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Entrenched Warfare

Out of Iowa.

I finally grasped what Bill Bradley meant by Iowa’s “entrenched power” when I saw the man on horseback. John Tuttle, Warren County’s Democratic Party chairman and a Gore supporter, had driven me all the way across Des Moines, past the townships of St. Mary’s and Otter, past the dead end sign and the place where the land dips and rises into an endless field and the pavement turns to soil, just to find him. He had on a hat and sat back in the saddle, the tips of his mustache slightly frozen. ”How you doing?” Tuttle asked, pulling up alongside him. “I’m doing just fine,” the man replied.

Tuttle then took a long cardboard tube and a white envelope out from the backseat. “I got some Gore materials here they asked me to drop off,” he said. The horse lowered its head and sniffed the envelope, which said in big, bold letters: GORE 2000. IMPORTANT CAUCUS INFORMATION. OPEN IMMEDIATELY. The horseman slipped the materials under his arm, then rode off. It was at this point that I knew Bradley was in trouble.

The man on the horse was part of Gore’s sprawling underground operation. He was not an official “precinct captain,” someone appointed by the Democratic Party to run the caucuses. Instead, Gore’s campaign had designated him as a de facto one, along with scores of others, to ensure that on the night of the caucus every town meeting had a Gore plant, someone to steer the voting in the vice president’s direction. “They’re playing a bit of a double game,” acknowledged Tuttle.

Unlike ordinary elections, the Democratic Iowa caucuses are a byzantine process in which voters publicly state their candidate preference and then try to persuade members of the other camps to change their minds. Tuttle, as a pro-Gore county chairman, was in charge of making sure Gore supporters captured every caucus in his region—that in the icy cold they came to cajole their neighbors to vote for the vice president. After meeting the man on horseback, we went to see a “horse doctor” in Belmont, an old man in a chapeau who had once caucused for Harry Truman. After that, we visited an 84-year-old farmer in Liberty who, like the man on horseback, was designated by the Gore campaign as a buffer against a rogue precinct captain.

And, while Tuttle worked the countryside, the unions worked the larger cities. On the night before the caucuses, a caravan of AFL-CIO supporters, some from as far away as Washington, D.C., descended on the Firestone plant on the outskirts of Des Moines. As the temperature dropped close to zero and smoke from the factory filled the sky with clouds, they handed out leaflets emblazoned with Gore’s photo. “If you’re organized and turn out the vote,” said Mary Rosenthal, who had come from Minnesota, “you can completely control the caucuses in Iowa.” Indeed, in the campaign’s final weeks, Iowa’s local unions spent thousands of dollars to counter Bradley’s early surge. They sent out, among other things, a video from John Sweeney endorsing Gore and some 25,000 laminated flyers that read, “Al Gore is the only candidate.” When I visited Tuttle’s house, the pamphlets were stacked on his kitchen table. “The unions are going to help carry us,” he said.

Like the Gore campaign, labor found its own men on horseback, people it trained to control a cryptic process that Gore, in his failed presidential bid in 1988, called “an arcane procedure that produces crazy results.” The AFL-CIO’s special guide to the caucus, titled “Precinct Caucus Education,” tries to explain, for example, the equation that determines how caucus votes translate into delegates. (Unlike voters in primaries, caucus-goers don’t vote directly for candidates; they vote for delegates who will represent their candidate at the convention.) “The allocation is determined by multiplying the number in each preference group by the total number of delegates to be elected and then dividing by the number of total eligible caucus attenders,” the brochure states. “The result is rounded up at .5 and down at less than .5.” The guide recommends that you consult the Caucus Mathematics Worksheet and bring a calculator. A stalemate is resolved by more primitive means: “In a case where two or more preference groups are tied for the same additional delegate, a coin should be tossed to award the delegate to one of the preference groups.”

Along with the rules, the unions provided their members with a dummy speech to deliver at the caucus: “My name is (your name).... I support Vice President Al Gore and believe his support of workers and working family issues make him the best candidate for the office of President of the United States. Al Gore supports improved education for our children and grandchildren . . . Al Gore supports the rights of workers to organize into unions.”

“I think we got everything covered,” Tuttle said on the morning of the caucus. To see just how much, I drove that evening to Cumming, a town of about 150 people. When I asked at a gas station for directions, the man said, “Just follow the pavement.You won’t miss it unless you run off the road.” The caucus was held at the American Legion Hall, in the center of a town that consists of about three buildings, including the local pub. The hall is a tiny brick building, no more than 30 feet by 30 feet, lined with artifacts from World War II.

When I arrived, there was already a huge gore 2000 placard on the door. The walls had posters of the vice president as well, but then several Bradley people started filing in and put up their own signs. Chuck Spain, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher, had told me earlier that Bradley was the only one “who speaks the language of the common man.” I asked him if anything could change his mind. “I don’t think so,” he said. Another woman said she was on the fence but leaning toward Bradley.

Soon the room was filled. There were farmers, teachers, insurance agents, bankers. One man wore a silver jacket that said united steel workers. When I asked him why he backed Gore, he said the vice president was the only one who “supports workers and working family issues” and “the education of our children.” As the meeting began, it seemed that Gore had a slight edge but also that Bradley’s forces could pull off an upset if they pried loose some people from the Gore camp. The precinct captain rang the bell, and everyone rose for the Pledge of Allegiance. I looked around the room for a plant, but with the exception of the labor representative, who seemed oddly quiet, there didn’t appear to be one.

Then, just before everyone broke into camps, the door opened and a tall man entered the room. He had silver hair and a long, drawn face and wore an elegant vest and jacket. Everyone turned to him in silence. Then someone said, “Hello, Senator. It’s an honor.”

The plant was Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who had grown up down the road. “If you want to have a couple of minutes. . .,” the precinct captain offered deferentially. At first Harkin didn’t say much. But, once the group splintered into loose camps, he spoke eloquently about how he had known Gore for more than 20 years, how he had fought with him against the Gingrich revolution and for the small farmer and the elderly. “You know where I’ve been on rural issues, and Gore has been right there with me,” he said. “I knew his father.” There was no need to browbeat. By evening’s end Gore had seven of the ten delegates. “I don’t think that’s right,” said Bradley supporter Mary Johnson about Harkin’s politicking. “We don’t have Bill here.” But few others seemed to mind. When I asked the precinct captain why he had voted for Gore, he joked, “If I didn’t, Tom would take a bite out of my ass.” A young man with a Gore sticker said he had gone with the vice president because he knew Harkin didn’t have “anything up his pant leg.” Even Spain, who had initially said he didn’t think he would change sides, said Harkin’s riff on Gore’s education efforts had convinced him. “We got 70 percent of the delegates,” Harkin told me proudly.

But there was something odd about the vote. Over the course of the night, few people spoke much about Gore. One woman who had voted for him said he was “presentable.” Another said, “I can’t say I’m passionate about him.” Later, when I went to Norwalk High School, where Tuttle was receiving the county results on two cell phones—“Two to one,” he exclaimed, “two to one!”—I asked a man wearing a Gore sticker if he was excited about the candidate. “Well . . .,” he said, hesitating, and then fell silent.

The Gore campaign had massively overcome the stumbles of 1999. It had become the juggernaut everyone expected when the race began. But I couldn’t tell whether Gore had really awakened voters or merely the Democratic machine, a machine able to dominate a system in which only a slim fraction of the eligible voters participate. When Tuttle got off the phone, he looked at me and asked, “What’s that word they called us?” I looked at him, confused. “Entrenched. . .,” he said. “Entrenched power?” I suggested.

“That’s it,” he said with a smile.

This article appeared in the February 7, 2000 issue of the magazine.