Unpacking the 2020 Iowa Caucus

In the basement of the Isle Casino Hotel in Davenport, Iowa, a precinct captain approached the podium in the front of the room in khakis and a maroon sweater.

“Welcome to the caucuses for the 2020 presidential nominee in precinct B52.” Applause and cheering boomed throughout the room as voters shuffled to sit down to hear what he had to say next. The precinct captain said that this was the Iowa Caucus and the registered voters in the room would be responsible for standing in predefined sections to show support for a presidential nominee. Each corner of the room was filled with posters bearing candidate names. And when the precinct captain said “go” the individuals scattered to their corner. Chants filled the air and shirts of each candidates’ supporters became plastered with colorful stickers.

In the middle of the chaotic room were 15 college students from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Some students sat in amazement while others stood on chairs to get a full view of the room with mobile phones in hand documenting the event. The students were observing the Iowa Caucus for the first time and witnessing a crucial moment in the selection of the 2020 presidential nominee for the Democratic party.

As one of the students, I stood in amazement of the Iowa caucuses voting process. It was one thing to read about the caucus process in a book in preparation for the trip, but another to observe over 300 people from Davenport stand in the corners of a casino ballroom shouting about their candidates. We traveled from App State in university vans—a 15 hour trip—to witness this: democracy at work.

The students were observing the Iowa Caucus for the first time and witnessing a crucial moment in the selection of the 2020 presidential nominee for the Democratic party.

We arrived in Iowa on Friday, January 31, and started our adventure by attending a Tom Steyer event in Clinton, Iowa. The event was held in a little pub right off the main strip. Campaign banners lined the wall and the venue was filled with individuals sitting quietly around the edge of the room. When we, a group of 15 college students from North Carolina, entered, the dynamic changed. We quickly started leading the crowd in chants and scooped up as much free campaign apparel and signs as we could hold as we entered campaign mode.

When Steyer entered the room, he stuck to his traditional talking points: climate change and defeating Trump. After he was done, we sparked conversation with the Iowans in the room. One mother and daughter stood close to us near the back of the bar. While she had enjoyed the buttons and shirts provided at the event, the mother was not confident she would vote for Steyer, she was just curious as to what he had to say. The question of electability loomed over our conversation as we made our way to the door.

Most of the students in our group were curious to see what the other candidates had to offer. Our next stop was a Pete Buttigieg event at a VFW Hall in Clinton, Iowa. When we arrived, 45 minutes early, a line had already stretched around the corner. The chilling wind might have seemed like a deterrent to some, but for the Buttigieg supporters, it was not a factor. His supporters were passionately chattering about how the former Mayor from South Bend, Indiana, would offer a fresh face to our democracy. When we finally entered the campaign event, the blaring lights of television and press illuminated the room, but the VFW Hall nonetheless felt like an intimate community gathering.

The question of electability loomed over our conversation as we made our way to the door.

Our group quickly found the only open seats left and a few minutes later Buttigieg walked into the center of the 100-person crowd. He spoke in his calming voice and remained consistent by pledging he would cross party lines to get things done in this country. His speech was filled with personal anecdotes and conversations from the campaign trail—some discussing mental illness, others speaking of the racial injustice in our prison systems. Some in the audience looked to each other a little choked up, not expecting this Mayor from a small town to evoke so much passion and emotion. It was apparent that Buttigieg understood this audience.

The sun set on our first full day in Iowa.

Elizabeth Warren was next on our list of candidates and her event was held in West High School in Iowa City, Iowa. We arrived close to an hour early and the line stretched around the high school gymnasium with families and students alike. Our group was fortunate to get a seat in the gymnasium as we waited close to an hour for the event to begin. Behind us sat a group of about 10 students from the very high school in which we were sitting. Most of the students didn’t know much about Warren other than admiring the fact that she was a woman and enjoyed the thought of a female president. In front of us sat Senator Cheryl Kagan of Maryland, Legislative District 17, who was vocal about the need for more women in politics. A loud cheer filled the room as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley stepped onto the stage. Following an empowering speech regarding advocacy and change, Warren was welcomed to the stage with a warm hug from Pressley and a standing ovation from the crowd. The words “I have a plan for that” echoed throughout the gym and the senator echoed the need for change in Washington.

Following the seated Warren event, the App State vans headed to a Vampire Weekend concert sponsored by the Bernie Sanders campaign. The entire concert arena in Des Moines, Iowa was filled with Vampire Weekend and Sanders supports alike. While some of the Appalachian State students scattered to the seated section others ran into the pit near the stage. Signs were handed out and the atmosphere mimicked that of concerts held on college campuses across the country. Two young high school students stood next to us near the front of the stage and excitement filled the room.

The words “I have a plan for that” echoed throughout the gym and the senator echoed the need for change in Washington.

“The event matched my expectations for what a Bernie Sanders event would look like, except with many more young people,” said Amber Brown, a senior from Appalachian State University. “I was pleased to see that he is the same in person as he seems on TV and is unwavering in his stances on issues.”

Before the start of the concert, Michael Moore, Dr. Cornell West, US Representative Ilhan Omar and several Iowan elected officials provided Bernie with their endorsements and prepared the crowd. When Bernie came out, the atmosphere was electric. He repeated that he has been consistent in his policy and desires for the country. Near the end, Vampire Weekend began to play while he spoke. The energy did not feel like a political rally, rather a concert that happened to be filled with Bernie supporters. This would be the largest political rally we would attend, and it did not disappoint.

The next morning started early with a Yang Gang event. The event took place in Andrew Yang’s campaign office, which was empty for the most part besides a few posters and a couch. In stark contrast to the Bernie rally, only a few families stood around with a handful of his campaign staff as they prepared for one more day of canvassing. Eventually, Yang arrived at the campaign office and found a chair to stand on and address his small but committed group of supporters. Chants filled the small space, screaming “Humanity First ” and “Make America Think Harder.”

Following Yang, we found a Bill Weld event held in partnership with a non-profit in Des Moines. Alongside the App State students who attended, about 10 individuals from the center sat around a circular table in the middle of the small community room. This event was unique in the sense that it highlighted a term that is thrown around in most of our political science courses,“retail politics.” We experienced up close and personal the entrance of Weld into a group setting to gain support from a community in Des Moines.

He was vocal that the caucus experience was a hassle and that he wished he could walk in and write down his vote and leave, but just like everything in politics, it wasn’t that simple, he said.

That same evening, we saw former Vice President Joe Biden. While Joe and his family had a united front in saying he was most suited to beat President Donald Trump, multiple protestors filled the event. One Trump Tractor sat in front with a “Make America Great Again” flag shouted at Biden supporters and a young woman entered the space yelling about dirty money in the Biden campaign.

After three days of chasing presidential candidates, we sat in our van in furious conversation discussing and debating how well Buttigieg spoke, what Biden’s strong points were, Warren’s appeal to emotion and Yang’s appeal to a younger crowd. When we arrived at the casino in Davenport, we had no idea what to expect.

So, there we were, in the center of the room of the Iowa Caucus on Monday, February 3. In the corner next to the Elizabeth Warren banner sat a man in a plaid shirt and Levi’s jeans. His name was John and he is a registered voter for precinct B52 and walked in to find his candidate was nowhere to be found, so he went with the second choice, which was Warren. He was vocal that the caucus experience was a hassle and that he wished he could walk in and write down his vote and leave, but just like everything in politics,it wasn’t that simple, he said.

In his hand he had his ballot. On the front it has his first selection of candidate, which for him was Elizabeth Warren. After the counting of votes in each corner, only the candidates with enough supporters could move onto realignment. Precinct B52 had 357 total voters, so the candidate at hand must have 53 supporters to move on.

Once the first alignment was counted, John was left to either pick his second favorite or leave. Warren did not qualify in the room we were in, nor did Steyer, Yang, or Bloomberg. Once the second alignment began, voters and campaign activists alike approached the candidate-less voters and tried to persuade them to their side.

Our friend wandered around the room for a while, unsure of who his third pick would be. Eventually he entered Pete’s section which was overflowing into the center of the room. He joked about the snacks and everything other than politics.

The votes were finalized and the final candidates for the room were announced. Pete and Sanders had earned 3 delegates while Joe and Amy Klobuchar earned 2.

We stood up to leave and, while saying our goodbyes, John said over the chaos of the room “Boy, you girls are going to get back to North Carolina and say ‘those people in Iowa, they don’t know what they are doing.’”

Three days later, we received the results from Iowa. And while the world was in shock that the counting was wrong for the Iowa delegates, we didn’t find it that shocking.

“The Iowa Caucus, although a very fascinating way of selecting a presidential nominee, seems to be very chaotic and inefficient,” said Brown. “It made me realize how bizarre some of our rules are surrounding presidential elections, and the need for a uniform system among states.”

The Iowa Caucus, although a very fascinating way of selecting a presidential nominee, seems to be very chaotic and inefficient, it made me realize how bizarre some of our rules are surrounding presidential elections, and the need for a uniform system among states.

After all, every four years Iowa is tasked with initiating the selection of the nominees, depending on the year and the incumbent, for President of the United States. In rooms across the state, voters literally stand in the corners of gymnasiums, community centers and even casino halls in support of the presidential candidates. A head count is taken similarly to that of which you do in high school to make sure everyone is in attendance. Then the votes are cast and counted.

We piled in the van for the last time and set our eyes for home. Country Roads by John Denver hummed on the speakers as we watched corn fields turn into cities which turned into mountains.


Grayson Rice is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA.

Grayson Rice is a Junior at Appalachian State University majoring with honors in Communications, focusing on Journalism and Public Relations with a minor in Political Science. She wrote for The Avery Journal Times and The Appalachian, two publications in Western North Carolina. After college, she hopes to attend graduate school and pursue a higher degree combining her passions of the written word and global studies.

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