Essay: If America was a Living Room, Iowa would be the Couch

By: Kensie Yeates

Although they dot different coordinates on the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders, Mike Huckabee and Martin O’Malley have proven that they have one thing in common: soul. Huckabee has soul food and Sanders soul music. O’Malley, however, is bracing for a fight to regain the “soul of the United States”. The three candidates, along with Chris Christie, have rung in the new year by hosting campaign events in Iowa to prepare for the upcoming Iowa caucuses and to encourage participation. Each candidate has entered the race with the same goal: win the state. The campaign events give Iowans a unique ability to peel away layers of the various campaigns and understand the candidates in a way that cannot be gleaned from mainstream media. While the candidate’s typically monger their ideals in an attempt to shore up support for caucus night, each presidential hopeful orchestrates their events in a unique way which exposes more than just policy points; these events expose how they view, understand and connect, or in some cases disconnect, with the American voters.
Drinks flowing and classic bar rock flowing softly from the speakers, Iowans eagerly awaited Chris Christie’s arrival for well over an hour. The 450 plus demographic was generally made up of middle-aged men and women, some with families, and many with an after-work beer in their hand. Three minutes after his scheduled arrival Christie entered the event trailed by secret service to find the room in a standing ovation. He shook hands and greeted the voters making direct eye contact with the crowd as he stood among them. This was a contrast from the Bernie Sanders event.
Late Thursday morning, Sanders hosted an event in a high-school gym, a fitting location as he waxed poetic concerning education reform during the majority of the event. Sanders sauntered in from behind a curtain and situated himself behind a roped-off podium. Potential supporters, who represented a variety of demographics, were fixed behind Sanders while brandishing signs after they were hand-picked from the initial audience by campaign staff to take a seat on the stage. Sanders entered the room to classic soul music wafting from the speakers with an round of applause from his eclectic audience. Sanders ascended onto the stage and peddled policy which targeted his distaste for establishment government and wealth inequality. Sanders stuck to his zany initiatives which have been emblazoned across different media platforms. He explicitly called for the end of corporate America and equal pay for women. Although Sanders has proposed ideas that have been heavily endorsed by a younger generation, Sanders confirmed his older age as he croaked out policy points with a strained voice and tired eyes. The Sanders campaign, proverbial for his anti-establishment government aesthetic, has aways had an every man feel to it. However, Sanders campaign was unique from other events in one way: distance. Sanders kept the potential caucus goers at an arms length distance the entire event taking a few pictures with his supporters and only answering pre-determined questions which were filtered by his staff. The closely-guarded Sanders descended from his podium and was whisked behind a thick velvet curtain before reappearing in the evening for an event in downtown Des Moines.
Sanders remained untouchable through the night for his New Years Eve celebration. Three rooms buzzed with a crowd heavily made up of millennials and seniors who were eagerly awaiting a Sanders’ appearance. The scene was social as drinks were ordered and party-goers watched a live artist paint portraits of Sanders. The event seemed to serve as a space that Sanders supporters used to get to know one another to further grassroots campaigning throughout Iowa. The attendees were eventually greeted by Sanders, once again roped off on a stage, who delivered a disappointing 10-minute crash course on policy points before he disappeared into 2016. The event did not match the hype that Sanders had accumulated though his earned-media nor did the event match the campaign premise that Sanders was of the people and for the people. Instead, he kept a ‘holier than thou’ air about himself through the entirety of his events. Martin O’Malley took a different approach as he strutted into the West Des Moines Public Library without any announcement, any introduction or any barrier.
O’Malley’s crowd, around 50 people, was generally made up of an older demographic. Most visitors were in striking distance of the average age of an Iowa caucus-goer which is 62. O’Malley entered the tiny room and mouthed “wow” as he took notice of the amount of people who had traveled there to see him. Constantly keeping eye-contact with his crowd, O’Malley stayed animated with his audience and was visibly aware of his crowd. O’Malley appealed to President Obama commending him for his leadership in the Democratic party. However, O’Malley proceeded to call for a “new leadership,” saying that he governs with the idea that the “eagle flies best when the left and right wings are both working.” O’Malley’s voice boomed though the library and his eloquent syntax made his message easy to decipher. It has been argued that O’Malley’s candidacy has been stymied by Bernie Sanders’ run, bumping O’Malley to the back of the democratic pack. However, Iowans are claiming to still be exploring their candidates options…many attendees at the O’Malley town hall had visited the Bernie Sanders meeting the day before. Many of the repeat faces ended up signing a card to commit to caucus for O’Malley as his natural strength as a candidate did not go unnoticed. Kira Hall, an O’Malley organizer for West Des Moines, admitted to being a Hillary Clinton supporter and volunteer in 2008. Hall says that a culmination of O’Malley’s views and initiatives concerning gun control, willingness to reach across the aisle, and “governing experience” swayed her to shift her support to the former Governor of Maryland. O’Malley chatted and with the attendees after the event and retained his political poise and charm. Mike Huckabee approached his small crowd in Urbandale, just outside of Des Moines, with the same political charisma and remained personable with the crowd.
Huckabee invited caucus-goers to a popular Iowa restaurant where he participated in a question and answer session, though he jokingly dubbed it a “question and avoidance” game. Huckabee approached his audience innocuously. He was quippy and chatty with the crowd and used personal recounts to connect with the room’s demographic. Despite Huckabee’s approachability and gentle quality, he had bold and shameless responses to caucus-goer questions and touched on his plans to implement the fairfax and dismantle the IRS. Huckabee’s campaign strategy has been criticized as being a campaign for Huckabee’s 2008 run (and eventual win) in Iowa. However, one could argue that an old-fashioned campaign could be necessary to win the state.
Iowa citizens have an acute understanding of their responsibility as a state to set a precedent for national presidential politics. Iowa citizens not only anticipate but expect constant candidate contact with state voters. The caucuses are a personification of Ed Kennedy’s understanding that you “can’t vote against someone who has slept on your couch.” Although the size and scope of the race has advanced over the years the importance of the idea remains. The presidential candidates vying for the White House in 2016 have clearly taken note.