama win?" Claire, the receptionist, said I should go do some visibility. I wanted some company, so I asked another volunteer if he wanted to go with me. Charles, an Iowa cheerleader, was interested, but he had no coat. Samir said, "He can't go out! He's got to be alive to caucus tonight!" Then, my man, Girish from Dayton who I had met the day before, stepped up with a coat, gloves, and a hat for Charles. I said, "We're off to make history. Be back in half an hour!"
We survived temperatures hovering near 0, and, after a few minutes to thaw, Girish and I followed Steve to the canvassing site. We split up the work and had it finished in 15 minutes. Next, we braved a maze of a trailer park, in which the lots seemed to be numbered in random order. I was driving so slow that I felt the need to tell Girish that "the only thing that isn't conservative about me is my politics." Check out this front yard:
It was lunch time, and I bought four pizzas for the office. I heard other people making plans to order Thai food, so I thought maybe I had bought too much. As you would expect, the pizza was a huge hit. People I'd never seen before started coming out of the woodwork; I even had a slice snatched out of my hand. :) The only thing that was missing from the perfect meal was plates. There were no plates to be found anywhere. It caused me to quip, "I bet the Hillary headquarters has plates..."
Then, a guy showed up at the office that looked familiar to me. I couldn't place him, but, after hearing that I'd missed Scarlet Johansson the day before by just a few hours, I asked around and found out it was Kal Penn. You may remember him from such films as Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle and Van Wilder. He's also been on a bunch of tv shows including 24. He probably would have liked my previous Jack Bauer reference.
Girish, the guy from Dayton, and I became fast friends. We went out for more visibility. The sun was even out, and it had probably warmed up into the teens. I met a nice woman, who was walking with a cane. We made pleasant conversation for a few minutes, and she asked me to walk her across the street. Where was the press? This was a perfect photo op. I actually didn't see any press the entire trip. I think they were all in Des Moines. I ended up giving the woman a business card in case she needed a ride to the polls.
We got back to the office, and the morale level was not where I wanted it to be. I talked to Samir about giving a "win one for the gipper" speech, but that never materialized. Instead, I made a sign that says, "We make history tonight!" and put it by the door. I wanted every person that walked out to hit the sign, Notre Dame style. I was busy getting people hyped up, and, apparently, we were a bit too loud, because Samir yelled at us. He had an office to run!
Next up, Girish was charged with the responsibility of buying Play-Doh for the kids of caucus goers. Such an important task should not be done alone, so I accompanied him, and we brought signs to turn it into a productive walk. Girish went into the mall, and I waited outside for what seemed like an hour in the cold. I placed two signs in the snow and walked back and forth with two signs in my hands. I got my picture taken by a poli sci professor from University of Georgia, who said she would use it in her Powerpoint. I encountered an Edwards supporter, who said, "Did you know Obama supported Joe Lieberman for reelection?" I decided to bite my tongue and not say, "Did you know John Edwards voted for the war and coauthored the Patriot Act?" Instead, I said, "Good luck tonight" and almost meant it. I started to get worried about Girish, but I had no way to contact him. So, I called Samir, wrote Girish's number in the snow, and called him. No answer. He came out shortly after. It turns out Mitt Romney was in there flipping waffles, and Girish just had to have one. :) Meanwhile, I had found my own way of entertaining myself...
I did a little bit of flyering in the pedestrian mall, and then decided I needed to be at the HQ. It was about 4:30. The caucus started at 6:30. Samir had told me I would be giving rides to the polls, but that never happened. Claire, the receptionist, was running out the door, but gave me quick instructions on how to fill in for her. I was to answer phones. Sounds easy.... As I sat down, two new volunteers came out of nowhere. One said, "I'm from Washingon, what can I do to help?" They put her immediately on phone banking. I was a little salty and said, "but she didn't have to read the packet?!?" The other volunteer was sitting around with nothing to do, so I said, "Hey new girl, you're not doing anything, right? Well, I've been here since yesterday, so I can order you around. Take a picture of me pretending to talk on the phone!" And she did:
Then, all of a sudden, everyone was gone, and it was me, John, a volunteer from New York, and Amy and Alicia, two really nice, really smart 15 year old girls. John was the dispatcher, solely focused on coordinating rides to the caucus. You could make an argument that I was running the Iowa City Headquarters during the Iowa Caucuses. Pretty insane. I'd only been there 24 hours.
Most of the next few hours is a blur of computer screens, running up and downstairs and anxiously awaiting results. I was answering phones, finding people's caucus locations online, mapquesting addresses and directions. I got one phone call from a father with a problem. He wanted to caucus for Obama, but he had to pick up his son at 7:30. This is right in the middle of the caucuses, and leaving was not an option. So, I asked John, if one of our drivers could go get his son. John contacted Girish to pick up this man's son (code word: pineapple) and take him to the caucus site. Talk about finding a way to win!
John, the dispatcher
Everybody HAD to be at the caucus at 7:00 pm, or they'd likely be shut out. Samir called me panicked at 6:50. He needed directions to an address, then a caucus location for that address, and then directions between the two. I obliged although I was obviously as stressed about the time as Samir was. Then, we got cut off. I heard nothing for a few minutes. Then, Angela, one of the 15 year olds, said, "Brian, someone on the phone in the other room is demanding you come and speak to them." It had to be Samir. I left my computer with the directions on it and bounded up the stairs to get the phone. It was him. Time was running out; what were those directions again? I tried to remember them as best as I could...so, I grabbed an older fellow who had just showed up, wrote down what I thought were the directions and told him to give them to Samir, and I would check for sure. After a quick check of the directions, I realized I had the final address wrong, but it didn't matter anyways. It was too late. This man didn't get to caucus for Obama, but 10s of thousands of other Iowans did...
As we were waiting and waiting to hear the results, I had the distinct feeling that it was going to be good news. I also couldn't get this Apollo 13 quote out of my head, so I shirked my duties for a few minutes to print it out and tape it to my shirt. The quote was, "I believe this is going to be our finest hour!"
We kept hearing anecdotal good news. Reports from various caucus around Iowa City, some by text some by phone. Things were looking really good! Then, NBC called the race for Obama. Does that mean it's a done deal, the girls asked me. "I think so!" I shouted. Amy said, "I'm going to throw up!" I told her, "yeah, that's what I do when I'm happy too. Someone says, 'Happy Birthday', and I vomit all over them!" Eventually, all of the news outlets were saying we won. It was over! We got to celebrate over and over as staffers and volunteers returned from around the city. I had Alicia make a sign that said, "Welcome to Victory Headquarters!" The staffers were the happiest; they had likely saved their jobs. Our county went 52% for Obama, impressive in an 8 candidate field. As I watched the celebrations, I couldn't shake the feeling that we'd made history and changed the world. It was better than going to the final Four and watching the Buckeyes win the National Championship in 2002.
The victory party was at a small establishment absolutely packed with supporters. We watched Hillary's speech on tv, where she and Bill looked morose while Madeline Albright looked dead. Obama's speech brought the house down, with chanting and cheering like we were there with him in Des Moines. Samir gave a short speech. There were lots of hugs, pictures and toasts. I kept asking everyone, "How does it feel to change the world?"
OK and Girish soaking it up at David's
I want to downplay my role in the victory now. I realize I was basically the 12th man on an amazing basketball team. Guys like us come in late in games after the outcome has already been decided, but we do contribute. We can make history!
On the ride home, I saw two Hillary supporters absolutely zoom by me. I guess they saw my Obama bumper stickers but didn't feel like offering a congratulatory thumbs up. I also heard the song, Man in the Mirror. If you have never heard it or it's been a while, check it out below:
What a message! Thanks for reading about my most excellent adventure. If you were inspired/entertained by it, please consider donating $10 to the Barack Obama campaign OR a charity of your choice. I'll be sending you a follow up e-mail that details how. Thanks again.