Political Tourism: My First Iowa Caucus

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Is political tourism a thing? Well, yes, and this is a summary of attending my first Iowa Caucus. I arrived in Des Moines Friday, Jan. 31 and returned home Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.

2020 Iowa Caucus
Iowa Caucus 2020 Sugar Cookie by One Sweet Kitchen.

Since the 2008 presidential campaign season, I have attended presidential rallies, inaugurations, and other political events. My intentions are to meet the candidates, learn the issues, and hear political ideology similar and different to mine from candidates and their supporters. The 2020 Iowa Caucus was a new experience for me. I met eight presidential candidates (seven Democrats and one Republican), attended 11 events, drove 501 miles, and slept very little.

As a teenager, I dreamt of following my favorite band, Duran Duran, around the country and world. That never happened. Instead, I left Florida’s sunshine for Iowa’s snow in February to chase presidential candidates prior to Caucus Night.

State of Iowa Historical Building Museum - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Campaign Signs from Over the Years on Display at the State of Iowa Historical Building Museum in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2020.

Why Visit Iowa During the Iowa Caucus? Anyone Can Make the Trip!

Why? The obvious is, I can. My friend, Cordelia, has done it and she invited me to join her this year. Actually, anyone can fly to Iowa and participate in presidential campaign events. After the first day, we realized we were not the only political tourists. We met some on the first night of this patriotic adventure while we met others in our hotel, the Baymont by Wyndham Des Moines Airport. The hotel was ideally situated relatively close to the airport. It was also near the major highway, making it easier to see candidates outside Des Moines.

Amy Klobuchar Event in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Sen. Amy Klobuchar Event in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020.
Gov. Bill Weld at Raygun in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Bill Weld Makes a Purchase at RAYGUN in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 2, 2020.
Joe Biden Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Joe Biden Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020

Why Visit Iowa During the Iowa Caucus? Candidate Accessibility!

Another answer to, “Why did I go to Iowa in February?” is candidate accessibility. Most presidential candidates do not make it to every state they are on the ballot. And when they visit a state, especially a large one like Florida, their time is limited. Candidates typically concentrate their politicking in an area where they can secure the most votes. For Florida, this typically means Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, or Tampa.

The candidates spend a LOT of time shaking hands and kissing babies in Iowa. This mean, most Iowans engaged in the voting process, have met the candidates and heard the issues well before the Primary Election Day. It also means, presidential campaign events are typically not flooded with Iowans. Being an out-of-stater interested in learning more about the candidates, visiting the weekend before the Iowa Caucus makes sense. However, each event we attended was packed! Who knows, maybe most everyone was an out-of-stater.

Dr. Jill Biden at Joe Biden Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Dr. Jill Biden at the Joe Biden Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020.
Andrew Yang Town Hall in Ames, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Andrew Yang Posed for a Quick Photo with Supporters in Des Moines, Iowa., Feb. 2, 2020.

Why Visit Iowa During the Iowa Caucus? Witness History in the Making

I am all about bragging rights and if you meet all the candidates, including the incumbent, chances are pretty good you have heard and met a president or future president. If you can snag a photo or selfie with a presidential candidate, congratulations! During the four days I was in Iowa, I met three candidates and have the photos prove it. I wonder if with more planning I could have met more. But, I am pleased with who I met, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer.

Meet & Greet with Tom Steyer in Des Moines, Feb. 1, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Tom Steyer Meets with an Iowan Voter in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020.

Do You Need to Register for Presidential Campaign Events?

This is a good point to mention we registered for all events and at each, campaign staff checked us in. Most checked in people on smartphones or tablets, although the Biden campaign had people write their information on a log sheet. I think the registration is a way of capturing email addresses for e-marketing. Do you need to register? At this point, no. Again, they are collecting your information as you enter and I never saw anyone turned away because they had not registered. Private events or presidential campaign events with limited space probably require advance registration.

Meet & Greet with Elizabeth Warren at Peach Tree Brewing in Des Moines, Jan. 31, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Meet & Greet with Elizabeth Warren at Peach Tree Brewing in Des Moines, Jan. 31, 2020.

My Iowa Caucus Experience

Thanks to The Des Moines Register, we had an idea of which candidate would be where. This was much easier than visiting the website of each candidate. Here’s a summary of the events I attended during my first Iowa Caucus. Places I dined and non-campaign events will be another post.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Me in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2020.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Me in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2020.
Rep. Deb Haaland, Me, Rep. Katie Porter, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2020.
Rep. Deb Haaland, Me, Rep. Katie Porter, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 31, 2020.

Jan. 31: Rally for Elizabeth Warren in Des Moines

Sen. Elizabeth Warren attended impeachment hearings in Washington, D.C., so she was not at her rally. However, speakers included Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Katie Porter (D-CA), and Deb Haaland (D-NM) who are her national campaign co-chairs. Bruce Mann, Warren’s husband, also spoke and he brought their handsome Golden Retriever, Bailey. Warren did arrive into town later that night, around 10:30 p.m. at Peace Tree Brewing and posed for photos with anyone who wanted one.

Me with Tom Steyer in Des Moines, Feb. 1, 2020.
Me with Tom Steyer in Des Moines, Feb. 1, 2020.

Feb. 1, 2020: Crashing a Tom Steyer Meet & Greet in Des Moines

Not all the events the Des Moines Register were open to the public and somehow, we ended up at a private meet & greet with Tom Steyer at Tavern Pizza & Pasta Grill in Des Moines. As soon as we entered, the staff apologized and asked us to stand off to the side in an area across from the event area. There really wasn’t a reason for them to apologize but it was nice of them, we understood they had no control. Although it was a private event, beforehand, Tom Steyer came over and met with just about everyone and snapped a few photos.

Ames, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Spotted this Mural in Ames Before the Andrew Yang Town Hall, Feb. 1, 2020.

Feb. 1, 2020: Photo Stop in Ames

Between the Tom Steyer meet and greet and Andrew Yang town hall, we grabbed lunch in Ames and walked a little bit of the downtown. I spotted this mural and wondered why the 0s in 2020 are birds. Are they chickens? Are they the Twitter birds? What do you think?

Andrew Yang Town Hall in Ames, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Andrew Yang in Boone, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020.
Andrew Yang Town Hall in Ames, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Town Hall with Andrew Yang in Boone, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020.

Feb. 1: Andrew Yang Town Hall in Boone

After about an hour’s drive to Boone, we crammed into La Carreta to see and hear Andrew Yang. His supporters, aka. the Yang Gang, are passionate and when you listen to his reason for running (it was not something he dreamt of doing but saw it as his duty to his country to run), he makes sense. The restaurant was packed and I had to crane my neck and stand on my toes to see him.

I overheard someone say four times as many people showed up than they anticipated. When he left the venue, we went outside to see him and his staffers hop on his bus. A handful of political tourists grabbed him for photos and autographs but his staff had a tight hold on him and interactions were at a minimum.

Bernie Sanders Event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Thousands Turned Out to Feel the Bern During a Rally in Cedar Rapids, Feb. 1, 2020.

Feb. 1: Sen. Bernie Sanders Rally in Cedar Rapids

We drove through Iowa’s snow-covered countryside to attend the Sen. Bernie Sanders rally with Vampire Weekend at the U. S. Cellular Center arena in Cedar Rapids. Some of the speakers stumping for Sanders included documentary filmmaker Michael Moore; professor, philosopher, activist, and author Dr. Cornel West; and several elected officials including Nina Turner, co-chair of Senator Sanders’ national campaign; and elected officials including Representatives Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota). Although she did not speak, actress Susan Sarandon was spotted at the event.

Bernie Sanders Event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Sen. Bernie Sanders in a Rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Feb. 1, 2020.

The arena accommodates 8,600 people. Excluding the media pool, I estimate there were about 4,000 people in attendance. Attendees ranged in age, although, there were a lot of 20-somethings and when Bernie et al talked about legalizing pot or offering free college, there were lots of cheers.

Bill Weld Meet & Greet in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Bill Weld Arrives at RAYGUN for a Meet and Greet in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 2, 2020.

Feb. 2: Meet and Greet with Bill Weld in Des Moines

I visited (and shopped) RAYGUN three times and love this shop! It’s a must-stop when visiting Des Moines. It’s home to the best words on t-shirts and since Iowa kicks election season off, they have fun political shirts, buttons, stickers, and other memorabilia.

Bill Weld Meet & Greet in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Bill Weld Speaks to Press Outside RAYGUN in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 2, 2020.

Bill Weld, the only Republican candidate I saw during this trip, arrived by himself, although his people were waiting for him at the shop. A decent-sized press pool was waiting for him, too. He shook hands, posed for photos, then went inside and made some purchases.

Pete Buttigieg Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Pete Buttigieg Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 – 2020 Iowa Caucus

Feb. 2: Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Des Moines

It’s a moot point for the 2020 presidential race but Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s rally in a Des Moines high school gymnasium was the most organized event I attended over the Iowa Caucus weekend. His staffers efficiently checked people in, a crowd behind him were given signs and performed orchestrated cheers, and photojournalists were rotated onto the floor so a cluster of them were not a distraction. He had a handful of mayors and everyday people speak rather than a who’s who in the political arena. Yes, he’s young, but he knows how to surround himself with good people and I hope we see him on the ballot down the road.

Joe Biden Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Joe Biden Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 – 2020 Iowa Caucus.

Feb. 2: Vice President Joe Biden in Des Moines

Vice President Joe Biden’s rally in Hiatt Middle School’s gymnasium attracted a large press pool, probably larger than Bernie’s. They took up at least a quarter of gymnasium. I like Biden, but honestly, this event was the least organized from the others. “Registration” was by writing contact info on a log which means, someone in the campaign will need to decipher the handwriting and manually input the data, assuming the email addresses are the most valuable. We saw other political tourists at the event and it was a packed venue. Speakers included his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, and wife, Dr. Jill Biden, and when Biden came on stage, he was stern and fiery. Afterwards, he shook hands and posed for selfies with those who could reach him around the barrier.

Amy Klobuchar Event in Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020 - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Viewing Sen. Amy Klobachar’s Speech Through an Attendee’s Smartphone, Des Moines, Feb. 2, 2020.

Feb. 2: Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Super Bowl Party in Johnston

Upon entering the venue for Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Super Bowl Party near Des Moines, something was off in this small sports bar. There were hardly any people and the small buffet of food looked as though we missed an army. Turns out, the venue moved down the street to Jethro’s Pork Chop Grill.

This venue was much bigger than the other and overhead someone ask a someone what the fire code capacity is and the response was, “more than this.” It was PACKED too much to my liking but Klobuchar soon arrived just before Super Bowl halftime, spoke to the crowd and left but not before I snapped a few photos of her.

Me, Cordelia, Domenico Montanaro (NPR Senior Political Editor/Correspondent, Washington Desk), and New Political Tourist Friends at Smoky Row Coffee in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020.
Me, Cordelia, Domenico Montanaro (NPR Senior Political Editor/Correspondent, Washington Desk), and New Political Tourist Friends at Smoky Row Coffee in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020.

Feb. 3: NPR’s Morning Edition in Des Moines

Monday’s wakeup call was 3:30 a.m. in order to attend some of NPR’s Morning Edition live broadcast at Smoky Row Coffee by 5 a.m. It was fun being in a café so full of life at o-dark-thirty. Because the senator candidates went back to Washington for the impeachment hearings, and maybe because it was early, none of the candidates showed up for the live broadcast. However, they recorded an in-person segment with Mayor Pete.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg Answers Questions from Activists in Smoky Row Coffee in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg Answers Questions from Activists in Smoky Row Coffee in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020.
Selfie with Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020.
Selfie with Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020.

As luck would have it, I visited the bathroom and when I exited, I was standing about three feet from the Mayor. I watched as he gave an interview and upon leaving, was peppered with questions by a group asking about his plan for Puerto Rico. He firmly and calmly responded to them which was very impressive to watch. That sealed my vote for him.

I fall into the middle-aged female category who supported Mayor Pete. He has a great energy, he’s calm and steady, and intelligent, and I felt like a schoolgirl when I asked him for a selfie! I’ll say it again, I hope we see him running for higher office again.

Tom Steyer and Chris Matthews in Des Moines, 2020 Iowa Caucus
Tom Steyer was a Guest with Chris Matthews on MSNBC in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 2020.

Feb. 3: Hanging with MSNBC

We enjoyed dinner in downtown Des Moines and the restaurant was a stone’s throw from Java Joe’s Coffee House. Walking by, out of curiosity we popped our heads in to see what was happening. Next thing we knew, we were ushered into seats behind then Hardball host Chris Matthews. One of the interviews was with Tom Steyer.

Can You Spot Me in the Audience During Chris Matthew's Show?
Can You Spot Me in the Audience During Chris Matthew’s Show?
With Chris Matthews in Des Moines, Iowa, Before the Caucus Begins.

I also got on camera and contacted my family so they could see me in the background with my blue pashmina. Can you see me in the photo above? After the segment, it was time to bounce to the caucus experience but before leaving, Matthews posed for a selfie with me.

Witnessing a Caucus in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Hands Up! Caucus Voters Vow to Vote for Whoever the Democratic Nominee is Prior to the Iowa Caucus in Des Moines, Feb. 3, 2020.

Controlled Chaos: Iowa Caucus

I kind of understand how a caucus runs and seeing it in action certainly helped. Anyone can attend a caucus, however, you need to identify yourself and we received a sticker indicating “Press or Observer.”

Although I think I understand how they work, I won’t try to explain it. This article has some useful information on how a caucus works. What I observed included seeing voters stand with their candidate’s caucus captain. There’s no secret ballot and I can see peer pressure influencing decisions. There’s no absentee ballot, if you can’t make it, your voice does not county. During the first round, if the candidate is viable, the candidate’s caucus captain sticks around for the second round in an attempt to pick up delegates from those candidates who were not viable. Whether a candidate is viable or not relies on math and percentages of those in attendance, I think.

Witnessing a Caucus in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Round One During the Iowa Caucus in Des Moines, Feb. 3, 2020.

Witnessing a Caucus in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Negotiations Between the Warren and Yang Camps During this Iowa Caucus in Des Moines, Feb. 3, 2020.
Witnessing a Caucus in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Each Delegate Must Fill Out Page One with Their Preferred Candidate. If Their Delegate is Not Viable, They Fill Out the Other Side with Their Second Choice, Iowa Caucus, Des Moines, Feb. 3, 2020.
Witnessing a Caucus in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Documenting the Final Counts During this Iowa Caucus in Des Moines, Feb. 3, 2020.

During the first round voting, or standing with your candidate’s caucus captain, there’s a lot of yelling, shouting, and begging. In the precinct I attended, during round one someone form Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s camp was roaming around saying they only needed a couple more to make her viable. After round one, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren were the viable candidates which meant round two. I witnessed as the Warren camp negotiated with the Yang camp. At the end of round two, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren were deemed viable, which I did not think could happen, but did.

But, I was told this was not the end. Iowa has a state caucus were delegates from each of the viable candidates meet in March to determine how many delegates attend the national convention. This is all just crazy!

Elizabeth Warren Caucus Night Rally in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Two of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Grandchildren Introduced Her During the Iowa Caucus Night Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 3, 2020.
Elizabeth Warren Caucus Night Rally in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Heads Up! Passing Signs During the Elizabeth Warren Caucus Night Rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020.

Caucus Night Party with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Des Moines

I believe each candidate held a caucus night rally in Des Moines and the one for Sen. Elizabeth Warren was packed. There was food, maybe beverages, and lots of campaign signs floating around. She was in Washington, D.C., during the day because the impeachment hearings continued, but she, and Sanders and Klobuchar, came back to celebrate with supporters. Two of Warren’s grandchildren introduced her and although very young, they were terrific!

Elizabeth Warren Caucus Night Rally in Des Moines - 2020 Iowa Caucus
Sen. Elizabeth Warren Speaks During Her Iowa Caucus Night Rally in Des Moines, Feb. 3, 2020.

Warren eventually took the stage and thanked her supporters. Although a clear winner was not determined, it was obvious the race was a close one between Buttigieg and Sanders. She was gracious, optimistic, and full of energy after what had to be a very long weekend. Of course, she posed for selfies with all who wanted one.

Stickers Collected During My Political Tourism Trip to Des Moines for the Iowa Caucus, Feb. 3, 2020.
Stickers Collected During My Political Tourism Trip to Des Moines for the Iowa Caucus, Feb. 3, 2020.

A Political Tourist Heads Home

Experiencing an Iowa Caucus weekend was a trip! It was tiring and somewhat a lot of driving, but it was truly worth it. I’m glad the weather was relatively nice for February in Iowa which made driving easier. I’m also grateful for having such a cool, intriguing friend named Cordelia. Whether I fully understand the process or not, witnessing the weekend expanded my knowledge of American politics and demonstrated the importance of voting.

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Presidential Campaign 2020

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Author: Solo Travel Girl

Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., a hiking trail led Jennifer to a career path in tourism. She has worked in the tourism industry for more than 20 years including 10 years with a park management company in Yellowstone, Death Valley and Everglades National Park. She currently lives in Southwest Florida, and maintains this travel blog with the goal of inspiring others to travel alone, not lonely.

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