By: Kylie Shae Keyser
During the weeks leading up to my grand adventure to Des Moines, Iowa, I was repeatedly asked, “Why are you going to Iowa?” At the time, I did not fully understand the significance of my trip, but now I can honestly say it was one of the best experiences of my life. Every four years Louisiana State University hosts a ten-day trip to Iowa to observe and learn about the Iowa caucus process. This year the trip was organized as a study abroad program for 20 LSU students and hosted by three LSU professors.
Surprisingly Iowa is a lot more than just cows, corn and hay. It is the epicenter of American democracy. Currently only LSU and Principia College offer a program for students to travel and experience the Iowa caucuses. Here are ten reasons why more colleges (or any other political enthusiast) should take the trip to Iowa to observe and study the Iowa caucus phenomenon.
1. The Iowa Caucus
Many people do not fully understand what a caucus actually is or why the Iowa caucus is important. One reason why the Iowa Caucus is important is because Iowa is the first state to vote for a democratic and republican presidential nominee. But instead of voting in a primary election Iowans engage in an event called a caucus. There are 1,600 geographical locations in Iowa called precincts and each precinct holds a caucus. Because of this setup, Iowans attend their caucus with their neighbors and friends, but the structures of the caucuses are different for each political party.
The Democratic Party has a very engaging caucus. Every democratic candidate has a designated area of a room and if a voter wants to cast a vote for that candidate then he/she stands in the candidate’s designated area. If a candidate does not get 15 percent of the vote, then realignment commences. Realignment is an opportunity for caucus-goers to convince their friends and neighbors to vote for their favorite candidate. After everyone chooses a candidate and the candidates left have at least 15 percent of the vote, then the Democratic Party releases a state delegate equivalency. The state delegate equivalency is how they determine who “won” the democratic Iowa caucuses.
The Republican Caucuses are done by a straw poll. Caucus participants are given time to speak on a candidate’s behalf, and then everyone fills out a ballot. The ballots are counted and reported to determine who “won” the republican Iowa caucuses. Because of the structure of the Iowa caucus, all Iowans are expected to be politically involved and informed.
2. Meeting Presidential Candidates
Yes, I mean actually getting to shake hands and have conversations with presidential candidates. Most town hall meetings, rallies and meet and greets are designed to give the public an opportunity to ask the candidates questions about his or her stances and opinions on specific issues. After the event, candidates take the time to shake hands and take pictures with local Iowans. Not only is this a great way to get awesome selfies with important political figures it’s also a great way to hear and see a candidate with no media filter.
[Marco Rubio and I at his town hall event in Marshalltown, Iowa]
Because we all attend Louisiana State University so we are no strangers to southern hospitality. After spending ten days in Iowa, we quickly realized that there is a special midwestern hospitality. Iowans are incredibly kind and accommodating. At every event we attended, locals were intrigued by our group and spent time chatting with us. Another endearing Iowan characteristic is the sweet Midwestern accent.
Hy-Vee is an extraordinary 24-hour store that features a Chinese buffet, deli, restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store, wifi, post office, gym and a friendly well-dressed staff. It’s the perfect place to grab a snack, quick dinner or to simply enjoy the free wifi. Our hotel was a block away from a Hy-Vee and we took full advantage of the proximity. We hope that one-day Louisiana will be graced with the presence of a Hy-Vee.
5. Political Theatrics
Since we had the opportunity to see presidential candidates first-hand, we also saw different styles of political events. We heard Hillary Clinton’s girl power campaign playlist about ten times on repeat. We heard the Bontrager Family Singers play folk music to open up for a Ted Cruz rally. We experienced a chaotic unorganized Ben Carson town hall meeting. Then Donald Trump was welcomed to the stage like a rock star with Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger blasting throughout the venue. Each candidate had very distinctive styles. Some campaigns were obviously more organized than others. For example, Ben Carson’s town hall meeting was disastrous. The secret service security screening was extremely inefficient, which caused a line all the way out of the café entrance. There were only two members of the campaign staff working the event, and they seemed flustered and unprepared. During the event, we could barely hear Dr. Carson speaking because there were crying children, loud media workers, and the secret service talking. In contrast, Ted Cruz’s rally had volunteers at the front door to welcome us and the whole venue was decorated with the Iowan flag, American flag, Cruz decorations and two television screens playing Cruz advertisements on repeat. The whole Cruz event was a precise and scripted production.
[Bontrager Family Singers performance at a Ted Cruz rally]
6. Iowa Geography and Landscapes
Because we had to drive to events in all different cities, we had the opportunity to see most of the state. For the most part, Iowa is exactly what we expected: miles and miles of farmland and cows. To our surprise we discovered that Iowa is one of the leading states in wind power generation. We were astounded by the amount of wind turbines scattered around the snow-covered state.
In addition Iowa is freezing, but not just freezing it’s subzero degree arctic temperatures. The only solace from the cold was an amazing transportation system called skywalks. Skywalks are an innovation that allows pedestrians in downtown Des Moines to walk from building to building in heated indoor sidewalks elevated one story above the street.
[Wind turbines scattered across Iowa]
7. The Media Experience
All the events had different types of media coverage. The Martin O’Malley meet and greet had a few reporters, a couple of photographers and two videographers. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton’s rally had a whole platform for media and multiple tables for reporters to use as a file room after the event. It was interesting to observe how different campaigns accommodate the media. Some candidates blatantly insulted the media. Donald Trump called them “the most seriously dishonest people in the world” at his Clear Lake rally. The month leading up to the caucus is a media circus. Over the ten days we were in Iowa we encountered reporters from NPR, ABC, NBC, The Des Moines Register, Fox News, CNN and many more. The media coverage of the Iowa caucus is an ideal subject for mass communication or journalism students to study.
[Media at a Martin O’Malley town hall event]
8. Iowan Culture
Iowa is rich with culture and history. Iowa is home to the original “Field of Dreams,” John Wayne’s birthplace, and the covered bridges featured in “Bridges of Madison County.” Also, Iowa’s state capital building has the largest gold leaf dome in the United States, and the building itself is absolutely stunning.
In addition to all of the fun destinations in Iowa, Iowa is infamous for their mac and cheese burgers. And nearly every local recommended Fong’s pizza. At first, we were skeptical of eating Chinese pizza, but the crab Rangoon pizza from Fong’s was one of the best meals we have ever had. We loved Fong’s pizza so much we ate there twice.
[Infamous Iowan Mac and Cheese Burger]
9. American Democracy at Work
The best part of visiting Iowa is getting to experience being spoiled like Iowans. Every four years Iowans have the opportunity to meet all of the presidential candidates and ask them questions about their policies. In other words, Iowans shop for their ideal presidential candidate. Instead of watching the news or reading the newspaper, Iowans develop their opinions of candidates through firsthand experiences at intimate campaign events. Pretending to be an Iowan for ten days was such a special way to interact with candidates and learn which candidates we like with the most.
10. The Overall Educational Experience
The trip allowed us to indulge in firsthand experiences with presidential candidates and their campaigns, so most of the education was the trip itself. We learned how the media interacts with the candidates, how local Iowans get involved with the campaigns, and how candidates interact with potential Iowa caucus-goers. The overall experience was educational for mass communication and political science students. In addition to the firsthand experience, the students were required to take one of three course offerings in political communication, journalism or political science. Each student received three hours of college course credit for attending an amazing ten-day trip. Overall, the whole experience was unique and educational and more colleges should offer similar Iowa programs to their students.