But all those factors pale relative to the one thing—the one name—that’s dominated the national political conversation for the past four-plus years.
“That fear over another loss to Trump,” Montgomery County chair Joey Norris told me, “has been amped up in the media, and it’s taken root in lots of minds here in Iowa.”
“We’re living in fear,” Leonard said. “That’s what’s nationalized it, too, is the overwhelming fear of Trump.”
“We don’t want to fuck it up,” Cullen said.
One recent afternoon in Fort Dodge, for example, after watching Klobuchar make her pitch from a stage in a small community college auditorium, I met Jeff Saunders, a retired railroad maintenance man. He caucused four years ago for Sanders but wasn’t sure what he’s going to do this year. But talking to him felt a little like I was back at the hotel watching cable news.
“Our candidate needs to have the African-American vote and a big turnout of the African-American vote, so I’m kind of trying to see who those folks are leaning to,” said Saunders, clad in a Carhartt jacket and standing in a county that’s 91.4 percent white. “If we don’t have the black vote—I mean a big turnout—we’re not going to win. We’re not going to defeat Donald Trump.”
Fistfuls of county chairs and voters told me versions of the same.
“It is a concern among Iowa Dems like me,” Hamilton County chair Kathy Getting said. “Knowing that young black voters were some of the citizens who sat out the 2016, because no one excited them, I am looking for a candidate that resonates with them and me.”
It’s not just Buttigieg, either. How might the “they,” people here fret, decide on whether or not to vote for Sanders (on account of his age or the notion that Trump is salivating over the prospect of running against a self-identified democratic socialist), or Biden (his age, too, obviously, and any impeachment-fueled Ukraine taint, fair or not), or Warren or Klobuchar (sexism, coupled with issues of lagging black support of their own), or anybody else, for that matter? Liking candidates. But mulling maybe not caucusing for them. Because other people in other places might not vote for them down the road.
Part of me thinks this type of crude realpolitik is only prudent. After all, this election is really, really important, and if there is only one issue truly at hand—is he going to get re-elected, or is he not?—why stubbornly pretend other stuff matters?
Back in the car, I called Rachel Bly, a Democratic co-chair in Poweshiek County, about an hour east of Des Moines. She had responded to an email of mine with some interesting thoughts about how Iowans weren’t behaving like themselves.
“In the past,” she had written, “I feel as if conversations have been about making the local issues national—for instance, we are struggling on the farm, what policies will you have that will make farm policy better? … Now I feel like folks are thinking first about how the candidate answers are playing in the bigger picture and slightly less about how they are directly reflecting the local needs.”
Bly answered her phone. “I find myself thinking this is not actually the job of Iowans,” I suggested to her. “The job of Iowans is to caucus for their preference, and then it adds up into some aggregate, and then subsequent states are free to take that into account …”
“Right,” Bly said. “And I think we’ve forgotten that a little bit. We have a role, and it is really to represent us.”
“‘To represent us’—you’re supposed to make a pick,” I said. “The point is for Iowans to be somehow, I guess, representative of the Midwest, and then New Hampshire does it for the Northeast, and then Nevada does it for the West, and then South Carolina does it for the South, and then you have the four early states, and you sort of add it up and get an early picture of what we might be dealing with, right?”
“I feel like there have been more conversations this year, too,” she said, “about, ‘Well, should Iowa be first? Are the caucuses the right vehicle, you know? Have they outlived their usefulness?’ … And maybe some of this is a reaction to that? Is it us trying to prove that the caucuses are still a good thing?”
“When in reality,” I said, “the way you prove your value as first-in-the-nation caucuses is by caucusing as yourselves, not by trying to be, like, the country.”
“I think my mom actually said it really well,” Bly said. “She was, like, ‘Iowans vote with their hearts—that’s what they’ve always done.’” They go to see the candidates. They listen to them. Their policy plans. Their visions for the future. “They meet them, so they know what they’re like. It’s a different game here, so we make decisions that are in some ways fairly pure, actually.”
“Or have,” I said.
“Yeah,” Bly said. “I’m not sure we’re there.” Not anymore.
Redlawsk, the professor who wrote the book about the caucuses, told me people in Iowa “always” to some extent have considered “electability.” More than that, in fact, it’s built into the process. Supporters of a candidate that doesn’t meet a 15-percent viability threshold at a particular precinct have to realign with a candidate that does.