Caucus Crazy 2020 — Presidential Politics in Iowa

When Flyover America Gets All the Attention

Pete Buttigieg campaigns in Iowa. | Credit: Gage Skidmore

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After teaching high school social studies for 19 years, Lawrence Gamble retired this past June. A Goldwater Republican at age 14 and a Bobby Kennedy Democrat at age 18 who later walked precincts for anti-Vietnam-War candidates, Gamble spent years trying to explain the Iowa caucuses to his American Government students. “I am in Iowa to see American democracy up close and personal,” he writes in his first Caucus Crazy 2020 blog entry, and he shares his experience with our readers.

I Attend My First Campaign Event:  There is no doubt that the growth of electronic media, including the internet and cellphones, has been embraced by political campaigns going back more than 20 years. I was surprised, then, to find it so difficult to actually learn the addresses of the various campaign offices in Des Moines. Even Googling “Des Moines headquarters for candidate X’ invariably led to a campaign website that didn’t allow you to enter the site until you give your name and email address so that you can “be part of the campaign”!

I stopped by the office of the state Democratic Party and they couldn’t give me much help, either. It turns out the best source of information about the campaigns comes from the Des Moines Register. This newspaper has a very helpful candidate tracker that informs the reader of where and when the candidates will be making appearances around the state.

Looking over the site just after I arrived last night, I saw that Mayor Pete was having a town hall meeting at the Iowa State convention center in Ames midday Wednesday, January 29. Ames is less than an hour’s drive from Des Moines, the roads were cleared of a light overnight snowfall by mid-morning, so I decided to attend my first event.

Impressions of the Event:  A few dozen people were already lined up more than an hour before the doors opened. I used my press credential to register with the Mayor Pete campaign which meant that I would have seating in a special section in the room and I wouldn’t have to wait in line.

As could be expected, most of the volunteers who were setting up the room, dealing with news photographers and doing the myriad other tasks before a candidate walks through the door, were quite young, early twenties would be my guess, and there was a sprinkling of much older volunteers. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and the set-up seemed to go without a hitch.

When the doors opened to the public, people flood in, eventually filling the conference room to standing room only. A solid line of TV video cameras line one side of the room. Looking at the taped initials on the carpet, all the major national networks and local stations were present.

A college student volunteer, very nervous at speaking in public, reads a prepared script introducing the candidate. Then, an African-American minister adds her introduction. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was picked in response to the oft-quoted “problem” Mayor Pete has (to this point) with attracting support from African-Americans. I don’t know whether her image made it to the nightly news.

Mayor Pete arrives, white shirt and tie, his standard outfit, to enthusiastic applause. This will be his second of four events today. After thanking the audience for their attendance, he began his usual stump speech. I knew it was his usual stump speech because the night before, before falling asleep I watched an earlier town hall where he gave virtually the same talk. He spoke of the contrast between cities, where he was a mayor, and D.C., locked in partisanship gridlock and rancor. He implied that as a mayor he was effective and got things done, but he didn’t really address the “elephant in the room” that the problems in D.C. he pointed out are not going to magically disappear, whether he or any of the other Democrats who are running get elected in November.

Early on in the townhall, Mayor Pete states his big ask: He asks everyone in the room to caucus for him on Monday night. He then rolls into one of his favorite questions: He asks everyone to visualize waking up on the morning after the election, realizing that DT is no longer the president. As you can imagine, smiles filled the faces of the audience. He then asks everyone to imagine all the challenges we will face as a nation and how we will need a special spirit and willingness to address those challenges.

After speaking briefly about veterans and the need to not only never send soldiers into harm’s way unless there is no other alternative and to take care of them once they return home, he opens for questions.

Unlike what has been reported to me about other candidates, Mayor Pete doesn’t screen questions. His volunteers hand microphones to people who raise their hands. The first questions were from a woman who asked a four-part question involving the cost of health insurance, the loss of family farms, food poverty of local schoolchildren, and suicides of people she knew due to the inability to pay for medical bills. Mayor Pete answers with concern and compassion, but he doesn’t get into any specifics about how he would address these daunting problems.

He ends with saying, “This is my country, can you help me take it back?” and “Things have to change, and we can do it.” The audience approves.

Next the microphone is given to a young man who asks a question on the Palestinian annexation issue and Mayor Pete’s stated support for Israel. This voter claims that Pete had gone back on an earlier pledge on these issues. As Pete tried to answer and engage, the fellow became angry. At this point he was three feet from Pete. I couldn’t follow the argument because I hadn’t read about the pledge.

Pete deflects, voter rejects, Pete deflects, thanks voter for his interest/passion, and moves on to another question. The next person asks Mayor Pete his positions on choice and abortion. He gives a satisfactory answer. More questions come on poverty, inequality, and the cost/availability of health care. Impeachment is not mentioned.

The townhall ends with the candidate stating, “If you are ready to make history, this is it.” A scrum of admirers surround Mayor Pete, making his exit slow. TV reporters set up to record short bits for the evening news. As far as I could tell, no news was made at this event.

I wonder at the heavy press presence. Was it because we are so close to the caucuses, or are they needing to be present if the candidates makes a gaff or states a bold new policy provision, or is Ames close enough to Des Moines that they didn’t have to spend hours in a bus getting to the event, or are there other explanations?

I came to Iowa because there has always been, in my mind, an aura of mystery surrounding why certain candidates do well here and others falter. I am still working on an answer.

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