ST. PETERSBURG — It is apparently not tradition for the Iowa caucuses to begin with the slamming of a wooden meat tenderizer on a lectern.
But that was all Donna Winter could find. So, like she was readying a pork cutlet for the fryer, Winter gaveled in the meeting of her fellow Democrats and history was made Monday night in St. Petersburg.
The Iowa Democratic Party’s quadrennial, first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contest took place with a new twist. For the first time, the state party held 24 satellite caucuses in other states — including four in Florida, and one in Paris — allowing Iowans who spend winters in warmer climates to vote remotely.
This is what brought 106 Democratic voters — mostly senior citizens, many snowbirds — and a lot of confused Florida reporters to St. Andrew Lutheran Church. At the end of a chaotic three hours of speeches, debate, cheering and cajoling, the winner, at least here, was clear: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar led all candidates with 48 votes, more than doubling the next-closest competitor, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Whether this outcome was reflective of the will of all Iowa Democrats would not be determined by the time the church cleared out. It would be like trying to figure out how Florida is voting based off of one precinct in a Naples retirement community.
But the outcome elated Klobuchar supporters, who believe she is the candidate that best answers this question: Who can beat President Donald Trump in November?
“She is sensible,” said Anne Floy, who lives in a small rural Iowa community and was vacationing in Palm Harbor. “She has experience. She can work across the aisle. She can win people who are moderate Republicans, like my husband, who won’t vote for Republicans that have put up such extreme candidates.”
Reaching this conclusion was not easy, nor would it be remotely recognizable to Floridians used to filling in a ballot at a polling place. Here is how it transpired.
Well before the church doors opened, supporters for Bernie Sanders lined 62nd Avenue South, waving signs and a giant cutout of the Vermont senator’s head. “Honk for Bernie,” one sign read. Many people obliged, many more did not, and one man held up a middle finger as he drove by.
Walking into the church, it’s clear Sanders is the most polarizing candidate in this crowd. Some suggest he can’t beat Trump. Others, like 72-year-old retired professor Richard Halverson remain bitter over Sanders’ prolonged primary fight against Hillary Clinton in 2016. If Sanders is the nominee, Halverson will vote for him, but he added: “I would campaign for him like he campaigned for Clinton.”
Sanders supporter Kofi Hunt brushed off these criticisms. “Bernie is raising the most money," he said. "He has the most energy. He has the most movement. And he has stayed involved.”
The caucus began late. People anxiously waited in church pews. There were fears the large crowd could surpass the building’s occupancy limit. The night before, Winter, the organizer of the St. Petersburg caucus, learned that the space they needed would be occupied by childcare until 5 p.m. No one could enter until every kid was picked up. An angry neighbor of the church, confused by all the activity, complained to organizers that attendees were parked on his lawn.
“Democracy is messy," one Sen. Elizabeth Warren supporter declared. "But it is important.”
At 5:35, the room was freed and the campaigns had one frantic minute to hang up as many posters as they could. The voters were let in and the business of democracy began.
“To your corners," Winter announced, and 100 folding chairs were emptied as the Iowans shuffled to a designated area for their candidate.
Instead of voting on a ballot, Iowans stood together with other supporters of their candidate and counted their votes by hand. It was immediately clear that there was momentum in the room for Klobuchar and Buttigieg, the two Midwestern candidates who have practically lived in the Hawkeye State for months. There was one lonely backer of Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
After the initial sorting, there were speeches from supporters of every candidate represented at the caucus. Midwest nice was on full display. The full attention of the group was given to each speaker, who responded with polite words of praise for their candidates and at worst a passive-aggressive slight at the other contenders.
Why former Vice President Joe Biden? We saw how much he accomplished with President Barack Obama, La Porte City, Iowa, Mayor Dave Neil said.
Why Buttigieg? Like most of the winning presidential candidates Democrats have nominated over the years, he is young and charismatic, said Kyle Selberg, a 61-year-old who works in financial services and an ex-Republican.
Why Andrew Yang? He talks like a real person and he actually understands the issues, Tom Paulson of Des Moines told the crowd.
After these testimonials, the first round of voting took place. If a candidate was not viable, meaning he or she didn’t get 15 percent support, then supporters of that candidate could move to another candidate or try to convince other people to move to their candidate. Only viable candidates could receive delegates to the state convention from this caucus. Those delegates will eventually vote at the national convention.
At first, only Klobuchar and Buttigieg were viable. And the persuasion game began.
The Warren and Sanders supporters eyed each other, knowing their ideological similarities made them obvious to join together, but who would bow to whom? The game of chicken ended with some Bernie supporters like Lindsey White, a 35-year-old skydiving instructor, moving 3 feet to Warren’s camp. Paulson ultimately joined, too, and he was welcomed with a hug from Lucy Charleston, who drove four hours from Ormond Beach to caucus for Warren.
With 18 votes, Warren became viable. Sanders and Yang did not. A Yang supporter moved over to Biden, so he, too, became viable. None of the other candidates breached the threshold.
Klobuchar ended the night with 4 local delegates, Buttigieg and Warren with two and Biden with one.
Winter pounded the meat tenderizer. The first Iowa caucus in St. Petersburg was over.