A ‘rock star’ caucus won’t serve rural America

If rumors are believed, this is the day Iowa Democrats have either been wanting or dreading: Hillary Clinton is expected to announce her entry into the 2016 presidential contest. The past few weeks have seen the official entry of Republicans Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, also to mixed emotions from the GOP faithful.

Unfortunately, my concerns following the 2008 and 2012 contests are growing. I’m not convinced the new normal of Iowa caucus life as a string of mega-events, requiring tickets for entry and little time for truly critical audience participation allow for an adequate airing or thoughtful discussion on the complex issues surrounding rural communities.

Campaign stops and events surged to unprecedented proportions in the 2008 contests.

During his first trip into Iowa following a 2007 announcement, for instance, Barack Obama filled two high school gymnasiums. Yes, there were smaller meet-and-greets before the larger events, but those are often limited to the most faithful in party politics. As summer dipped into autumn and the kitchen table discussions that built the caucus experience remained elusive, the Obama campaign set up smaller surrogate events on specialized topics, handpicking local activists to join discussions, and staged small-group meetings by inviting four or five people to join Obama around a tiny table in a large space while the press filmed and took notes.

Barack Obama speaks at Johnson Hall on the campus of Kirkwood Community College Cedar Rapids, Iowa on in 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Barack Obama speaks at Johnson Hall on the campus of Kirkwood Community College Cedar Rapids, Iowa on in 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Likewise, Clinton, considered the national front-runner, was most often seen by Iowans across crowded gyms, auditoriums and parks. When she made an appearance at the Freedom Festival in Cedar Rapids, cattle barricades, hay bales and a press corps four deep separated her from caucusgoers. Even private house parties, typically a place for wavering Iowans to take a closer look and have a few moments for specific questions, swelled beyond family rooms and dining rooms to occupy every livable inch of space. And then they spilled onto front lawns and backyards.

The most highly anticipated GOP candidates — John McCain, Mitt Romney and, to a lesser extent from a national standpoint, Ron Paul — also marked their treks across Iowa by way of “presidential-looking” events. “Small gatherings” on family farms included tents, tables and catered food. At nary a mention of national press coverage, young campaign staffers and volunteers arrived in force — not to help field the questions, but to provide the highly desired appearance of excitement.

No front-runners wanted to be perceived as a candidate. They wanted a national and international storyline of energy and momentum. When their Iowa photos and videos, the candidates wanted viewers to easily imagine them as already being the chief executive.

As far as political strategies go, it’s understandable. As far as caucus politics go, it’s a gut punch to the everyday Iowans who aren’t party loyalists. Instead of learning answers, Iowans learned campaign chants.

If it had not been for the nearly overwhelming flush of presidential candidates, small and relatively subdued events that have populated caucus politics since Jimmy Carter would have been lost. More important, the ability of such events to elevate concerns too often overlooked by the national press corps would have been lost.

But in 2008, Iowa had Joe Biden, Sam Brownback, Tom Vilsack, Fred Thompson, Bill Richardson, Tommy Thompson, Mike Huckabee, Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd and others who sat in diners, went hunting, gave keynote addresses at county party events and generally made themselves approachable to not only Iowans but the scads of Americans who visit the Hawkeye State for such opportunities. Unfortunately, most national media ­— and quite a bit of state media as well — focused on the front-runners.

2008 Iowa Caucus - Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., speaks about her comprehensive plan to address America’s energy and environmental challenges in 2007 at Windpower in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., speaks about her comprehensive plan to address America’s energy and environmental challenges in 2007 at Windpower in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

But such a large field of candidates couldn’t be completely ignored, and many of the questions posed in Monona, Dysart and Mediapolis made their way up the political food chain.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I provided live coverage of Martin O’Malley at a traditional Democratic off-year caucus event in the small town of Tipton. The town rests in Cedar County, which is the only “noncore” county among those that comprise Eastern Iowa’s Creative Corridor — meaning there isn’t one community in the county with a population at 10,000 or more. The entire county boasts about 18,500 people, which has been slowly declining since the 2010 census.

Off-year (read: non-presidential year) caucuses are mostly used as organizational meetings for the local parties. Elected officials make the rounds at such events, offering updates from their specific office and highlighting certain bills or initiatives they’re spearheading.

Such was the case in Cedar County, where about 30-some party loyalists gathered in a courthouse basement to decide who would serve as local precinct captains and listen to local politicians. Iowans already supporting this or that candidate for president sat up tables along the wall, offering bumper stickers or buttons and hoping to answer questions regarding their early support.

For Iowa, it was politics as usual — little fanfare, lots of wonk — except that press members, including a camera crew from CNN, nearly doubled attendance.

Comments regarding my photos of this event were viewed with skepticism by social media users. “Where’s the audience?” asked a man in Seattle. “There sure are a lot of empty seats,” remarked another on the east coast. Others remarked on the painted but otherwise bare cinder block wall behind O’Malley.

The lack of staging at the event — that campaign staffers didn’t rush to fill seats up front, or set up some stars-and-stripes banner emblazoned with an optimistic message du jour as a backdrop — may be commonplace for Iowans, but now seem unusual to a national audience that has grown accustomed to live-streamed MTV “Rock the Vote” events from Iowa college auditoriums or carefully-crafted speeches from Iowa farms or warehouses.

While the GOP field begins to grow, it is becoming clear that 2016 won’t be too much different on that side of the aisle than 2008 or 2012. The front-runners will continue to stage large events for the general public and meet privately with hand-picked activists. Lesser-known candidates will serve as balance, just as they have done before.

On the Democratic side, however, the 2016 picture is more stark. Outside of those reporters who earn their living reading the political tea leaves, few have paid attention to the Iowa events featuring Bernie Sanders or the Iowans organizing around Elizabeth Warren, much less the concerns that have prompted them. Kitchen table events including O’Malley or Jim Webb will soon be dwarfed when the presumptive nominee fills her first gym. And Iowa’s past experience with Clinton hasn’t been one of intimate gatherings or one-on-one questioning.

I’ve said previously that Clinton’s candidacy doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the Iowa caucuses. The bigger question is what type of caucus remains when appearance is given more weight than substance.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 12, 2015. Photo credit: Cliff Jette/The Gazette