When someone says Iowa, I think of just three things: corn, cows, and caucuses. I don’t know too much about the former two, though I’ve had a great experience with the caucuses and political culture of Iowa these past few days. Instead of a primary election, Iowans attend caucuses. These require serious political participation, and Iowans are certainly committed to their civic duties. Caucus-goers gather in central community buildings—gyms, schools, churches, and civic centers—to either stand with fellow supporters of their candidate at Democratic caucuses, or sit and listen to appointed speakers for candidates at Republican caucuses. But in order for this form of an electoral process, it takes a particular culture that we lack in most of the United States, but is quite present throughout Iowa.
In order to attend and participate in caucuses, Iowans show up at one specific time at night at their precinct location. I found that caucuses are a great example of community gathering. Where most states have a secret ballot, Iowans are open about their political standing, and in a democratic caucus supporters will literally stand with their candidate. Both republican and democratic caucuses alike call for intensive participation, from voting (or standing) for a candidate, speaking for a candidate, and trying to persuade others.
But even beyond their unique, community-based electoral process, Iowans demonstrate an embracing and charming culture. The people seem to be laid-back, genuine, and down to earth. While knocking door to door seeking support for my candidate, Marco Rubio, I found strong supporters, undecided voters—some of whom listened attentively to my case for Rubio—and even passionate rivals of my candidate. Regardless of the stance of each Iowan I met, I had a thoughtful, engaging, and respectful conversation. Perhaps the most notable encounter I had was with a Hillary Clinton supporter. As my fellow canvassing volunteers and I were handing out Rubio pamphlets, we came across a graduate student and political science professor. While she admitted that she stood firm with Clinton and would “shred up” the pamphlets we had, she still gladly accepted the pamphlet we handed her. While she didn’t support our candidate, she supported us: young voters getting engaged in politics, volunteering for a campaign, and working to get out the vote. She admitted how proud she was to see us working hard regardless of our ideology and affiliation.
Later that night, I discovered another aspect of this great culture of Iowa: trust. Rubio staffers had dropped a few of us off at a big caucus. There were two precincts in a single location, and aiming to access these several potential votes, Rubio was going to make an appearance and speak. The staffers wanted us to put up posters, pass out stickers and placards, and hold up signs outside the building. We asked our campaign advisors if there were any restrictions or other rules regarding what we may do, or where we may stand, though like on most issues, the staff was in the dark. I went inside to ask the caucus officials—these officials were not as much “official” as they were just volunteers—who didn’t know of any rules or restrictions. Finally one old man, a caucus volunteer and Rubio supporter approached me after overhearing my question about restrictions on holding signs and passing out propaganda. Apparently rules were decided by the districts themselves, and varied from district to district. But to clarify on the rules, the old man explained there really weren’t set rules. “This is Iowa,” he explained. “Do whatever you think is right. Don’t do what you think is wrong,” is what he ultimately instructed me. Wow! It was at that moment that I put together the pieces of this remarkable Iowan political culture. People trust each other to do the right thing. People aren’t afraid that others will cheat or corrupt the democratic process. “I really like that philosophy,” I responded to the old man, “I wish other states were regulated like that.” He nodded his head and understood exactly what I meant.