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First in the Nation: Covering the Iowa Caucus

This past weekend I spent a significant amount of time somewhere I’d never thought I’d visit, Des Moines Iowa. Hell, I couldn’t even pronounce Des Moines before this trip. However, as an online student at the Newhouse School at Syracuse, I am to attend two immersion events which can be held in a few different states and countries (more about the program and my journey to a master’s later). When I initially looked into the 2U program I was enticed by the thought of ending up in Costa Rica for one of the two required Immersions. To my surprise, the international trips occur every-other-year, and January 2019 was the year that 2U traveled outside the U.S. border. Of course, I had my reservations with traveling to a state that voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, especially in such a polarized climate. Nevertheless, I registered for the January Immersion, packed my bags, and set out to learn about political journalism, the Iowan culture, and the Iowa Caucus!

Newhouse at Syracuse Immersion badge

To kick off the three-day Immersion, we started with an introduction to the Caucus and how politics is covered by local newspapers. So, what is the Iowa Caucus and why is Iowa first in the nation to select their primary candidates for the general election? Simply put, the Iowa Caucus is exactly that, a primary selection of a candidate for each political party. They are held every two and four years, however, it is the presidential caucus that makes Iowa the center of the nation every four years. The next Iowa Caucus will take place on February 3rd, 2020. While some states have primary elections(closed and open), ten states, and three U.S. territories, hold caucuses. Caucuses are somewhat less formal meetings and can take longer than a primary election. While voters for primary elections may go to a local polling station (typically a school, firehouse, or post office) caucuses can be held anywhere as long as there is enough space to handle a large occupancy. Less formal than a primary election, caucuses can take hours to render viable candidates and delegates. Much like the general election, voters of the primary election select their respective candidates via voter ballots, those ballots are counted and be the end of the night there is a general idea of which candidates will face off in the general election. Well, the Iowa Caucus is anything but formal. Well, let me explain this before I make such a generalization. As I’ve stated before, a caucus can be held anywhere (banquet hall, hotel, gym, etc.); for the Republican caucus, citizens of Iowa write their preference down on a piece of paper and it is collected and counted to render a viable party candidate. Tallying can take hours and sometimes preferences are misplaced or not counted until much later. The democratic process is even less formal and is tallied by body count. The host of the caucus will ask participants to move to a designated area of the room in favor of such and such candidate. After much shuffling and moving about, persons are tallied up. Of course, this process can also take hours.

Des Moines from the hotel window

With such informal measures, a low population of people of color, and lack of an actual diverse national population, why is Iowa the first in the nation to select their viable candidates, surely this will set the foundation and influence states to follow? The answer is simple, Iowans and local newspapers say because they have the upper hand when it comes to connecting with candidates. Politics and the culture surrounding the caucus is ingrained in the culture and family life of Iowa. Iowa is the only state that enables citizens to get to know candidates below the surface level. Both the editor of the Des Moines Register and Dr. Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor at Drake University, explained how common it is for candidates to attend house parties given by supporters where supporters often converse and socialize in tiny-living rooms hammering out the hard stuff (why should the nation vote for you, what’s your views on this policy, how will you attack climate change, etc. ).

Visiting the Des Moines Register

Additionally, both suggested that the state is an exemplary representation of the nation, as can be seen in previous caucus selections. Although the state has a large white demographic, both argued that political views are polarized in Iowa and Iowa is truly a purple state. Although Iowa swung red for the 2016 presidential election, the state largely backed President Obama in 2008. Would I agree Iowa should continue to be the first in the nation to select their viable candidates? Well no. However, after spending four amazing days in a state I thought I was going to dislike, learning about the caucus, meeting candidates (I met Joe Biden, Joe Walsh, and Elizabeth Warren’s Communications Director), political reporters, bloggers, sightseeing and chatting with the locals, I received a deep understanding of how deeply rooted the people of Iowa are in politics and can understand why one might choose Iowa. Being a true Angeleno, my only qualm was the weather, Iowa was too darn cold for me.

This experience was not at all what I imagined, refreshing, to say the least, and a memory I’ll truly value for a lifetime. Thank you Iowa and Newhouse at Syracuse for this amazing experience.

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