West DES MOINES, Iowa – If youngsters here at Valley High School had their way, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul would face Barack Obama in November’s presidential election.
Paul, the conservative congressman from Texas, was received by exuberant cheering and applause at a rally sponsored by the nonprofit “Rock the Vote,” just hours ahead of the state’s presidential caucuses last Tuesday. By contrast, U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and several members of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s family garnered a fairly tepid response from the crowd.
Welcome to democracy in action in middle America, where candidates for the highest office in the land come seeking endorsements from average voters.
“Students are future taxpayers and homeowners,” said Valley High Associate Principal David Maxwell, 41, of West Des Moines. He spoke to the purpose of the rally: to get students interested in the political process.
Which fairly well sums up Iowa’s role in presidential politics.
“We’re a small state, but we actually get time with these candidates,” said Joel Jollymore, 37, of Des Moines. “I’ve probably had Rick Santorum’s ear for 20 minutes to a half-hour.
“When you campaign in Iowa, it’s like Iowans are buying a car. They kick the tires, and they kick them hard.”
Hours after the rally, Iowans cast their votes, giving Romney an eight-vote victory over Santorum, with Paul finishing a healthy third. The next morning, Bachmann bowed out of the race after finishing last among the six viable candidates on the ballot with just five percent of the votes.
At one of those polling places, voters from five different precincts in Polk County gathered at Cattell Elementary, a small school located north of downtown Des Moines. As the voters looked for their designated areas, out-of-state campaign volunteers attempted to sway the undecided voters toward selecting their candidate. While some open-minded voters accepted flyers from the volunteers, other voters shunned them and made their way straight to the school’s gymnasium and cafeteria.
As some 150 voters took their seats, the members of each precinct recited the Pledge of Allegiance as a preface to the debates that were to follow. People of every age were present, including small children who were oblivious to the long-established process that was about to happen.
Among those present were Grand View University students and first-time voters Kyana Fox, 23, of Des Moines, and Katie Carruthers, 21, of Springfield, Minn.
“We walked into it not knowing what to expect,” Fox said, adding that the caucus system “shows democracy,” because it enabled her to listen to others from her precinct as they debated the qualities of each candidate.
Some voters were resistant to the views of their peers, however, leading to a few tense moments as supporters of different candidates began shouting at each other.
Jollymore was one of the voters who used the opportunity to speak for his candidate (Santorum) with the hope of convincing the audience.
“I think it gives people an opportunity to open minds,” he said, “and I actually had several people walk up to me and tell me they had walked into that room undecided and had decided to vote for my candidate after listening to me speak.”