Des Moines, Iowa
Dear Washington, Since our last correspondence, voting finally got underway in the Democratic primary for president. That term—voting—is used loosely in Iowa, the state with a nearly 50-year history of kicking off the presidential selection process. Rather than step into a private booth anytime during the day to cast a ballot for their preferred candidate, Iowans wait until dusk to gather in churches and libraries and high school gymnasiums all across the state and sort themselves into groups.
By now, you’re well aware just how spectacularly this ritual backfired. Iowa Democratic officials not only failed to transmit results on caucus night; they failed for more than a week to provide verified numbers to satisfy the simple question of who won the state. There’s still no official winner. This debacle probably sounded a death knell for Iowa’s place at the front of the line, and if so, well, good riddance. The truth is, an overwhelmingly white, rural state doesn’t reflect a slice of America the way it once did. Someplace else deserves a chance to pick presidents—or, at least, to sift the serious candidates from the jokers.
There is one thing I’ll miss about Iowa: the people.
Iowans take mighty seriously their charge of vetting potential leaders of the free world. In fact, you could argue they take it too seriously: It’s not uncommon to encounter a caucusgoer who has seen each and every candidate in person, holding off on making a decision until—like a dairy farmer assessing a prize-winning heifer—they could assess the contenders in the flesh. The more time you spend in Iowa, the more you appreciate how the people here stay politically informed both as a point of communal relevance and civic duty.
Iowans are a great bunch to talk with if you want to understand what high-information voters think about the election, and the state of the country more generally. And among Iowans, I’ve found there’s an even more selective group that is hyperinformed about American politics: Uber drivers.
Don’t laugh. There’s a reason journalists love to share Twitter vignettes from back seats all across the country, and it’s not because we’re lazy. The drivers we encounter make up a fascinating cross-section of the electorate: young and old, blue collar and white collar, black and white and brown. One thing they have in common: They are cogs in a gig-employment machine that, more than most American industries, scrambles our notions of cultural, ideological and socioeconomic belonging. The other thing these people have in common is they spend lots of time in their vehicles, which often translates into lots of time listening to talk of current events, either by radio or podcast or conversation with their passengers.
If Uber drivers tend to be more politically informed than your average worker, Iowa’s Uber drivers are the most politically informed on Earth. Talk to enough of them and you’re liable to learn a lot about how people are living and how they’re voting—and why.
"Let me guess," JOHN FISHER said as I climbed into his cherry red Chrysler 200. “You want to talk about the caucuses?”
Yup—and apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
With thousands of journalists, campaign staffers, volunteers, activists and curious onlookers descending on Des Moines, Fisher’s car had turned into something of a traveling panel show. He liked to let the guests make their pitch, on behalf of a candidate or maybe a specific policy proposal, before introducing a programming twist.
“Finally, I’ll say that I’m a Trump supporter, and it’s dead silence for a minute,” he said, laughing. “But then we just keep talking. They’re still very kind. So, I’m kind to them in return. They don’t get pushy or anything. When they leave, I always wish them and their candidates the best of luck.”
Fisher, a 66-year-old Des Moines native, started driving after he retired from the insurance industry in 2015. He likes the extra income; even more, he likes the experiences with new people. “I’ll listen to anybody. I’m not a right-winger. I’m barely a Republican. I just like Trump,” he said. “These Democrats, they’re really not doing themselves any favors with impeachment and the way they treat him. I just don’t understand it. Why drag our country through this?”
He paused. “Then again, I only watch Fox News, so maybe I’m only getting one side of things.”
I asked if there were any Democrats he could support. “Pete Buttigieg. I like that he’s young and energetic. And I like his supporters, too,” Fisher said. “I actually like Tulsi Gabbard, too, every time I hear from her. But then you have these old dogs— Sanders, Warren, Biden. They need to get out of the way.”
Fisher said that national security—particularly “the drugs and the violence coming across the border” with Mexico—has long been his priority at the ballot box. But there’s another concern that weighs on him more and more: the diverging economic fortunes of Americans based on where they live. “Right now, things are very good in a place like Des Moines,” he says. “But the rural areas are drying up. The farms are being bought out by large corporations. The young kids are all moving to the cities. That’s a bad sign for the rest of the state.”
CASEY FORCE knows something about rural Iowa.
Raised in the town of Lovilia (population: 512), a speck of turf located 30 miles southwest of Oskaloosa, she felt the calling of the world. Force worked overseas as an international business consultant, first in Japan and then in Russia, unsure of whether she’d ever live in the U.S. again. It was only after a visit home for the holidays, and a chance encounter with her future husband, that Force returned to Iowa. But small-town life wasn’t an option. Now 40 years old, with two children, ages 2 and 7, Force works in special education at a high school in south Des Moines.
“And I drive six days a week,” she said. “Usually it’s just a handful of rides here and there, before school and once the kids are asleep at night. This paid for our last trip to Disney World. We’re going to take another one soon.”
Force voted for Hillary Clinton in the last general election. But she has never caucused before. This will be her first time—if she can work up the courage to participate. “I’m super intimidated by this whole thing,” she said.
The other hang-up: Force still hadn’t settled on a candidate. “I’ve just been listening. Last night, I had some Bernie Sanders volunteers; they offered me yard signs. The night before it was the Trump rally; I drove a lot of people from there. Then there was a girl I picked up from Walmart who was all emotional because she couldn’t decide who to caucus for. I’m really busy with work and family and everything, so I’ve been interested in hearing what everyone else thinks and why.”
Ultimately, Force said, she was leaning toward Buttigieg. But she’s prepared to vote for any Democrat who’s on the ballot in November. “I’m an educator, and we need money for our schools, and I just know we’re not going to get it without Democrats in power,” she said.
Force worries about her children and whether they’ll be able to afford college. She also worries about the low-income students at her school; two of them were recently lost to gun violence in a triple homicide that shook Des Moines. Above all, however, she worries about “the decision-making at the top” of the U.S. government.
“I still think back to that [Access Hollywood] tape, and how the reporter on the bus with him got fired and Trump became president,” Force said. “I think about the #MeToo movement. I think about the racial episodes. And it just seems—I thought we’d gotten somewhere as a country with Obama in office. I guess not.”
Behind the wheel of his gray Hyundai Sonata later that night, GEOFFREY O. sounds no less optimistic.
“I don’t believe in our politics anymore,” he says, shaking his head. “They are all lying to us. Like Andrew Yang—where is he getting that money from? And how much is he giving himself before I get my share? And Bernie Sanders, he talks about paying for everyone’s education—but how? Where is he getting that money from?”
Geoffrey, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Uganda, thought he was leaving dysfunctional and corrupt governance behind when he returned to America a few years ago to attend college. But that idealism has diminished. On one side, he says, he sees a Democratic Party that makes unrealistic promises. On the other side he sees Donald Trump.
“I respect that he is the president. But he is detached from reality,” Geoffrey said. (He asked not to be identified by his last name because it’s not hard to find an African migrant in Iowa.) “Trump does not want immigrants in this country. But America a big place. It needs immigrants to help solve its problems. People are running away from their countries because they don’t want to die, and we don’t let them into this country? He is anti-immigrant, and the people surrounding him are anti-immigrant.”
Geoffrey holds out some hope that things will change, that people will become “exhausted” with the extremes and look for middle ground. But he’s not holding his breath. Rather than concern himself with politics he’s hard at work, driving his sedan eight to 10 hours a day, all week long, hoping to make $150 each day to pay for his undergraduate degree.
Geoffrey longs for the notions of the idyllic America of his youth. But he worries this country is “no longer welcoming to people like me.” Moreover, he worries that it isn’t safe. “When I drive my Uber I just pray there are no shootings that happen,” he said. “That is my greatest prayer: I hope I don’t meet someone holding a gun.”
JOSEPH GAY has his own concerns about the state of the country. But he has a unique solution: Make Trump the permanent president.
“I think Trump is the best thing that has come along in America in a long, long time,” said Gay, 68, as he steers his blue Ford Ecosport through the Des Moines suburbs. “And I think all the trouble they’re giving him, it’s just criminal. They said they were going to impeach him even before he took office. It’s just not right. He’s the only president I’ve ever seen keep his word, keep his promises.”
Gay’s own political evolution is recognizable: a Democrat until Ronald Reagan came along, then a conservative-leaning independent, and now, a full-fledged, no-turning-back MAGA enthusiast.
“You know, if it wasn’t for Trump, I might not even be a Republican anymore. The Republicans stopped caring about me a long time ago,” he said. “I wouldn’t vote for Democrats either. Honestly, I would just stop voting altogether. I really wish Trump could serve three terms—or even longer. Let him serve as long as he wants. The guy, he’s just—he’s an amazing person.”
Is there anything that Gay dislikes about the president?
“Oh, once in a while he says things that are goofy, and it’s like, ‘C’mon Donald, you didn’t need to say that,’” Gay chuckled. “But I do like his sense of humor. The Pocahontas thing, that was funny. Childish, maybe. But still funny.”
The thing is, Gay explained, he doesn’t have time to waste being offended. There are more immediate problems. Having worked odd jobs most of his life—mostly involving construction and delivery—Gay has no pension, no savings, no nest egg for retirement. He drives for Uber three days a week and trades shifts with his wife, who drives the same car another three days a week. They do this to supplement their Social Security, which isn’t enough to cover the cost of living. “I could have made better choices to where I had a better job and more income to retire with. But this is where we’re at,” he said. “Uber works pretty well for us, even though I don’t think they should take as much of a cut as they do.”
Gay’s biggest concern for himself and his wife is getting sick. “We don’t have a retirement thing, and medicine is expensive, so money would get pretty tight,” he said. “I’ve got some things I could probably sell. But still.”
And the biggest concern he has for America? “The Democratic Party. The socialism,” he said. “I can’t tell you a single one I’d vote for anymore. They’re all socialists now. It’s dangerous.”
She’s two decades from retirement age, but ANGELA GOLBERG is driving the Uber because she doesn’t want to wind up like Gay.
A 45-year-old mother of four, Golberg has a part-time marketing job that keeps her busy anywhere from 15 to 25 hours a week. But it’s not nearly enough. Not with three of her kids attending college. Not with this economy so unstable for people, like her, who don’t have advanced degrees. Not with the endless political disruption and all that it could entail.
“I’m nervous about Social Security. They keep talking about it as an ‘entitlement,’ but it’s not an entitlement. Ever since I was the age of 16, and you’re old enough to get your job at McDonald’s, I’ve been paying taxes into Social Security. And now they’re trying to claim it’s an entitlement,” she said.
To fortify her family’s income, and to add some cushion to her and her husband’s retirement plan, Golberg started driving for Uber. “In this area, I’ll be lucky to make $100 to $150 on Friday nights. Saturdays, I’ll be lucky to make about $250 if there’s a lot going on at night,” she explained. “But I’ve already hit $1,000 for this weekend, starting Thursday night, because Trump was here. This has been a wonderful few days.”
Golberg was glad to see the president come to town, even as she wrestles with her decision to vote for him in 2016.
“I liked him, I liked his track record, so I voted for him,” she said. “But I can tell you I don’t like his behavior and the way he goes about things. He’s lacking in social graces, I guess would be the best way to say it. And he is a bully.”
Golberg said she’s leaning toward voting for a Democrat in 2020, but wouldn’t be participating in the caucuses. (“I don’t really know how it works.”) As for who that Democrat might be, she’s got no idea. Joe Biden “just tries to take credit for being Barack Obama’s vice president, but that was Obama making the decisions.” Elizabeth Warren “I’m not quite sure about—not sure she can beat Trump.”
She seemed most taken with Buttigieg. “I think Pete would have a real chance. He talks about what he believes in, what his plans are, how he’s going to do it, whether or not it’s accomplishable. I like him,” she said. “And he doesn’t slam anyone. I don’t like when the candidates slam one another. It’s really distasteful. Let Trump do that.”
CRAIG CARTER knows he shouldn’t laugh. But he just can’t help himself.
“This guy, the president,” Carter said, “He entertains the old farmer in me.”
While cruising through West Des Moines in a black Ford Escape, Carter, 70, described the moment three years ago when he knew Uber was right for him. After running a successful asphalt paving business for many years, he had finally retired—only to find his wife annoyed at his constant presence around the house.
“The night I decided to become an Uber driver, my wife was looking at me in that sweet, Christian way of hers,” he said. “She told me she never thought I’d live this long—it was clear I needed to get out of the house and do something to leave her alone and prolong our marital bliss of 48 years. So I did.”
These days, Carter said, two things provide his “comic relief”: Uber rides and Donald Trump. Sometimes they overlap.
“Oh, I’ve had a whole lot of caucus rides lately. Everyone wants to talk about The Donald,” Carter said. “I had a worker for Biden, like a month ago, and he wouldn’t stop talking. So, I warned him, ‘Here in the Midwest we don’t talk about politics, sex or religion.’ And he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘For the next month, you’re going to get a pass on the politics.’ Man, was he ever right.”
Carter said he’s glad to have civilized political conversations with strangers in the car—because he can’t have them at home anymore.
“My wife’s a Democrat, and we both woke up on Election Day with that Macaulay Culkin look”—he slaps his cheeks—“ahhhh!” We couldn’t believe that he won. But you know, that shock faded for me. Not her. She still has that look every morning. Like she’s out for blood. … She bought herself a shirt, a pink shirt, with a little kitten holding an M-16 military rifle, and it says, ‘Grab this pussy, asshole.’ I’m serious.”
All humor aside, Carter said Trump’s crude nature has begun to wear on him—so much so that, after a lifetime of voting for Republicans, he’s open to voting for the Democratic nominee in 2020. The only catch?
“It’s gotta be Bernie,” Carter said, grinning. “Maybe he’s a socialist, I don’t know. I don’t want to put that label on him. But the truth is, I see myself in him. And he might be the man to do something near and dear to my heart: legalizing marijuana.”
That pipe dream aside, Carter said he’s coming around to Sanders’ trademark proposal: “Medicare for All.” When I asked what issue concerns him most, Carter pulled out his iPhone, opened up his photos, and toggled between two screenshots. They were taken from his account on the Walgreens pharmacy app. The first shot showed how much his heart medication cost with insurance: $2.18. The second showed the cost without insurance: $249.00.
“Seriously now,” he said. “When I see that, I just think to myself, how are we doing this to people?”
I met too many fascinating Iowa Uber drivers to recount: the old rich chap who drives for charity and gives cash tips to passengers down on their luck; the Malaysian immigrant who needs to push his dying Chevy 10 more months to have enough money saved to open his long-dreamed-about Asian market; the guy who placed strict no-political-talk rules on relationships with his closest friends, including a next-door neighbor, in order to preserve relationships.
I didn’t meet any Trump voters who were resolved to abandon the GOP this November. Nor did I meet any Democrats who threatened to sit out the election if a certain candidate—say, Bernie Sanders—wins the nomination. Partisans were, pretty reliably, partisan. There were no dramatic, road-to-Damascus resolutions to be witnessed on the streets of Des Moines. Despite unprecedented political disruption, people are preparing for some variation of the same binary choice they’ve been making their entire adult lives.
The prevailing sentiment among the people with a front-row seat to the greatest political show on Earth was discomfort. Something isn’t right in our country—that much came across, unsolicited, in every conversation with every person of every possible political persuasion. This continues to be the most obvious and contradictory feeling of union in America circa 2020: Despite living in a time of nearly unrivaled peace and prosperity, the one thing that unites us is that nobody feels very good about it.
It’s time to move on from Iowa. There are so many more stories to tell.
If you’ve got places you think I should visit, people you think I should meet, drop me a line: L2W@politico.com
Your old friend,