On the morning of February 1, 2016, millions of Iowans woke up and knew that this would be the day they would choose who they wanted their party to nominate for President of the United States.
More than a dozen presidential candidates, their campaign staff, and thousands of volunteers woke up in every corner of the state and knew that this could be the day that would make or break their campaign.
In a hotel across the street from the airport in Des Moines about 25 students and staff members from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (IOP) awoke, ready to get a first-hand view of the Iowa caucuses. By the end of the trip the next day, they would collectively see six presidential candidates and former President Bill Clinton, partake in rallies of loss and victory, and witness democracy in action: a precinct caucus in a local middle school gymnasium.
As the first electoral event in the presidential campaign cycle, the Iowa caucus is the official start of the nominating process. Republicans and Democrats gather across the state by precinct in cafeterias, firehouses, gymnasiums, auditoriums, and even people’s homes at 7 p.m. on Caucus Day to talk with each other about who they think is the best candidate for their party. Then, depending on their affiliated party, they vote either by secret ballot or by separating into groups for each contender and count off as a caucus group, a process much different from the primary elections in many other states.
Because of this community-based decision-making and the fact that Iowa is the first state in the nation to vote for presidential candidates, it receives a lot of attention from campaigns and media for months leading up to the fated Caucus Day. Historically, the Iowa Caucus usually weeds out lower-tier contenders and sets the stage for the rest of the primaries that lead up to when official party candidates are selected at the party conventions during the summer. And on this momentous day, we were there to see it all happen.
“Frankly, I have always thought that the Iowa caucuses seemed totally bizarre,” said Mikala Cohen, a second-year Political Science major. “The idea of community members coming together, conversing publicly and then making a decision on who to caucus for just seems ridiculous as a Florida voter that is comfortable with a secret ballot. I wanted to go to Iowa to see how these caucuses function and if real civic activism and participation was possible.”
We had arrived to our hotel the evening before, straight off the five-hour-long bus ride from Chicago during which we watched the documentary Caucus! and stopped in Dixon, IL, Ronald Reagan’s birthplace, to refuel ourselves. By “we” I mean 21 undergraduates, two graduate students (one from the Harris School for Public Policy and the other from the Pritzker School of Medicine), and six staff members from the Institute of Politics, who coordinated the entirety of the trip.
At the beginning of our 40 hours in Iowa—the day before the caucus—we sat down with journalists, strategists, political consultants, and even Snapchat’s head news executive for a dinner on Sunday evening to learn about their perspectives on the caucus and their predictions for how things would go.
“Every campaign is a Rorschach test for the country,” Washington Post correspondent and longtime Iowa caucus veteran Dan Balz shared. “Iowa is the place where candidates have to interact with the people—if candidates take that seriously, they come away with better knowledge of the country.”
Founder and editor-in-chief of TheIowaRepublican.com Craig Robinson compared the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus to sitting in the front row of the movies—not everyone can handle being in the front. “We’re looking for something beyond soundbites,” he said.
After dinner, we hurried over to a pre-caucus rally for Republican candidate Ted Cruz at the state fairgrounds, our first taste of live political campaigning in Iowa. (The entire trip was nonpartisan and we did not campaign or canvass for any candidate, but we attended rallies and events for both Democrat and Republican candidates to observe the experience.) Though the rally was at capacity when we arrived, we were still able to talk with ordinary Iowans also waiting outside. We even had the chance to talk to Iowa Congressman Steve King, a staunch member of the Tea Party, and Heidi Cruz, the senator’s wife, who spoke to students from the Gate, the IOP’s political review, in an impromptu interview.
“He’s not [in politics] for the lifestyle, he’s not there to be popular. [It] can be hard sometimes to stand alone, and him standing alone for truth and principle has been really, really inspiring,” Heidi Cruz said, describing what makes her proud about her husband.
The next morning, the excitement continued when we started things off at 8 a.m. by visiting Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in his office at the Iowa State Capitol. As the longest-serving governor in the United States, he provided long-term insight about the status of the state and how the national and international attention on the caucuses impacts the day-to-day economy and political focus.
After that, we had a bit of time to explore downtown Des Moines, shopping for souvenirs at the kitschy Raygun store, talking with campaigners and political commentators, and even greeting former President Bill Clinton as he walked with Secret Service agents down the street from his hotel. During lunch we heard from David Yepsen, who covered politics for the Des Moines Register for many years before becoming director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Yepsen described this year’s caucus as “a battle of the thumbs,” noting how significant of a role social media has played.
Later in the afternoon we were able to visit Cristina Ochoa (A.B. ’15) at the local ABC news TV station to see how the news team was preparing for the big night: the anchors practiced lines for different caucus outcomes, rehearsed transitions between rally sites, and shared with us their own views of the caucus and the hubbub that it brings to the state every four years. Cristina also shared her own perspective as a recent UChicago alum with us; she landed a full-time job covering the race in Des Moines through an internship in the IOP’s Iowa Project. This was an in-depth, immersive experience for UChicago students both in Hyde Park and for those who interned last summer in Iowa with various news outlets including CNN and Radio Iowa. We also managed to visit the Martin O’Malley campaign headquarters and listen in on his press conference—one of the last of his campaign, as he dropped out of the race later that evening.
The rest of the trip was a whirlwind: we sat in on the Republican and Democratic caucuses in a school in East Des Moines and were able to observe from the bleachers as Iowans tried to persuade their friends, neighbors, and community members to switch their allegiance from one candidate to another. We listened to the cheers of the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton supporters when O’Malley’s caucus-ers decided to join their team, and watched the secretary of the caucus count off the people in each group to call out a total of seven delegates elected for Clinton and three for Sanders.
“I enjoyed seeing 'democracy in action' by attending a caucus at a middle school,” said Anthony Downer, a third-year political science major and co-founder of the IOP student group Leaders of Color. “I observed the differences between the Democratic and Republican caucuses, the enthusiasm for Senator Sanders that would lead to only a razor-thin lose, and the involvement of Iowans of different ages, races, and ideologies. The caucuses were inspiring and unique, and I appreciated watching the process from an outside perspective.”
After the caucuses finished, we split into groups ourselves, with students and staff each going to the Clinton, Sanders, and Drumpf post-caucus rallies before departing for Chicago at 6 a.m. the next day.
“Our trip to Iowa helped me feel less disillusioned about the democratic process. This primary has been bloody and weird on both sides of the aisle, and it was encouraging to see productive conversation, debate and politics in Iowa,” Mikala commented.
Anthony agreed: “Being immersed in the arena of presidential candidates, campaign rallies, meals with political experts, and visits to the caucuses helped prepare me for a career in politics and campaigning for elected office,” he said. “I experienced, first hand, a side of our democratic process that I had not seen before, and the networking and learning solidified my interest and ambition in politics. I hope to inspire Americans to vote, to share their stories, and to trust in their elected officials and government.”
For 40 hours, we were able to listen in on history in the making. We watched citizens make decisions about the candidates that will inform the rest of the 2016 election, and witnessed the speeches of first-and second-place finishers in the caucus. We were able to experience the Iowa caucuses in a way that taught us much more than any news article or Snapchat snippet ever could—we were able to meet the people who are the caucus and see why Iowa is in fact the first in the nation.