Life in the Box: Iowa’s Got Prez

What is it like to live in Iowa in the months prior to the “first in the nation caucus?” Busy. And this year with 20+ candidates trying to connect with Iowa Democrats, it can be dizzyingly busy. We start to feel important and maybe (insert modest blush here) popular. At least temporarily. 

In the past week, I have received texts and phone calls from Bernie, Elizabeth, Kamala, Tom (Steyer), and Gov. Bullock (Steve). Some of the calls were invitations to “watch parties” for the Democratic candidates’ debate, some were invitations to meet the candidates, and some were requests for volunteers to knock on doors or make phone calls.

Our home’s mailbox is stuffed with campaign ads and/or contribution requests from Pete, Amy, and Andrew. I haven’t heard much from the “front runner,” Joe Biden, but wait, I may have already thrown his recent mailing in the recycle bin. And Nancy Pelosi always wants me to contribute $188 for some reason. She has all her big-name friends text and email me, too.

So, as the caucus approaches, being courted by candidates sometimes feels a bit much. It makes us even less eager to answer phone calls from unknown numbers, which were already clogging our phones with “important calls” about student loans or expiring car warranties. But we feel a bit privileged, as well. We feel like our voices will be heard by powerful people, our concerns weighed, and we do talk and think about what our nation’s priorities should be. We want to sound informed and serious. We want to represent the nation and do a good job of picking top candidates out of this outstanding herd.

When I saw Mayor Pete speak in someone’s backyard, I was able to ask him my most pressing question, “How will we take back reality from Fox News and other malicious fake news sources? What can we do to re-orient all those people who now refuse to believe mainstream media?”

His answer was that he tried to reach out to Fox viewers by holding a town hall with some of the “real” news reporters there. And that human interactions in non-partisan activities will build friendships that cross political divides. Not a bad answer, but not comprehensive enough for me. My goal wasn’t to get him to know the answer now; I wanted him to know it’s a pressing concern of mine for our nation. And to motivate him, a very smart person, to think about possible future answers. That was satisfying for me.

I also met John Delaney at a picnic in my neighborhood. He didn’t have an answer to the “reality” question, either, but the people at my table talked about several different concerns we have. The most interesting thing he said to us was that he thinks the Supreme Court has too much unlimited power. I hadn’t heard that one before, and may just do some follow-up research on that. For the gay community, having a Supreme Court decide in our favor about gay marriage has made us grateful for the high courts. At the same time, we are always wary of the courts when they swing conservative; they may take away all that they’ve given to us. And we all remember when the Court chose a Republican President, because they could. 

One other noteworthy experience was volunteering to help with the crowd at a Kamala event in West Des Moines last summer. This week, her campaign asked me to be a caucus representative for her in February. I said no, because I am allergic to meetings. But in hindsight, this might be a good way to feel that I’m contributing. Now I have to figure out which phone number that one was…

This year I’ve also attended speeches by a half-dozen candidates at the 2019 Des Moines Gay Pride event, which was really awesome. Back when Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton were campaigning in 2008, they sent campaign staff to small, private groups of lesbians and gay men (the candidates couldn’t be seen with us, I guess.) The candidates’ public statements were along the lines of “we don’t support gay marriage, but we think gays should be treated fairly.” Back then, it was understood that they couldn’t possibly win the national election by openly supporting LGBT communities.

Today’s candidates know all the initials, LGBTQ, and say them out loud. Some can talk easily about transgender people’s problems in the military. And one candidate is openly gay. What a difference in just over a decade! And I witnessed the change by being part of the Iowa caucus campaign sweeps.

That being said, I can understand why, every Presidential campaign year, Iowa’s first in the nation status is questioned. We are told we are too white, too rural, too Midwestern, too old, and just “not representative.” Possibly the criticism is all true. But don’t forget, we do, indeed have black people here; also immigrants from Bosnia, Asia, lots of Hispanics from different southern nations, and local Native Americans. They hold events for candidates and work with allies across the nation to keep the candidates on their toes. They just have to work harder to get the candidates’ attention because they are truly minorities here.

Also true is the economic boost election campaigning brings to Iowa every four years (or less, as the campaigns seem to begin the day after elections are held.) Campaign ads are significant income sources for all of our news outlets; income during Presidential campaigns can support broadcasters and major newspapers for years.

As an aside, I wish more of that income was spent by the media to inform the viewers about issues and to present interesting policy discussions rather than speculation about who’s going to win. After the election (and after profit-sharing with their share-holders), the local stations seem to invest  that income by sending sports reporters to football bowl games. Yes, I have expressed my dismay about this to the owners. No, I have not received fulsome responses.

The hotel and events industries in Iowa also love a good campaign season. Restaurants and rental car services enjoy boom years, too. Every candidate needs an entourage. Entourages need to travel, sleep, and eat. And besides that, we all enjoy meeting the idealistic young campaign workers and the famous reporters from both coasts. 

So, it’s not simple or easy to pry the first in the nation caucus status from Iowa. It has been written into Iowa law that no matter how early other states hold events, we will move ours up to be first. NPR host of “It’s Been a Minute,” Sam Sanders, who is black and gay, and has a master’s degree in public policy, wrote an essay, “Why Does Iowa Vote First, Anyway?” and his conclusion was that Iowa’s role as first player gives lesser-known candidates a chance. Being a smaller state means candidates spend less than they would in a larger state. And while Iowa’s population may be 97% white, they have supported minority candidates like Barack Obama. The state’s caucus-goers might possibly have open minds.

Sanders adds, “Iowa is not a kingmaker.” Iowa’s role is as a winnower. “[It] is not the be all, end all… It is just the start of a very long journey.” As an Iowan, I’m fine with the temporary role of rubbing elbows with the candidates. After all, barring natural disasters, it’s about the only time Iowa is the center of the nation’s attention.


Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, narrating and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and life issues, both inside and outside the box. Her opinions are her own, and are not necessarily those of this web site. 

Sam Sanders, Host of NPR’s “It’s Been a Minute,” Essay about Iowa Caucuses from 2016


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