From the Eye of an Iowan: The Personal Touch of the 2016 Iowa Caucuses
by Ben Verhasselt
Ben Verhasselt is a senior Politics and Rhetoric, Media, and Social Change double major at Drake University. He is a research assistant for Prof. David Redlawsk this fall.
While politicos across America eagerly await the next polling numbers and discuss the ups and downs of debate strategies, the real spectacle of the Iowa caucuses is unfolding on the ground in this small Midwestern state. It’s unfolding in the lap of an Iowa mother bouncing her kid on one knee while Mike Huckabee calms her fears about over regulation of homeschooling. It’s unfolding as hundreds of students wait for a chance to snap a ‘Selfie’ with Rand Paul, to brag to friends back home. It’s unfolding as a parent lovingly nudges her trembling daughter towards the podium at an elementary school auditorium to ask Hillary Clinton a question about gender equality. It’s unfolding in a room full of animated Democrats as they are serenaded by the hopelessly charming Martin O’Malley while a union teacher’s son plays with Legos in the back of the room to the sound of the music.
The real Iowa caucuses are about more than a candidate reading what’s on the teleprompter and American flag pins. It’s about asking to be a part of the family, because once you’re part of the family the politics will work themselves out.
This courtship from the candidates is nothing new to older Iowans and lifetime caucus goers but in 2016, with more candidates and media than ever, winning over Iowa voters is almost a kind of performance art. Because Iowa is first in the nation these campaign efforts make the state’s voters feel like the prettiest girl in school. This is part of why the caucuses are still an important first step in the presidential election process.
It makes good sense if you think about it: If you want someone’s opinion on which candidate you should support, should you trust a focus group after they’ve heard an hour of speeches and checked a box, or would you trust the thousands of Iowans who’ve gotten to study, prod and question the candidates? I’ll take the Iowans every time (And I’m a superior-minded Minnesotan, so that’s saying something). This is because Iowa voters respond to candidates, whether they are blue-haired ladies waiting for their Hillary book to get signed, or a young libertarian eagerly dressing as superman for a Rand Paul Halloween. The people of Iowa get to know these candidates.
The air was dry, leaves were beginning to orange, and the tractors were running at the Iowa Machine Shed restaurant as people filed in to see Texas Senator and Presidential candidate Ted Cruz. Cruz arrived and immediately addressed the media. In his ‘True Conservative’ form Senator Cruz fired off issues ranging from religious persecution, failures of the Obama administration, the refugee crisis, Planned Parenthood, and radical Islamic terrorism.
On the Iran deal, Cruz claimed “If the deal goes through the Obama administration will become literally the world’s largest sponsor of radical Islamic terrorism.” Given what the media covering the event are most likely to present, these initial remarks probably provide the frame through which most voters observed Senator Cruz’ visit to Iowa that day. What people at home didn’t necessarily see is the middle aged man who called out to Senator Cruz “You actually expect people to believe that?!” and the lively conversation that ensued between the two. Because the truth is, candidates can dodge every pundit, debate moderator and politician around, but when voters speak up candidates must answer. With all the discussion lately about the terms of any future GOP debates, the simple reality is what happens on the ground in Iowa is likely to matter a lot more between now and February 1.
Whether in the backroom of a Pizza Ranch with a slap happy Lindsey Graham, or at Pella coffee shop for some early morning java with Carly Fiorina, the Iowa caucuses are so much more than anyone outside of Iowa can really know, even with the intensive media coverage the Caucuses bring. There is simply nothing like being an Iowa who goes to the town hall, meets candidates, and sees them as they really are, not as they are presented in the media.