Discovery & Impact, Student Experience

Inside the Iowa Caucus

February 4, 2020

Six Hoyas went behind-the-scenes at the 2020 Iowa Caucus

On January 31, six Georgetown students flew to Iowa to experience the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus. The student trip, organized by McCourt’s Institute of Politics and Public Service (GU Politics), gave students a chance to hear directly from candidates and their surrogates from both sides of the aisle, meet with senior campaign staff who shared insight into their strategy and talk with national and state journalists to understand caucus night coverage. While the final results may have been delayed, the excitement from students certainly was not.

Read McCourt student Jack Ryan’s (MPP ‘20) reflection from the experience below and check out #HoyasinIA on social media.

Meetings with Journalists

The weekend before the Iowa caucuses, the political world seems to revolve around the Des Moines Marriott lobby, a place so densely backed with campaign staff and reporters that it’s impossible to grab a coffee or order a drink without getting caught in someone’s orbit. Our group spent its fair share of the weekend “political people watching” and chatting with as many notables as we could pull over or set meetings with, talking with key players in the 2020 cycle, like Lis Smith of the Buttigieg campaign and Symone Sanders of the Biden campaign.

Of course, there were plenty of missed connections, but even those who we would just miss would inevitably catch up with us the next day, in a different corner of the lobby, with more invaluable advice and campaign war stories than we could possibly jot down.

However, one missed connection – CNN’s Jake Tapper – went above and beyond, inviting us to a taping of his show State of the Union the next morning. There, he ran his show smoothly, engaging with us during commercial breaks, introducing us to all of his guests and cohosts, and, finally, sitting down with us for a long Q&A filled with advice and insight.

I don’t mean to speed through these experiences, but that’s simply how time moves when you’re surrounded by people prone to West Wing-paced conversations that can end at the buzz of a phone. Moments quickly become isolated memories spun around in a lottery wheel of the weekend, held together only by the fact that you’re pretty sure they happened in that order.

 

Candidate Encounters (and selfies)

By the end of our conversation with Tapper, we were able to reflect and re-realize that we had also just met a presidential candidate: former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first guest on SOTU that morning. Despite knowing he was going to be on the show from the lineup, it was still surreal when he actually came by to meet us, take a photo, and talk for a bit before he was called on stage.

As a group, we were still a bit in shock from meeting and talking with Senator Amy Klobuchar backstage after her rally the night before; this sent us over the edge into full campaign hysteria.

Just as Mayor Pete had to run off to his next interview, we raced around the Des Moines area for the rest of that day, hitting Warren, Biden, and Buttigieg rallies where we listened to stump speeches, met surrogates like Rep. Tim Ryan (for Biden), and talked with undecided Iowa voters.

The following day, caucus day, was a bit of a tonal 180 — after three days of hearing arguments for “big, structural change,” or “a new era,” we spent our afternoon at the “Keep Iowa Great” press conference, where we met Trump surrogates like White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and the President’s son, Eric Trump.

The difference between the energy of the young grassroots operations we had seen on the ground the previous day and the authority of an incumbent presidential campaign was eye-opening, but, before we had time to process everything that we’d just seen, we were off to the final event of our trip: the caucuses themselves.

 

Watching the Caucus Process

The pros of a caucus, in my eyes, seem to be the months of communication between communities as they make major, long-term decisions (instead of avoiding conversation and simply checking a box marked R or D on election day) and the idea of some sort of ranked-choice voting for an early state with so many options.

The cons from the perspective of a McCourt policy student focusing on election integrity include the enormous barriers that come with making it to a caucus site on a Monday night at 7 pm – think of any caregiver, second or third shift worker, or regular voter during a blizzard – as well as the pressure to conform or abstain that comes with casting a public vote, and the evident inconsistencies in counting bodies instead of ballots.

This was all on display as we watched a mostly college-aged electorate gather, assemble, and realign at Drake University’s indoor field house, with a surprising outcome by the end of the night: two delegates each for Warren and Buttigieg, one for Bernie, and, in the most impressive lobbying effort I’ve ever seen by six ardent Cory Booker supporters, one delegate for the Senator from New Jersey.

 

Lessons from Iowa

We walked away from the caucuses excited and ready for more electoral action… but no more would come that night. Although Iowa would not provide any concrete results for quite some time, the collective passion and interest brought forth by the Iowans we met made up for an anticlimactic night.

We continuously witnessed, through the views and words of supporters we passed throughout that weekend — whether for Biden, Bernie, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Warren, Yang, or Trump — the power of a community in a serious, communal discussion about the future of our country.

Over that weekend, we talked about politics, policy, and public service with more Iowans (and out-of-state volunteers) than I can count, and, regardless of political beliefs or background, it was evident that all each of them really wanted was to be seen, heard, and respected.

Whether it was a conservative Uber driver with a perfectly “Iowa nice” demeanor shaken by “kill yourself” protest signs outside a Trump rally, a liberal farmer worried about how chaotic trade scenarios could upend his livelihood, or the partisan inbetweeners just seeking “real change for once,” one lesson became clear – the most valuable principle in a political world is not one of partisanship, but rather the way you listen, respond, and behave when you meet someone who doesn’t share your beliefs.

I left for Iowa with a critical question on my mind: what should you talk about with someone who you have fundamental disagreements with? Plenty of people would respond “something apolitical;” today, more and more people would reply with “nothing at all.” In Iowa, I found the answer to be quite the opposite, even among reporters, operatives, candidates, and students of different beliefs and convictions: if you disagree with someone, you should talk about everything.