After more than a year of build-up and anticipation, Iowans finally gathered in schools, churches, and community centers Monday night to officially kick-off the Presidential voting season. They spent an hour, on average, listening to speeches about the candidates, checking a square on a ballot, and pleading with their neighbors, friends, and strangers to back their candidate.
Reporters for Tri States Public Radio went to a couple caucus sites in Keokuk.
GOP : Keokuk High School Cafeteria
Nearly 200 people passed through the doors of the cafeteria, eager to cast their vote for President. The spacious room hosted Republicans living in Keokuk's 6th & 7th Wards as well as those living just outside town in Jackson Township.
The mood in the room was upbeat, as friends and neighbors spent time catching up on families, jobs, and life in general.
One of the most excited people, though, was not even there to caucus. Norma Brown of Bloomington, Illinois, drove three hours to watch the Iowa Caucuses in person.
"I've never seen a caucus in person and I wanted to know how it operates," said Brown, who watched the Caucus with her husband, Ron. "I looked into it and found the closest place to McLean County so we could get here in good time and with permission. So here we are in Keokuk!"
Brown sat at one of the cafeteria tables and watched as a half dozen people stood up and spoke for the candidates. Among them was Keokuk Mayor Tom Marion, who backed Ohio Governor John Kasich. Marion said Republicans need someone who can stop the gridlock in Congress.
"What we need is someone who can work across the aisle," said Marion. "President Obama said he could and he could not. I think we need someone with administrative level experience. Someone who's run a government-level company, which is a state in this situation. You know, government is quite different than any other type of business."
Deborah Whitaker also spoke on behalf of a candidate: Donald Trump. She told the crowd that Trump's support for military veterans and the families of soldiers inspired her to back the billionaire businessman.
"I lost my soldier son three years ago and I reached out to Donald Trump when he said he is going to help the veterans," said Whitaker. "I asked him, and last week, what did I get, I got a call. He called my house... and said on Tuesday, could I go to church with Donald Trump.
"It was just me and him for 30 minutes. I really want every person in the US to know what a gold star family is because we are the ones who sacrifice for the country for the rest of their lives... Donald ended up inviting me on Tuesday and Thursday. He didn't do the debate. He did it for the veterans and raised $6 million."
The crowd cheered after the speech, with even a few standing up to applaud Whitaker. From there, the rest of the night also belonged to Trump in the KHS cafeteria.
He won two of the three GOP caucus sites in the room and tied for 1st in the third. Others with good nights were U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, which carried over to the statewide results.
Democrats: First Christian Church
The First Christian Church was the site of a battle that is part of a bigger conflict to be played out over the next few months of the primary season.
Supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders from Wards 4 and 6 met at the church to caucus. There was no drama in Ward 6. But there was some drama in Ward 4, where the only undecided attendee of the two wards resides.
When supporters of Clinton and Sanders picked up on it, a 12-minute debate between the two sides ensued as they worked to get just one more supporter. But in the end, that undecided voter, Steven Otto, decided to stay undecided. He was not happy with how both sides approached the debate.
“I want to hear what people had to say. And they’re sitting there telling me I gotta make a decision, and I’m not going to be told what I have to do,” Otto said. “That’s not a Democrat.”
One of those who engaged Otto in the debate was Sanders supporter Katherine Richtman.
Richtman is a stay-at-home mother who home schools her three children. She decided to back Sanders after an online quiz aligned her closer to the Vermont Senator than any other candidate.
Richtman was also attending her first caucus. She said taking part in the debate was a rush.
“That was more intense than I expected. And I kind of got a little intense on my part and said 'frickin'.' And I shouldn’t have. But I felt so passionate about it, they were talking all over me,” Richtman said.
Richtman decided that night to sign up as an alternate delegate for Sanders so she can remain involved in the process.