24 Hours in the Belly of Iowa's Caucus Beast

24 Hours in the Belly of Iowa's Caucus Beast

The Iowa caucuses, which probably shouldn’t even be a thing and certainly should not be the opening salvo in our presidential election season, have finally arrived! Campaigns have spent millions of dollars in the state, thousands of volunteers have poured in from all over the country to doorknock and phonebank for their favorite candidate, and reporters and television crews from all over the world have descended upon Iowa’s cities and cornfields like vultures.

What does it feel like on the ground, you may be wondering? What follows is the diary of one reporter (me), of the 24 hours before the big event, or as I learned Tom Steyer likes to call it, “game day.”

Sunday, February 2

4:14 p.m: I arrive at Progress Iowa and Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa’s Super Bowl watch party in a cavernous building in downtown Des Moines. Elizabeth Warren is slated to drop by, along with her husband and Bailey, their dog (!!!), as well as surrogates of other campaigns.

I meet Erin Davison-Rippey, the executive director of Planned Parenthood in Iowa, who is excited to meet someone (me) who actually wants to talk to her about what is going on in her state aside from the caucuses. “We’re going to be irrelevant in two days!” Davison-Rippey, draped in a hot pink scarf, jokes.

“We’ve had everything from defunding of Planned Parenthood, a 20-week abortion ban, a 72-hour waiting period,” she tells me, the latter of which was overturned by the Iowa state supreme court. Two years ago, the state became only the second in the nation to pass a six-week abortion ban, which was later declared unconstitutional. “So goes Iowa, so goes the nation, and that was true when it came to the six-week abortion ban,” Davison-Rippey says. On Tuesday, the day after the caucuses, the state legislature will hold a hearing on a just-introduced constitutional amendment that would declare there is no right to an abortion under the state’s Constitution. Of the caucuses, Davison-Rippey tells me, “We’re using it as an organizing moment to say, ‘Hey, come to the capitol tomorrow.’”

With Davison-Rippey are three young people, all Planned Parenthood storytellers. I ask them who they plan on caucusing for; all three say Bernie Sanders. I ask one of them, Max, if they’re going to stay for the Super Bowl. “We’ll see,” they tell me. “We might be here for the snacks.” Fair.

4:36 p.m.: I buy a Black Cherry White Claw and grab a couple of what are described as “boneless Buffalo wings,” but are actually breaded chicken nuggets???

Pete Buttigieg’s representative mistakenly shares that the Super Bowl is happening tomorrow and not tonight, which seems very on the nose.

4:39 p.m.: No one here seems to care about the Super Bowl, but then I spy Rachel Levy, there in a San Francisco 49ers beanie. I assume she’s a volunteer, but Levy, who flew all the way from Long Beach, California, cheerfully describes herself as a “caucus tourist.” She’s in Des Moines with a friend. “We decided about a year ago to take a trip out here and experience it,” she tells me. “We saw Amy Klobuchar last night, and then this morning we saw Mayor Pete. And then saw Mayor Pete again at a rally. And here, Elizabeth Warren.” She adds, “We might try to fill in our time with others, but football’s also a priority. I’m a diehard Niners fan.”

She’s not the only caucus tourist in town, apparently. “I met a guy from Georgia in line who said, ‘This is the Disneyland of politics, of course I had to come.’”

4:40 p.m.: Elizabeth Warren hasn’t arrived yet, but here come representatives for other campaigns—Pete Buttigieg’s dude mistakenly shares that the Super Bowl is happening tomorrow and not tonight, which seems very on the nose. Brad Baumann, who’s on the communications team for Andrew Yang, jokes, “I’m kind of a Washington guy, I’m not gonna lie!” Tom Steyer’s son Sam bounds up. “It is fun to be here with you on game day,” he says woodenly. Sam Steyer—possibly a robot? I scribble in my notebook. I learn from Sam that his dad loves to say “game day,” and he gamely continues with the game day metaphor: “It’s game day on Election Day in November, and we have to win!”

5:19 p.m.: Uh oh, I’m a little drunk! Elizabeth Warren and Bruce Mann enter, sans Bailey. Ugh. Where is Bailey??? Warren gives her speech, and then conducts her infamous selfie line. Bruce is standing in the corner, smiling. No one ever wants to take selfies with him, so I go up and ask if I could take a photo with him, which he obliges, with a laugh.

I tell him I usually don’t like Golden Retrievers, but that I follow Bailey’s adventures on Instagram. “We’ve always had Goldens,” he tells me.

“I have to caucus for Yang, because he came to my house,” she says.

5:30 p.m.: A woman with a swoop of red hair and red cat-eye glasses who had earlier been wearing an Andrew Yang button excitedly takes a selfie with Warren. “Warren is my number two,” she tells me. “I love her, ever since her first book.” I ask about her Yang button, which she took off before posing with Warren. “I have to caucus for Yang, because he came to my house,” she says.

I tell her that Andrew Yang would never know who she caucused for. “I gave my word,” she replies, explaining, “I don’t want to be ‘Iowa Mean.’”

7:25 p.m.: I’m back at my hotel watching the Super Bowl, and a Joe Biden ad comes on right after the halftime show, which feels like a hate crime. Five minutes later, Michael Bloomberg’s nationwide, $11 million dollar ad comes on, featuring a black mother talking about the death of her son through gun violence—which, given Bloomberg’s love of stopping and frisking young black men in New York City while he was mayor, is certainly a choice.

Monday, February 3

10:28 a.m.: It is, as the Steyer family saying goes, game day! I resist the urge to scream, WHO ARE YOU PLANNING ON CAUCUSING FOR? at every stranger I see. I stop by the Marriott Hotel in downtown Des Moines, which is where, I’ve learned, all the cool reporter kids and a host of campaign operatives set up shop while in Iowa. I decide to check out the scene. The lobby is overrun with Pete Buttigieg volunteers, one of whom I chat up while in line to get coffee. She’s from Washington D.C., she tells me—funny, given Buttigieg’s disdain for the city!

10:43 a.m.: Senator Amy Klobuchar’s campaign is hosting a canvassing kickoff with her husband and daughter at their office in Des Moines, only half a mile away from the Marriott, so I decide to walk there, a mistake as it is very windy. On the way there, I pass what looks like a dead crow, one of its claws reaching for a crushed aluminum can, which appears to have once contained beans. I feel that I am that crow.

11:02 a.m.: At the office, which the campaign has painted in the Klob’s signature green, I meet Heidi Williams, a 41-year-old and Minnesota resident who’s volunteering for her state’s senator. “She’s very personable,” Heidi enthuses of Klobuchar. I ask her if she thought all of the stories of Klobuchar as an abusive boss made her, as she put it, “personable.” “We all have our own personalities, and I don’t think that should be a huge thing about what’s going on right now,” Heidi tells me. It’s true—we’ve all thrown things at our underlings. Let she who casts the first binder, etc. etc. I ask Heidi if recent news stories about her candidate’s time as a prosecutor, in particular the botched case of then-16-year-old Myon Burrell, gives her pause. “I think it’s a way to try to smear her in this campaign,” Heidi says.

Am I even a coastal elite covering the Iowa caucuses if I don’t interview my Lyft or Uber driver about the caucuses?

11:16 a.m.: Klobuchar’s husband and daugther, John and Abigail Bessler, arrive, bearing donuts for the staff and volunteers. I note that Abigail is wearing Allbirds sneakers.

11:20 a.m.: Before I leave, I spy a piece of chart paper posted on the wall with messages listing out why people are caucusing for Klobuchar. One of them reads, “She’s not too liberal, not too conservative, not too old, not too young. She is just right to make the perfect President!”

11:23 a.m.: My Lyft driver, Angela, arrives in a red SUV with a COEXIST sticker pasted to the side. Am I even a coastal elite covering the Iowa caucuses if I don’t interview my Lyft or Uber driver about the caucuses?

“My candidate dropped out,” Angela tells me. She was a Beto O’Rourke supporter. “He wasn’t ready.” She’s not planning on caucusing. “I just don’t have time to follow any of it, between doing this and doctor’s appointments constantly and trying to spend time with my three grown kids,” Angela says. But of all of the remaining candidates, she likes Bernie. Of his staffers, she adds, “I think they’ve done a great job getting ready for this run.”

“His team has done a great job over the last four years, because I’ve actually picked up some of his people that’ve been caucusing,” she says. “They’re handing out cards, that fold out, it’s all his views and everything he’d like to change.”

I ask her if she had driven around a lot of volunteers for other campaigns. “Just Biden and Bernie are the two big ones who have a lot of energy,” Angela replies. “No Warren. I haven’t seen any Warren people at all. It’s crazy, right?”

1:05 p.m.: After lunch, I make my way to the home of Jenn Riggs, an Elizabeth Warren volunteer and precinct captain who’s turned her home in the suburb of Beaverdale into a canvassing center for the candidate. California Representative Katie Porter, one of Warren’s campaign co-chairs, is slated to arrive to give the volunteers who’ve gathered in Riggs’s home a jolt of energy before they go out for one final push.

Jenn owns a small business that takes women on all-inclusive camping trips. “She has these big ideas and these big plans, and I trust that she’ll actually accomplish those, because we’ve seen it in the work she’s already done,” Jenn tells me of Warren. She’s volunteered for other campaigns before, from Howard Dean’s presidential campaign to more local races. She was a Bernie supporter in 2016, but is going with Warren this year because she trusts that Warren would get shit done. “I’m a progressive,” Jenn says. “I know when she says she’s going to do something, that it’ll get done.”

1:23 p.m.: Katie Porter has arrived! Standing before a fireplace plastered with Warren signs, she’s speaking of the “energized, committed, grassroots movement” that Warren’s campaign is building. “This is about building a movement that goes up and down the ballot,” Porter says.

Porter is a natural at politics—warm, personable. She’s got that “it” quality, where you feel like you trust her and that if she were to yell at you, you would absolutely deserve it. Katie Porter 2028? I scribble.

2:21 p.m.

Back at my hotel and my room is being cleaned by a housekeeper. I ask her if she’s planning on caucusing. “No, my daughter’s about to give birth any minute!” she told me. I congratulate her. A few minutes later, she pops back in my room and gives me a caucus update—the caucus in Paris, one of this year’s satellite caucuses, has concluded. News of the caucuses is unavoidable. “It’s France,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s like China and Russia trying to do it.”

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