Even with the assistance of social media, round-the-clock television coverage, and immersive, cutting-edge technology, the Iowa caucuses remain a merely virtual reality for most Americans. The ubiquity of the candidates, the intensity of political conversation, the spectacle of the spectacle itself—the atmosphere immediately before voting begins is one of those few things about which it can still be said that you just have to have been there. The same is true of the voters themselves; polls can only divine so much about what anyone in particular is thinking. In search of answers, we spent a few days over the weekend driving around Iowa—mostly in Davenport and in and around Ames—speaking with whomever we happened to come across about who they wanted to see become the next president of the United States, and why. —Richard Kreitner and Thomas Bollier

John Lewis, 81, voted for Obama in 2008 because “we ain’t never had a colored man as the president before,” and he thought it was time. “He went in there with a hell of a mess,” Lewis acknowledged. “But now we’re deep in debt, might never see daylight again.” He respects Trump. “He’s a businessman, so he might settle ’er up,” Lewis said. “He knows how to make a dollar. That’s what this world needs right now, ain’t it?” On the Democratic side, he likes Bernie Sanders. “Bernie talks a good battle,” Lewis told us, “but who knows if he can get ’er done.” As we spoke, the balance on Lewis’s slot machine at Davenport’s Rhythm City Casino fell to zero. “Getting ready to go home,” he said. “I’ve lost enough.”

Gary Fite will not be voting for anybody. He went to a few caucuses in the ’70s and ’80s, but he didn’t like the process. It always seemed like the candidates’ partisans just said the same things he heard on TV, and Fite is “not big on big words.” He likes to listen to Sanders speak, and thinks he has good ideas, but doesn’t believe Congress would allow any of his proposals to pass. “They’re not working together,” Fite said of Washington politicians. “They’re all supposed to be working for us—not big business, not themselves. Us.” Fite doesn’t get out much because he has to lug an oxygen tank everywhere—he is on a waiting list for an organ transplant in Iowa City—but he likes to take Davenport’s Skybridge down to a park by the Mississippi River to watch for bald eagles. “Usually there are more of them this time of year because the river freezes up north,” he said. “But this winter has been different.”

Russell (right), 25, was recently laid off from his packaging job. “I like Bernie Sanders,” he said. “I heard he’s trying to bring change and shit like that.” Asked what kind of change he wants, Russell said, “gas prices to stay down, cheaper cigarettes, and legalized marijuana.” Brison (left), 21, favors Donald Trump, “’cause he knows what to talk about. I know a lot of people don’t like him because he wants to take away this, take away that, take away healthcare. Take healthcare, I don’t care. He handles his shit seriously. And with the little ISIS situation, the war going on, I think he knows what he’s doing. I like his attitude.” Neither plans to caucus.

“As someone with a shit ton of student debt,” Jacqueline O’Bryant supports Bernie Sanders because of his views on public education. “I just don’t necessarily care for her as a human being,” O’Bryant, the manager of a start-up incubator, said of Clinton. “I don’t not like her, but I don’t like her.”

James Warren favors Hillary Clinton, because “she’s fair, she’s smart, and her husband was a good president.” A registered Democrat, born and raised in Mississippi and a Davenport resident since 1984, Warren voted for Obama in the last election. “He’s been alright, but the economy is still bad,” he said. “Not too many jobs.” On Christmas Day, Warren was laid off from his job building pallets for a local manufacturer. “It’s kinda hard. But, you know, that’s life.”

Lopeti Etu owns L&D 15, an art and clothing boutique in Davenport, with his partner, David. A native of the island of Tonga, in Polynesia, Lopeti supports Hillary Clinton because he believes the entire world would benefit from a woman’s becoming president. “Americans always think about themselves,” he said. “I’m not from here. I grew up looking at America from the outside, so that’s how I see things still.” As a gay man, Lopeti admires her support for LGBT rights. David, however, supports Sanders.

Jonah Jones, 33, will vote for Ben Carson. “He’s trying to fix what Obama destroyed,” said Jones, who works in manufacturing. “ISIS scares the hell out of me.” A registered Republican, he voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. The most important issue for Jones is fixing Social Security, which he read in a magazine article will go broke by 2030. Some of his family members are voting for Trump, but Jones wonders whether he has sufficient experience. “Bernie Sanders would make a nice president,” he said, when asked about the Vermont senator. “But whoever it is, I just hope they get in there and fix it one piece at a time.”

Judy Hartig of Le Claire, a small town on the Mississippi, ran for mayor a few years ago and lost by less than 100 votes. When the conversation at Pelo’s Coffee House turns to politics, as it often does these days, Hartig defends Hillary Clinton. “I’ve been that old-fashioned word ‘feminist’ from way back when,” she said. “When I was young, lots of places wouldn’t hire me because I had two children at home. They thought I’d be running to take care of the kids when they were sick—which was true. That’s all changed now, but the equal pay still isn’t there. I heard a young woman on the radio this morning saying she was going to vote for Bernie because he’d be better for women than Hillary would. She’s forgetting about all the rights she enjoys that Hillary helped to fight for.”

Cal Rebhuhn, a software developer in Ames, believes that Sanders represents “a refreshingly authentic progressive voice, not just another establishment politician.” He is most concerned about economic disparities, and doesn’t think Clinton would do enough to alleviate them, especially on the questions of healthcare and free tuition for public colleges and universities. Rebhuhn, a former English major, said he found a “high degree of compatibility” between his own ideas and those of Sanders.

Gene Newman, whose age, he said, is “classified information,” runs a medical office in Mississippi. In 2012 he covered his Corvette with pictures of Ron Paul, tributes to the founding fathers, and the word LIBERTY in large letters above the rear wheel. For this election he painted over “Ron” and added “Rand.” “I live and die liberty,” Newman said. “We’ve gotten too comfortable with the chains around our neck. I think the American people need to wake up, and one day they are going to.”

Janee Becker of Ames comes from a family of Republicans, but she intends to caucus for Sanders. “I especially like that he stands for free education for undergraduates,” she said. Having had her own difficulties paying off student loans after graduation, she appreciates his efforts to alleviate the burden for others. “And I really like that he supports the LGBTQ community and equality for all races. It’s really important that he doesn’t see color, but ideas.”

Daniel Appau, 52, and his daughter Helena, 8, were standing outside the Hillary Clinton rally in Ames, where the Secret Service agents guarding the front door with a bomb-sniffing dog said they couldn’t enter because the room was full. A facility engineer and manager at Iowa State University, born in Ghana and now a US citizen, Appau plans to caucus for Clinton, especially because of her longtime advocacy for children. He likes Sanders, too, but doubts the senator can win the general election. “The Republicans will chew him up because of what he says about ‘political revolution’ and socialist ideas,” Appau predicted. What’s most important for him is that the Democrats win. “We have a lot of good programs that should keep going,” he said. “We need someone to improve them.”

Patrick Hennessey (left), 20, of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Joey Miller (right), 19, of Des Moines, were working out at an outdoor gym near the hall where Clinton was rallying her supporters. Both are registered Republicans, but undecided on whom to support in the primary. Hennessey, a mechanical-engineering major, said he definitely wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Having worked alongside undocumented immigrants, he found them to be honest and hard-working people, and believes they should be allowed to stay and become citizens. Miller, who studies accounting, said that although he isn’t “big on the whole socialism thing,” he would vote for Sanders if he were a Democrat. Hennessey, who said he’s “still not over Benghazi,” agreed.

While Marco Rubio spoke on campus, under a banner proclaiming him the harbinger of a “new American century,” a group of engineering students played beer pong on a snow-covered lawn. Asked whether they had strong opinions about the candidates, one went inside to bring out their spokesman. “Tony Stark for president in 2028!” the 23 year-old shouted, barging out the door. “I’d be totally down to support Rubio—his wife looks real nice—if he stopped talking about Jesus,” Stark said, his friends nodding. “There are people in the country who might not be Christians, who might be Muslims, and that’s my biggest thing about the election this year. It’s turned into, ‘We hate Mexicans because they’re crossing the border,’ ‘We hate Muslims, so we just gotta get rid of them and then we’ll be good.’ That really bothers me.” At a frat across the street, someone jumped off a balcony onto a beer-pong table, shattering it to a frenzy of cheers.

Russ Gute, a 45-year old mechanic, and his daughter Tina comprised what seemed like half of the voters waiting for Rick Santorum at a shooting range in Boone. The right to life and the Second Amendment are the most important issues for Gute, who plans to speak in favor of Santorum at his local caucus on Monday. When he arrived, Santorum took a quick gun-safety course before donning goggles and earmuffs and heading for the range, followed by a dozen or so photographers. First he fired a few handguns, then an AR-15—the same assault rifle used to murder twenty children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. “That feels awesome! That is awesome!” a Santorum organizer shouted after firing a .45 handgun at a target the shape of a human. “I feel like I’ve got so much power right now!”

“It’s him or nobody,” said Bo Dostal, 60, while smoking a cigarette outside a Ted Cruz rally in Ames. “Trump talks about how he’ll get along with Congress. Well, of course! You helped put a number of ‘em into office. They owe you. People need to open their eyes. He is not a conservative. He does not have conservative values. I ask Trump people, ‘Who do you know who changes their mind on their core values at 70 years old?’ That’s phony as hell!” Born and raised in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Dostal now lives in Kansas City. “I drove up four and half hours today, just for this. I’ve never been to a rally, and I’ve never given to any candidate—including Reagan, who was our best president—until now. It’s too important to let this slip away.”

Hovering behind Dostal during much of our conversation was Hugh “Fritz” Franzen, an 81-year-old retired professor of physical chemistry at Iowa State. “I just want to say that everything he said was a lot of bunk,” Franzen told us after Dostal went inside to hear Cruz. “Not everybody in Iowa is stark raving mad!” A strong Sanders supporter, Franzen insisted he was only at the Cruz event because his wife, a local journalist, was covering it. “I have voted in every election since Adlai Stevenson in 1952, but in all of that time I have never before now heard anybody express the values that I care about. Bernie is a straight-shooter. My wife saw a video of him talking 30 or 40 years ago, and he was saying the exact same things. America has lost its way. Bernie has not lost his way. He’s not bought and paid for. This is one of the most important things that has happened in my life.”

Lana Deering, her daughter and a friend had just finished breakfast outside the Booneville Bar & Grill, at a crossroads just outside Des Moines’s suburban sprawl. “My gut instinct is to support Trump,” she said. “Pardon my language, but he has the balls to say and do what others pussyfoot around. There is too much crap that is out of control.” She especially approves of Trump’s comments about immigration. “I don’t personally care who is coming over the borders, but do it properly,” Deering said. “It’s proven that a lot of the diseases we have come from south of the border. They come and they take our jobs. You drive up to McDonald’s and they don’t speak our language. We just hand them everything that we have to work for. That’s not right. There’s got to be rules.”

Don Stanley was smoking a cigarette a block from the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, the seat of Madison County. An energy specialist for a utility company, Stanley will be caucusing for Ted Cruz. “He’s the strongest for the Constitution,” Stanley said. “Our current president has overstepped every boundary, and I think Cruz can get us back on the right track.” His second choice would be Marco Rubio. “I just like to hear him talk,” he said. “The reason he’s not my first choice is because of immigration.”

Around the corner, across from the stately Madison County Courthouse, built in 1876, Anna Garcia was manning the counter at a Chinese restaurant, one of the few businesses open in town on a Sunday afternoon. Born in Mexico and a resident of Winterset for the last 10 years, Garcia is a registered Democrat. She plans to caucus for Hillary Clinton—as do her parents and her sister. “She has some good ideas about Latin people, or different people, not just American,” Garcia said. Asked about Donald Trump, who had held a rally in Winterset two weeks earlier, Garcia said, “I think he makes the people think wrong about us. You know, I’m working. I’m not doing bad stuff. Most of the illegal people is doing that, you know, working. Our people is just working to feed kids, to keep families good, ’cause it’s difficult in our countries.”

“So many politicians, they give you promise and tell you things you want to hear, but as soon as they’re elected, they go straight away from that,” said Steve Lee, the owner of a bowling alley in Jewell. “They don’t even look like they’re actually engaged to their views. So many presidents do that, and I hate to say it, but Obama is one of them. So I have a hard time trusting them. I’m retired from the Marines. I believe that if you are running for the highest office, you gotta follow through. Too many of them say, ‘Well I can’t do it because of that or this.’ At least Ben Carson has a sensitivity, and he might be able to at least go and help out the country the way he sees things.” Lee, who is registered as an independent, said he would also consider caucusing for Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t strike him as a professional politician. “I just think we have to get some of those average Joes in there to fight for working people,” he said.