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Inside last night's Iowa caucuses

Record crowds overflowed caucus sites across the state

Republican caucus voters register in Carroll, Iowa. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Storjohann/Carroll Daily Times Herald

Inside last night's Iowa caucuses

SIOUX CENTER, Iowa—Republican caucus-goers made passionate pleas on Monday night to a packed auditorium on the campus of Dordt College, where this northwest Iowa town held its presidential caucuses. But first came the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer.

With more than 1,582 in attendance, nearly triple the number who caucused here four years ago, the residents of Sioux Center went against statewide polls and picked Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida as their choice for the Republican presidential nomination.

The lobby of college’s B.J. Haan Auditorium was bottlenecked with voters more than 30 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. CST caucus start time. Part of the crowd had to wait outside with its frigid temperatures ahead of a forecast blizzard.

Austin Jacob Hall, an 8-year-old boy dressed in a suit and tie, greeted arrivals at the door. He handed out Rick Santorum leaflets while claiming he had met the former Pennsylvania senator and 2012 Iowa caucus winner 10 times, dating back to when Hall was 4 years old.

Many were not surprised at the turnout that had organizers scrambling to find more voter registration forms. They eventually settled for giving out slips of notebook paper for voters to write down their registration information.

Two weeks ago people stood in line to hear [Donald] Trump speak,” said Jeff Rens, a local small business owner waiting to get inside. “Now they are standing in line to vote against him.”

Voters stood in the aisles, and the balcony soon filled, but the auditorium’s front row remained empty: reserved for those who wanted to speak on behalf of the 12 GOP candidates on the ballot.

A few minutes after 7, Steve Kelly, the chairman for this caucus, called for the audience to rise for the Pledge. He followed with a prayer, asking for clear minds to make a wise decision that glorifies God. Next came an offering. All proceeds dropped in the “Lincoln Bag” went to the Sioux County Republican Party. Kelly then warned the surrogates they had three minutes to make their case.

“At one minute left I will hold up my finger, and at 15 seconds I will stand,” Kelly warned.

Going alphabetically by the candidate’s last name, each surrogate faced the crowd at a small podium at the center of a large stage that was mostly bare save for an American flag and the Iowa state flag.

A retired military officer spoke about how former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush cares for wounded veterans. A college student talked about how retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson is dedicated to this nation and its people. Russell Scharper, a Dordt College junior, argued New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has the right mix of experience and toughness and is the only candidate who has prosecuted terrorists. Jonathan Morales, a Ted Cruz volunteer from Florida, argued how a wise voter should pay attention to who opposes a candidate, suggesting that the establishment’s ire toward Cruz should say something to the grassroots voter.

“We really need a godly man in office, “ Morales said. “And I think we can all agree we’ve turned our backs on God.”

Seizing this theme, Dave Mulder, a former Iowa state senator, called Carly Fiorina a “woman of prayer,” while a Rand Paul surrogate described the senator from Kentucky as a “Christian constitutional conservative who will go after corruption.”

Stumping for Rubio, Van Rathbun, a local pastor, said the senator from Florida was an articulate man of character who is clearly led by his Christian faith and who has the chemistry needed to work well with others.

Jacob Hall, a sports reporter for the local newspaper, stood up for Santorum, focusing on the candidate’s pro-life bona fides. Hall said he began this campaign season looking for a “new, shiny, and exciting” candidate after Santorum won the last Iowa caucuses, but he still ended up being drawn to the former senator’s moral character and foreign affairs experience.

When it came time for Donald Trump’s representative, Brandon Fokkema, a sophomore at Dordt College, said he was mad about the direction of the country. “Donald Trump is mad too,” he added before claiming that the billionaire reality TV star was the one who could ensure the American dream would still be attainable for future children.

Throughout the event, the seats set aside for representatives of former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee remained empty. That was quite a contrast for Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008.

“On your way out, please find a ballot box,” instructed caucus chairman Kelly, “and we will make sure it gets counted.”

As the voters left, Jordan Helming, a seminary student and sergeant in the Army National Guard, looked forward to texting his father in Maryland about his first caucus experience. In previous years Helming cast his votes in South Dakota, one of the last primaries in June when the races usually are already decided.

“I appreciate how involved and informed you can get here,” he said. “It comes to you here.”

At the Sioux Center caucus, Rubio won 41.9 percent of the vote. Cruz, the state’s overall winner, received 27.4 percent, while Trump got just 7 percent, finishing fourth here to Carson. On this night, the ones who came to block Trump outnumbered the ones who were there to support him.

For many, the personal touch made the difference. Steve Mouw, attending his second caucus, said the opportunity to see Rubio in person during the campaign was a big reason he voted for him. “I thought he was very articulate and answered questions well.”

Meanwhile, just down the street, the Sioux Center Democratic caucus was underway in the city’s All-Seasons Center, while a casual hockey game took place in the same building.

In contrast to the Republican caucus’ ballot voting system, the Democratic caucus was more animated and dynamic, with the crowds moving around to gather in clumps according to the candidate they preferred.

Three-fourths of the people in the room happened to be first-time caucus attendees. Many carried bumper stickers and posters saying, “Feel the Bern” and “Bernie 2016.” When the night ended here, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had edged former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Across the state, the contest ended in a virtual tie.

Dordt College students Janelle Cammenga, Meagan DeGraaf, Ellen Inggrid Dengah, Kyle Fosse, Jonathan Janssen, Tori Mann, Danny Mooers, Emily Postma, Eric Rowe, Jessica Setiawan, Jaden Vander Berg, and Alli Young contributed to this report.

Edward Lee Pitts Lee is the associate dean of World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. Lee resides with his family in Iowa.


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