New Yorker Culture Shock at the Iowa Caucuses

I'm a born-and-raised New Yorker. I don't make eye contact with strangers as I walk down the street. I lived in the same apartment building for decades, and couldn't tell you my neighbor's names. And when it came to voting, I'd usually cast an absentee ballot, in the privacy of my own home, and then refuse to disclose my vote to even my closest friends (and never to my parents).

This year, for reasons unfathomable to many of my city-slicker friends, I left New York City and moved to Iowa City. And all of a sudden, my life has become public. Folks stop and say hi to me on the street, my neighbors organized a block party to welcome us, and tonight I'm going to stand in the cafeteria of a local high school, raise my hand and be counted in the Iowa Caucuses.

Leaving the world's capital country? Yeah, that was supposed to be a culture shock. I didn't know how to drive before we moved here in June. But it's the public nature of voting here in Iowa that has me reeling: Everyone will see who I vote for tonight. What if my neighbors don't like me anymore because I'm not on their team? I probably should put on some makeup in case the TV cameras show up, but what will my Mom say if she sees me on CNN supporting someone she hates?

Public voting makes me uncomfortable. I like the freedom to flap my left wing with my Democratic friends and my right wing with my Republican buddies. In previous elections I've been a people-pleaser: Once I figure out what side you're on, I'll discuss the pros and cons with you, and never take a position myself.

But here in Iowa, you can't do that. On caucus night, Iowans must first declare whether they are Republicans or Democrats, and sign in with their party. Then, Iowans physically stand with others who support their candidate. Privacy be damned: In this town, you vote with your feet, and everyone knows about it.

This encourages voters to get caught up in the groundswell of opinions on their block, in their neighborhood. If everyone on your street is voting for Mike Huckabee, and you're voting for Ron Paul, people will know. Will they talk? And do you feel pressure to change your vote because of that peer pressure?

Caucuses have a long history in Iowa, dating back to the early 1800s, even before Iowa became a state. In fact, the Larrabee, Iowa caucus precinct was in my mother-in-law's living room in the 1970s: Six other farmers would come by to chat with her Dad, and that would be that.
Tonight in Iowa City, we're going to gather alongside our neighbors in school gymnasiums and public buildings. On the Republican side, voters nominate a candidate via a straw vote of those attending. The Democrats vote by getting into groups under a banner for their candidate, or by a show of hands. The group elects delegates and those delegates all come together on a statewide level to be counted. The rest of the details of how the night will unfold are confusing enough for the Democratic party to compile a 13-page instructional booklet, and I won't go into them here, because, honestly, I don't understand the rules, and neither does anyone else I know.

What I do know is that people like me who fear confrontation must go into caucus night with their mind's made up. Because if you are undecided, you'll have perfect strangers up in your grill all night long, trying to lure you over to one corner or another.

I find this terrifying. High-school cafeterias have enough bad memories associated with them. But several friends of mine say they'll hold out as undecideds for as long as possible just to learn more about each candidate's views. These are the real Iowans, I guess.

Of course, all this up-close-and-personal attention from the politicians is kinda fun. I left the "star-sighting" mecca of downtown Manhattan, but a recent lunch at a local hamburger joint was a-flash with cameras and news crews because Mitt Romney wanted a burger, too, and my afternoon coffee break yesterday was an opportunity to chat with John Edwards while reporters pushed in to listen to his last-minute pitch for my vote.

So maybe I'm not as shy as I thought. C'mon Iowa, show this New Yorker what you got.