As all eyes turn toward Iowa, a look at the nation's most influential caucus
Earlier this month, Michigan Daily journalists spent three days in Iowa covering candidates from both parties as they compete for their party's nomination in the 2016 presidential election. Look for continuing coverage from the Daily of the Iowa caucuses, the first in the nation, through Monday.
DAVENPORT, Iowa — By 3:15 p.m. on a balmy Saturday late in January, only a couple of campaign volunteers were still hanging around the front door of the Masonic Center in Clinton, Iowa when a big blue bus slid down the building’s back alley.
The supporters who had come here to see Bernie Sanders had by then gone indoors, where they waited eagerly in tightly packed rows of metal folding chairs for their candidate to arrive. With all the action now inside the center’s dated basement, the streets turned quiet. The sun hung low, and most of the few stores lining Fifth Avenue, had already closed up for the night. Across First Street, a train barreled by on tracks that stand between Clinton and the Mississippi River.
In an alley that hugged the back of the Masonic Center just off a street that was also empty, there was Sanders — a presidential candidate who the next day would draw 2,200 people to a rally in Decorah, Iowa. But now there were no “Feel the Bern” chants. No camera crews lay in wait. Sanders’ wife, Jane, emerged first. An adviser or two followed. Then, the senator. He clutched a binder of policy positions or notes he would later flip through, but not really read from, inside the Masonic Center’s basement. He waved. And then he disappeared inside.
If the most salient moments of a presidential campaign occur on brightly lit debate stages or at highly choreographed rallies studded with celebrity surrogates and stuffed with a thousand people waving logoed campaign signs, then it’s the small moments, off-the-cuff and raw, that in many ways color the lore of Iowa’s caucuses.
Jason Noble, a political reporter for the Des Moines Register, said in Iowa, intimate interactions with voters still matter, largely because of the nature of a caucus. He said that holds true even as super PACs fat with millions of dollars to spend on inundating the airwaves seem to draw the importance of ground-level campaigning into question.
“This is not a primary election where you just drop in for 15 minutes and cast a vote,” Noble said. “You actually have to show up at seven o’clock at night and participate in the process. And that requires an extra level of commitment, so that really requires that the campaigns engage with their supporters in a really personal and retail way.”
So, what is a caucus exactly? In Iowa, one of 13 states to utilize the format and the first in the nation to select primary candidates, each of the state’s almost 2,000 precincts host a Democratic and a Republican caucus. These gatherings are usually held in school gyms or community center auditoriums, and often last several hours. Voters have to be registered members of the party whose caucus they want to attend.
For Republicans, caucus goers hear from a supporter of each presidential candidate before they cast their vote by secret ballot. Those results are then tabulated and inform the number of state delegates allotted to each candidate. At a Democratic caucus, attendees literally stand in a corner of the room marked off for those who support their candidate and supporters of each candidate speak on behalf of their pick, trying to convince voters to switch into their camp before everyone’s preferences are counted. There’s a catch, though. If a candidate doesn’t achieve a 15 percent threshold in the caucus — as is likely to happen for former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley in many precincts — those supporters have to switch to another candidate and jockeying for those voters ensues.
In Iowa, the caucus format dates back to the 19th century and was largely influenced by the New England town-hall style of governance many settlers brought west with them. Many observers argue this format lends itself to the kind of one-on-one interactions that are a must for candidates angling to win in Iowa.
“The people who actually participate in the caucuses are actually a relatively small cross-section of Iowans in general, and there’s a lot of people out here who are living their lives and have been for the last year, with very little awareness of the campaign swirling around them,” Noble said. “But for that core 200, 300 thousand people who really engage in that process, they take it very seriously.”
Despite the emphasis on forums intended to humanize candidates, there’s of course still plenty to script. Candidates all have their own strategically crafted, focus group tested message to drive home, particularly in contests in which there are thin margins moving into the race’s final days. But at campaign events across Iowa, unplanned interactions still play out every day on the trail.
At a Hillary Clinton town hall in Clinton, three girls arrived early enough to secure front row seats. They each held a sizable stack of books written by Clinton, and they told me they hoped she’d sign each one.
In Muscatine, a small group of protesters outside a Donald Trump rally held hand-drawn signs and chanted, “What do we want? No hate. When do we want it? Now,” as Trump supporters replied with shouts of “We love Trump.”
In basement of the Masonic Center in Clinton, Sanders’ wife rose from her seat in the aisle to slip her husband a note scribbled on a piece of paper from a yellow legal pad. She was trying to be discreet, but Sanders shared the note’s content anyway.
“I have been told as usual that I’m running late; I’ve gone on longer than I meant to, but you’re such a great audience that you got me going,” he said.
Noble, who is following former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, recalled a town hall last month when a woman brought up the former governor’s frank discussion of his daughter’s struggles with drug addiction and asked about his plans to approach the issue. Bush told the woman his daughter was actually in the audience that day and pointed her out.
“It was a really visceral moment,” Noble said.
But often, it’s venues like the famous Iowa State Fair — where visitors can taste fried pork chops or observe oddities like the annual hog calling contest — that are a must-do for any candidate hoping to win in Iowa and present the best opportunities for voters to get to know candidates.
“There’s no policy discussion at all. It’s just sort of proving that they’re human,” Noble said. “They see that as one of the great values of Iowa — individuals in Iowa and reporters who are telling this story to a national audience, they hope to sort of explain these people in human terms. And that’s really valuable.”
Despite a traveling circus that every four years turns Iowa into one big political and media orgy, there are still reminders all over that real people with real struggles and stories are still given the first audience to the cycle’s slate of political candidates.
At a town hall in Clinton, an older woman who works in the produce section of a local supermarket told me she pays for her own health insurance while seeing her wages stagnate in recent years. She said she has her house paid for, but still struggles to make ends meet each week. A few rows over, I spoke with Terry Rose, who works in an hourly job in a plastics factory in Clinton, and told me, that like in Michigan, he has seen thousands of jobs disappear. He said the town has lost the railroads and two steel factories, among other closures.
“They’ve lost a lot of big businesses in this town and they can’t bring them back in,” he said, noting that the people of Clinton want the same things most Americans want. “They just want to go out and have a job, make a living, buy a home, send the kids to college and today, you can’t do that. It’s really hard. By the time you get it done, you’re going to have a hard time eating at the end of the week.”
One woman, a stay at home mom who works part-time as a cashier on the weekends, brought her two young daughters along to Clinton's town-hall to show them a woman could be president.
“I just wanted them to see that girls can do anything they want, too,” she said.
Beyond opportunities to raise concerns like these, the Iowa caucuses are deeply ingrained in the state’s culture. Dave Panther, owner of the Hamburg Inn No. 2, which for the last decade has been a popular stop for candidates traveling through Iowa City, said the caucuses provide an incredible opportunity for Iowans to participate in the political process.
The restaurant, which was featured in an episode of the West Wing, has become famous for its coffee bean poll, in which customers drop a coffee bean in a glass jar marked with the name of their preferred candidate. For Panther and many Iowans, the state’s “first in the nation” status is a point of pride and has become an integral part of the state’s identity.
“You probably wouldn’t see many candidates coming through if we weren’t first in the nation,” he said. “If we weren’t, it would be pretty quiet here. It would be just us, the corn and the cows and the pigs.”
Mack Shelley, a professor of political science at Iowa State University in Ames, pointed out that Iowa is also first in the nation in other ways. It’s first in corn yield in the United States, and in the number of hogs, of which there are 20 million — more than the state’s three million people.
“In addition to exporting farm products and machinery, Iowa’s been exporting people for a long time too,” he said. “With that in mind, the slippage in electoral power brokering ability in D.C., it’s sort of like a scab on that wound — to be able to think, well we might not have as many folks in Congress anymore, but we still help decide who gets to be president.”
But in recent years, critics have questioned whether Iowa should exercise so much influence in picking the president. Iowa is is more rural than the average state and is 92.1 percent white. Some observers have questioned whether a more representative state should get the first go at vetting the field. In June, a piece in Politico asked, “Is Iowa Over?”
Even Donald Trump alluded to that question while rallying supporters last Sunday in Muscatine.
“You have not picked a winner in 16 years,” he said. “If you chose me, we’re going to finally have a winner. You know, they want to move you, I hate to say it, they want to move you to the back of the pack, you know that right? Iowa’s not going to be where you are now — first in the nation — and they want to move you, and I give you this pledge: I win, they are never ever moving you. You’re staying here. And honestly, it’s a great tradition here. It’s an amazing thing, it’s an amazing place, it’s a great place, you’re going to stay where you are.”
So how did Iowa get to be first in the first place? According to most histories of the caucus, the tradition is rooted in the aftermath of the 1968 Democratic national convention, during which protests criticized the fact that the party’s candidate was largely selected by bigwig party leaders and party bosses, leaving voters with minimal influence. In a move to democratize the closed-door process, the party asked states to come up with plans to change things up, and Iowa submitted an early plan.
Prior to this time, caucuses and primaries existed, but didn’t play much of a role in actually selecting a candidate or determining delegate counts. Shelley said Iowa ended up first largely by accident. State party chairs counted backward from the national convention date to determine the time they would need to hold a state convention, congressional district conventions, county conventions and precinct caucuses, since each level selects delegates to send on to the next step in the nominating process.
The caucuses began to attract significant media spotlight after 1976, when Jimmy Carter, a largely unknown governor from Georgia, spent significant time campaigning in the state, winning Iowa and ultimately his party’s nomination.
Proponents of preserving the Iowa caucus often ask what does it mean to be representative, and if not Iowa, then who? A recent NPR piece tried to answer that question by evaluating states based on measures like racial composition, educational attainment and median income. Even so, some observers argue that measure of representativeness doesn’t actually matter that much.
“Iowa is not over,” a feature in Harper’s Magazine proclaimed in January. “In fact, it may be more relevant than ever. Grasping the corn as Trump suggested leads us not just to the tensions of immigration but to all the central issues of the campaign — to health care and obesity, to our nation’s worst environmental problems, to poverty and income inequality, and to the entrenchment of a corporate oligarchy.”
And though Michigan’s primary is not until March 8, many of the issues discussed in Iowa carry weight in states across the Rust Belt, including Michigan. In Clinton, which was once billed as the “Lumber Capital of the World” and accumulated wealth by processing and shipping timber coming down the Mississippi River out of Wisconsin and Minnesota, has suffered from heavy job losses in recent years as manufacturing jobs declined.
Both Sanders and Clinton, for example, called in their stump speeches for an investment in infrastructure and green energy. These issues will likely resonate next month in Michigan, particularly in light of the Flint water crisis. Both campaigns have now called for a debate to be hosted in Flint before the primary.
“Number one, we need to be rebuilding America. Just like Gov. DeWitt Clinton rebuilt the Erie Canal,” Clinton said, channeling the former New York governor and namesake of Clinton County. “We need to build and fix our roads, our bridges, our tunnels, our ports, our airports, our rail systems. There is so much good work to be done in America — and I want to get back to building America — the way previous generations did.”
Sanders referenced Flint directly.
“When you have water systems, and I’m not just talking about the disaster in Flint, Michigan, you have wastewater plants, you have levies, you have dams, we have a rail system which is now falling further behind many other countries, airports need work, when you have an infrastructure which in many ways is crumbling, now is the time to invest in rebuilding our infrastructure, and a trillion dollar investment will create 13 million decent-paying jobs,” he told a crowd in Clinton.
Noble argues that the importance lies less in the state’s influence in picking a final candidate, but in vetting a candidate’s character and human side.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that a president gets very little time in office to pursue and enact their agenda, and most of the time what they’re doing is responding to crises and exercising judgement on the fly, and so having a sense for who these guys are as people and their character and where they come from is hugely valuable,” he said.
Noble also points out that money spent on television advertising is also declining as the Internet makes up an increasing portion of a voter’s media diet.
“I think the answer may be more grassroots, and may be more of knocking on people’s doors and calling them on the phone, and if that’s the case, then the style of politics we see here in Iowa will be more important, not less,” he said.
For now, candidates will spend the next 24 hours crisscrossing the Hawkeye state, working overtime to make a final pitch for their candidacy before Iowans gather in gymnasiums, auditoriums and community centers, in places like Dubuque, Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. But come Tuesday morning, the hullabaloo of the last year will all be over.
“Literally the airplanes start taking off before midnight on caucus night, and everybody heads to New Hampshire,” Noble told me.
Until next time.