Monday is the day.
Finally, on Feb. 1, the 2016 presidential election cycle will truly begin—and bring an end (hopefully) to the foolery season of this election biennial.
Over the past six months, we’ve seen how crazy a presidential election could be, particularly in the Republican race (although both sides have had their moments). The shouting matches called debates. The complaints about unfair questions from moderators—when they were simply questions about candidates’ past actions and words.
Trump demanding $5 million to be on a debate stage—and then showing up anyway for “free.” Chris Christie feeling proud to say—loudly—that he wouldn’t meet with Black Lives Matter activists, as they have done with Democratic candidates. (Which was maybe a bit gentler than what happened to a BLM activist who showed up at a Donald Trump rally.) Oh, and the many conversations with candidates that resulted in no policy agenda, including the second of three separate meetings between black pastors and Trump.
If I mention Trump quite a bit, it’s because the business tycoon has been the main source of much of the lowered discourse that has plagued this preprimary cycle. Trump has consistently defied all conventional rules, only to receive ever-rising poll numbers as his reward—from ditching the last GOP debate before Monday’s vote because of his Fox News feud with moderator Megyn Kelly, to surviving Sarah Palin's alliteration- and rhyme-filled endorsement of him, thus becoming the fodder for Saturday Night Live. No matter what, the Donald only managed to pull more attention from the press and endorsements from both the usual (the National Black Republican Association) and unusual suspects (St. Louis rapper Chingy, who said he was for Trump but then quickly took it back).
But all of that is behind us (hopefully). We can finally move forward, thanks to Monday’s vote happening in Iowa, a state that has held caucuses since it entered the union in 1846, and has held the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus since 1972, according to the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper.
Iowa isn’t the biggest state. (It ranks 30th out of 50 in population.) Or the most diverse. (That’s Hawaii.) And it definitely doesn’t have the most delegates. (That’s California.) But it gets to be first, and for that reason, it’s a trendsetter. A win in the Iowa caucus can propel a candidacy, as it did for then-Gov. Jimmy Carter, then-Sen. Barack Obama and, in some ways, George H.W. Bush. (Bush ultimately became vice president in 1980, but it was in part due to his strong showing in Iowa.)
Or it can be a bright spot for an otherwise failed venture, as it was for former Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Sen. Rick Santorum in 2012. The caucus has been important for those who didn’t win, such as Hillary Clinton in 2008, when it gave her a boost to fight—and eventually win—in New Hampshire.
Is a caucus unusual? Sure. Most states have primaries where each person casts his or her individual, secret ballot. Caucuses take longer because they allow for collaboration, persuasion and discussion before an ultimate poll (Republicans) or delegate apportionments (Democrats) are made. Meaning, on Monday, friends and neighbors from both parties will gather and pitch their candidate’s cause.
So, while Iowa gets a lot of grief for not being more representative of the United States’ diversity, it does help us all begin the countdown to the actual race for the White House. Finally we’ll know if supporters of Trump are willing to caucus for Trump, even in a looming snowstorm. Finally we’ll know whether Bernie Sanders’ surge is real or if Clinton is the inevitable nominee. Finally we’ll have hard facts and actual votes, not just polls, guessing and posturing.
Iowa is where the campaign really begins. No more speculation or overhyped gesticulations. From this date forward, we march on to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada before getting ready for Super Tuesday, where we should see a tightening of the race and people exiting (who should have left a while ago). And as the election becomes real, hopefully we’ll leave the silly season behind and move toward real conversations about guns, drugs, poverty, mass incarceration, education equity and national security.
Hope for this type of change springs eternal. Let’s eagerly watch the vote come out of Iowa and see what happens.
Khyla D. Craine is a civil rights attorney and activist. Follow her on Twitter.