My career as a college professor has included lots of public speaking and I think I know a good public speaker when I see one. The seven candidates we saw in action last week in Iowa -- six Democrats, one Republican -- were outstanding public speakers, each and every one of them. I realize that the candidates were giving variations of stump speeches that they had been giving for months. Even so, standing before crowds of 100 to 1,200 people on all sides of them, without notes or a podium, the candidates spoke coherently, articulately, passionately, and energetically.
The candidates' speeches, taken as a whole, included elements of dialogue and debate that provided considerable food for thought. The competing claims of Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama about "change" and "experience" were taken up by other Democratic candidates in attempts to enhance their own credentials. Chris Dodd, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson all made relatively nuanced points that led me to reflect anew on the notions of change and experience that Clinton and Obama had been trumpeting. In addition, Dodd took senatorial colleagues Clinton, Obama, and Biden to task for not returning to Washington in December to vote on what he said were fundamental issues relating to intelligence-gathering activities of the government. According to Dodd, his leaving the Iowa campaign trail to return to Washington showed that, unlike his fellow candidates who are also U.S. senators, he did more than "just talk" about preserving civil liberties in the post 9/11 era.
Even if one accepts the desirability of would-be presidents engaging in small-state "retail politics" at the outset of the nomination process, I have hardly been alone in doubting the wisdom of allowing Iowa and New Hampshire such primacy. My experiences in Iowa last week gave me reason to reconsider. As my son and I made our way from event to event over a three-day period, we began to recognize others who were attending the same events and to exchange ideas about various candidates' strengths and weaknesses. As pundits and candidates repeatedly suggest, the Iowans whom we met approached their state's first-in-the-nation role thoughtfully and conscientiously. In turn, rotating the early delegate selection processes among different states in different presidential years might not be such a good idea. Could we reasonably expect citizens of any two states that replaced Iowa and New Hampshire in 2012 to evaluate candidates as thoroughly as the Iowans we saw in action in 2008?
I was surprised at how loose the participation and counting procedures were at the two caucuses that I observed -- one in its entirety, one only in part. While there were sign-in lists for those voters eligible to participate, it seemed that an ineligible non-resident such as me might fairly easily slip through and participate. (I resisted the temptation to do so.) I was also surprised at the way "preference groups" for different candidates were counted. Supporters of a particular candidate milled around, while one supporter of the candidate (a so-called precinct captain), tried to count them. Have you ever tried to get an exact count of 50 to 75 people noisily milling around in an ill-defined space in a gym?
Finally, one aspect of the first caucus that I attended might bring a knowing smile to the faces of many Hoosiers. The specified site for the Democratic caucus at Davis Elementary School in Grinnell, Iowa, was the school's gymnasium. But the boys basketball team was still practicing a few minutes before the caucus was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. The caucus chairperson asked caucus-goers to be patient, saying that he had been assured that the boys would finish very shortly. They did, and the caucusing began in earnest, a few minutes late.