At the time, it was easy to call the 2012 primary process for the Republican nomination for president that included the likes of MIchele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry unforgettable and in broad strokes, that still holds true. But the fact is we forget. As much as I couldn’t look away from the trainwreck as it unfolded in 2011, I barely had any recollection that Newt Gingrich had thrown his hat in the ring or that Rick Perry entered the race in midstream. I don’t blame this on having a poor memory, though it certainly has its lapses, but instead a 24-hour news cycle where the cameras and journalists, be they professional or citizen, capture every minutiae of a campaign yet often to fail to give it the context it deserves.
Two years removed from the start of the campaign in 2011 where a full field of eight vied for the nomination, AJ Schnack’s “Caucus” allows for such reflection while showing how as much as things have changed, many of our political rituals have stayed the same. Nothing could be more emblematic of this than the Iowa State Fair where Schnack first finds the candidates giving stump speeches on bales of hay and implored by the locals to try their vegetarian corn dogs. While the eventual nominee Mitt Romney gets grilled on the draconian spending cuts he plans to make if he were to get into office, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty can be seen grilling pork chops for the state’s commission of the other white meat.
Although the role of money never overtly enters Schnack’s film, which would explain why the far less personable of those two candidates emerges from Iowa unscathed, “Caucus” is able to show a side of politics we rarely see anymore in how good old fashioned campaigning can still win the day. For a great deal of the five months Schnack and his crew spends in Iowa, his camera were perhaps the only one on Rick Santorum, who is the only candidate amongst the eight to travel to every one of Iowa’s 99 counties. The former Pennsylvanian senator is in seventh place in the polls when we’re introduced to him in “Caucus,” admitting to feeling ignored by the national media which is more interested in soundbites from Bachmann or Cain, and quietly goes about pressing the flesh at local restaurants.
That Santorum, who true to his word is the most conservative candidate of those running, emerges as even remotely sympathetic will surely irk some viewers of “Caucus,” but as strange as it sounds, the film stays away from politics to focus on the political process. A scene late in the film that visits the Des Moines Register as they’re putting together their polling numbers offers a tantalizing glimpse of an even larger story Schnack could’ve told, but largely “Caucus” sticks to general impressions of the candidates who attack the campaign trail in completely different ways, a fact that can be relayed as simply and effectively here as seeing Bachmann travel by an obscenely large and gaudy campaign bus to Ron Paul having his son Rand close the door for him on the rented minivan they share. Like the character who finds the most success in “Caucus,” the film’s path to victory is paved by its attention to detail and staying small.