Students head to Iowa for presidental caucuses

Abbott LaPrade ’21 and Maggie Joseph ’20 attended last week’s Iowa caucuses. While news outlets across the country reported chaos in Iowa, these two saw a very different story unfold on the ground.

By CAROLINE KAPP

Editor’s note: These interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

CAROLINE KAPP: Why did you attend the Iowa caucuses? 

MAGGIE JOSEPH: I attended the Iowa caucuses to conduct research alongside Professor Dickinson in Political Science.

Abbott LaPrade: To actually caucus.

CK: What precinct(s) did you visit? 

MJ: I visited Abbott’s precinct, Des Moines 59.

CK: Who won in the precinct where you attended? Were you surprised? Why or why not.

AL: Pete Buttigieg won the final alignment by a hair, by a few popular votes, but both he and Bernie [Sanders] got four delegates and [Elizabeth] Warren got three of the county or delegates of the 11 for my district. I didn’t think Bernie was going to do quite as well as he did. But no, we were always going to be a big Pete and Elizabeth hub.

COURTESY OF MAGGIE JOSEPH
Voters gathered in the Des Moines 59th Precict for one of 1,700 caucuses held across the state on Feb. 3 by the Democratic Party. The caucuses in Iowa are a nearly 50-year-old tradition.

CK: What is one word you would use to describe the feeling surrounding the process? Please explain.

MJ: It was a fun mix of excitement but also feeling really uncomfortable. I was so uncomfortable. I don’t think that the process of the Iowa caucuses is justifiable. When you think critically about who can be there and whose voice is represented and valued in the room.

AL: Community-building. I think it’s a really great opportunity to—I mean, it’s a bunch of your neighbors. So, I flew home for the caucuses and got to talk and hang out with all of my neighbors which was really cool. And you know, at the end of the day, it’s supposed to be this conversation, so it really is community oriented and focused on reaching a collective decision.

COURTESY OF MAGGIE JOSEPH
Both Joseph and LaPrade attended various candidates’ campaign rallies. Senator Amy Klobuchar did not reach viability in Des Moines 59, the caucus the two attended.

CK: Did speaking with caucus attendees give you any insights into issues that might become important in the upcoming election? 

MJ: It depends on who you talk to. For example, Bernie supporters, and other progressive supporters, are often younger and they’re about issues like debt. They’re thinking about student debt, they’re thinking about the climate, they’re thinking about corruption. They’re thinking about electing a reconstructive president and talking about how things can’t keep going the way that they are going. How, America really needs as a candidate to take us in the other direction — and quickly — and that’s the big structural change argument. But for supporters of moderate candidates, it’s about electability — that’s what it all comes down to. 

AL: I would say that, by and far, talking to both people in my precinct the night of the caucus — and then also when I was just home talking to friends — the biggest issue was: “How do we beat Donald Trump in 2016.” I think that there’s a lot of excitement about beating Donald Trump, there’s just not a lot of excitement about a particular candidate or a particular issue beyond that. 

CK: What was it like to wait for results and not get them? Please describe the experience.

MJ: The media portrayed this chaos in Iowa, which was funny because it was so pleasant. That night we went to some victory parties, because those are fun, then we came home, and they were still not reporting. I thought, “that’s weird,” but then I thought back through, and it’s not surprising. The person who was running our caucus — I loved him — he was 80. This man was not logging into any app. They count by hand and you’re like, “Are you kidding me?” But then the New York Times and Associated Press are like, “Oh, we find inconsistencies in this in the report.” Yeah, no, duh. They’re doing this by hand like. It was really incompetency, more than any conspiracy I could see. 

AL: I would actually say that, by and far, we’re actually run really, really well. The issue then came in the reporting and the votes, which was a gross miscalculation by the Democratic Party in Iowa. But I think that had it been 20–30 years ago, there would not be so much focus on the fact that there were not instantaneous results and in time for Jake Tapper bedtime. If it was a print media world, we wouldn’t even get results by the print deadline and you would have to wait either for a daily news or the next morning’s newspaper. I don’t think it was nearly as bad as the media made it out to be. The media just have nothing else to report on and they had hours of dead time to fill. So, they decided to rip on the Iowa caucuses, when in actuality, it was a really well run event. It was just not executed on the back end very well.

COURTESY OF MAGGIE JOSEPH
Joseph chatting with former MA Governor Bill Weld who spoke at Middlebury this past Fall. Weld was in Iowa for the Republican caucuses which occured the same day.

CK: Did this experience give you an insight into any strengths/flaws of the caucusing system? Do you think that it is a valuable system in our democracy?

MJ: Caucusing protects the status quo and it raises barriers to participation. If you enter the caucus at 7:02 p.m., you can’t go. What happens if the roads are bad, and there’s a snowstorm and you can’t afford snow tires or have a car? You can’t go if you have children at home, and you can’t bring them for whatever reason. Who has the privilege to attend a caucus? This experience made me think a lot about whose voice matters. I was able to observe the social dynamics of crowd managing and who was having various conversations. I saw who was using their social capital over someone else to convince them to join their party. The caucuses, to me, just felt like an old boys’ club, old white boys club all coming together. No individual is created equal, let’s not ignore social realities here. We are not in an equal playing field; we need to acknowledge this. Caucusing is built for a type of unity and equality that has either never existed in America, or that disappeared long ago.

AL: I’m a really big proponent of the caucus system. I think it really makes you think deeply about your choice and who you’re voting for. There is also this idea of the caucus being a conversation. When we went to the caucus, I caucused for Amy Klobuchar, and she wasn’t viable in the first round. So, a group of us talked about what the best strategy was going forward — what is our goal here tonight? I think that like a lot of people knock caucuses for not being open and accessible to everyone. So few people vote in primaries anyways. I would be curious to know what the primary percentage participation rate is in Alabama. The Democratic Party did a great job this year in making it more accessible and open than ever before — they had a bunch of satellite locations. My brothers goes to school in Connecticut and was able to go into New York and caucus remotely.

COURTESY OF MAGGIE JOSEPH
Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Golden Retriever Bailey, campaigning for his mom.

 CK: What surprised you the most about the caucus?

MJ: I was surprised by how uncomfortable I felt in the caucus. I stepped into that room and realized how many people didn’t have the privilege to do so. I think the voter turnout rate is on par with 2016 — but it’s around 16% or something. Iowa is around 90% white and not a very racially diverse place. But I was still surprised — walking into the caucus of around 511 people, I saw fewer than 15 people of color in the room. The only people of color that were visible were often press. So, how can we consider this system to be representative of what Iowans want? But that being said, I found myself having moments of, “Wow, this is such a beautiful manifestation of democracy.” But, the other part of me was like, “What the hell?” This system, though it was instituted in the 1970s, reflects the idea of an America that has never existed. It was based on this conception of America, of 18th century America, in which equal, land-owning white men came into a room and picked a nominee. If that did exist at one time, it hasn’t existed for a long time. 

AL: I don’t know if anything really surprised me, I was pretty well-educated and engaged and have been there before. I have also just been deeply ensconced in the system. I know the caucus program. I’ve worked in Iowa politics — it all makes a lot of sense to me, so I didn’t find any of it too terribly surprising.