Lilian talks with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.

Kid Reporter Corner

A Kid at a Caucus

What exactly is a caucus? Our Kid Reporter found out.

On January 31, I traveled to Iowa from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to answer the question: What is a caucus? Along the way, I talked to voters, presidential candidates, and reporters to learn about the Iowa caucuses.

What are caucuses? Many people want to be president of the United States, so every four years, there’s a first round of voting (primaries and caucuses) in each state. That process leads to the selection of the Democratic and Republican nominees who will compete for the presidency in November.

Most states have primaries that allow voters to go to their polling station throughout the day and evening. But Iowa and some other states have caucuses: Voters go to a polling place at a specific hour one evening and listen to neighbors explain why they think a certain candidate is good. It’s harder for politicians to get people out to caucuses because it requires getting them in the same place at the same time.

MY 24 HOURS IN DES MOINES

Iowa traditionally has the first caucuses in the country. This year, they were held on February 1. Hillary Clinton hosted her final rally the night before. I arrived early, at 6:30 p.m., to get my press credentials and do some interviews. First, I had to go through a security screening conducted by the Secret Service. Everyone who entered the building did.

The rally was held at Abraham Lincoln High School in Des Moines, the state capital. The gymnasium was packed. Clinton’s supporters chanted, “We believe that she will win!” over and over, as photographers fixed cameras to tripods and journalists, like me, walked around to conduct interviews.

At 8 p.m., my editor and I pushed our way into the enormous crowd to watch Clinton walk to the podium. Shoulder to shoulder, everyone waited another hour to see the Democratic candidate—a former First Lady, New York Senator, and Secretary of State. When she came out from behind the curtain, there was an ear-splitting cheer from the crowd. Everyone in the stands rose to their feet to see her as she walked past hundreds of people up to the podium where her husband, Bill, and daughter, Chelsea, had already spoken. She hugged them and began to speak, much to the delight of the crowd. During her 40-minute speech, the candidate discussed raising the minimum wage, fighting for working-class families, and the need for more early childhood education. The crowd roared in approval.

On caucus day, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to watch NBC’s Today show behind the scenes at the West End Architectural Salvage, a furniture shop that had been converted into a TV set for the occasion. I couldn’t believe how many cameras were needed to produce the show. During the taping, I briefly stood next to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate who was interviewed that morning and came in third that evening.

Afterward, I asked Matt Lauer, the Today anchor, why caucuses are important to kids. He talked about issues that matter to families, including education and good jobs. That afternoon, I interviewed Lester Holt, the anchor of NBC Nightly News, about covering presidential campaigns. A producer clipped a microphone to my shirt, and two huge TV cameras recorded the whole thing.

CASTING VOTES

The night of the Iowa caucuses was probably one of the most exciting of my life. My editor and I arrived at Urbandale High School, a caucus site near Des Moines, at 6:15 p.m. After touring the school and speaking with some voters, we decided to view the Republican caucus in the school’s community room.

The caucuses began at 7 p.m. While Democrats vote with their actual bodies, lining up in rows of 10 to show support for their candidate, Republicans use secret ballots. During the Republican caucus, there were two things I found really interesting. The first was listening to people speak about their favorite candidates. The second was watching volunteers hand count the ballots. Five or six people would separate the ballots according to names. Then each pile was counted at least twice to make sure the tally was correct.

It was really suspenseful, but fun to guess who would win. At the Urbandale Republican caucus, Texas Senator Ted Cruz came in first. On the Democratic side, Clinton got slightly more votes than Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Cruz ended up winning the entire state. For the Democrats, the statewide race was so close that it couldn’t be called until several hours later. Clinton was declared the winner by a narrow margin.

The people who caucused in Iowa seemed very committed to being part of electing their future president. Some families I saw even showed up with young kids in pajamas!

Covering the caucuses made me realize how lucky we are as Americans to pick our leaders. I saw visitors from China who looked with admiration on the freedom we have. As Lester Holt told me, when you cover a presidential campaign, you realize how important it is to inform voters about the candidates and the issues.