Iowa is a great place. A small, landlocked state, it borders (among many) Illinois to east and Minnesota to the north. It’s known for farming and having been settled by Germanic peoples during the European mass immigration to the United States. It’s in the heartland of America, it’s considered rural and white. Oh and every fours years the sharpest political minds and the most colorful political personalities you can find spend months on end touring the state to win the support of its residents. Why, one might ask? Because Iowa stands as host for the first state-based presidential primary election for both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, Iowans don’t vote in a primary. They caucus.
So every four years, Iowa becomes the center of attention for everyone involved in US politics. Especially in the weeks leading up to the caucus, usually held in January or early February. A state mainly made up of small-ish towns and rural communities is transformed into THE political hotspot with politicians, pundits, researchers, pollsters, bloggers, Hollywood celebrities — everyone looking to how Iowa residents think and feel about the current state of affairs. My reason for going was two-fold: firstly, I attended college just across the Mississippi River and spent quite a bit of time in Iowa since several of my close friends are from there; and secondly, the caucus is a political circus that you just can’t miss if you’re a political science nerd.
Now, just across the Mississippi from my former home of Rock Island, Illinois, is Davenport, Iowa. In Davenport, my very good friends Dan and Mel live with their 1-year old. The three of us went to college together, and Dan and Mel both work and live in Iowa. They’re amazing people. Hard-working, generous, well-informed, engaging, smart. The salt of the earth, if you will. Both are interested in politics, but at the time of my visit they had both grown pretty tired of the presidential politics happening in Iowa. The daily leaflets, the closed off roads, the media- eventually even the smartest and political active people grow tired of having the political circus in town.
Nonetheless, we went to the caucus and it was – TRULY! – a thing of beauty! People from the neighborhood gathered at a local elementary school, and in the school library some 200 people had decided to caucus. This time around, the Democrats only have two viable candidates – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – which meant that the caucusing itself was a pretty straightforward event. The caucus, though, is an interesting way of political engagement. After picking which candidate you support, you don’t cast a ballot but rather are asked to stand in the corner of the candidate you support. The number of people for each candidate are then counted and reported. Here ends the first round. In round two, any and all people who are undecided or whose candidate did not receive enough votes to clinch a single delegate are up for grabs. At this point, supporters of the viable candidates can approach these undecideds and make their case. At the caucus I observed, some of these undecideds went to Hillary and some to Bernie. Each time a person was ”won over,” people cheered and applauded. The whole event was laid-back and everyone was friendly, but you still got the impression that the people who had shown up took pride in the fact that they were caucusing and that their vote was important.
This sums up pretty well what it’s like to visit Iowa during the caucus. People are relaxed and friendly and go about their business as usual. Wherever I went to eat, I would always ask the waiters if they planned on attending the caucus. Most said they would.
Part of my job is to help students apply to college in the United States. Most people want to go to one of the coasts, specifically New York or California. ”Florida is a ok too,” is something I often hear. My initial thinking is always that students should keep the Midwest in mind. Why? Because people are friendly, some of the best schools in the US are located there, it’s often times cheaper than on the coasts, and because every four years the US political elite gather there to decide who the next president should be. Not too shabby if you ask me!
Andreas Henninger (Teacher)