Two months out from the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, a crowd of voters, activists, campaign staff and volunteers, and press gathered at the Des Moines headquarters of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a statewide grassroots advocacy group, to participate in a familiar ritual of electoral politics: the candidate endorsement. Leaders from the CCI Action Fund, CCI’s political counterpart, and Iowa Student Action (ISA), a group created in 2015, stepped up to the podium to deliver speeches in support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. His campaign, they said, has championed the key issues they focus on in their community organizing work, including free college, Medicare for All, and moratoriums on factory farms. “We didn’t endorse Bernie because we are with him on the issues. We are endorsing Bernie because he is with us on the issues,” proclaimed CCI board president Cherie Mortice, to huge applause. The endorsement was the conclusion of seven months of work by CCI Action’s presidential leadership team and ISA, which included candidate questionnaires, issue briefings, a people’s forum, to which candidates were invited, and ultimately a vote. (Mortice also mentioned the groups have “common ground” with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro, who subsequently dropped out of the race—a testament to this cycle’s competitive field of Democratic contenders.)
But the fanfare ended quickly. After the speeches, roughly 50 attendees, ranging from Iowa State freshmen to retired dirt farmers, piled onto a school bus to take part in a form of politics rarely associated with caucus season: a direct action. A handful of reporters followed.
Less than 20 minutes after the endorsement wrapped up, they packed tightly into the office foyer of the Master Builders of Iowa, a statewide construction industry membership association, and chanted, “Health insurance is a lie. They don’t care if people die!” The group was protesting Master Builders’ affiliation with the Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, an anti–Medicare for All campaign formed by pharmaceutical, insurance, and hospital lobbyists in 2018.
Armed with megaphones, CCI activists took turns reading aloud GoFundMe pages featuring Iowans who couldn’t afford their medical expenses and plastering printouts to the office walls with bandages. In a heated exchange, a Master Builders employee yelled at the protesters to get off the property, warning that the police had been called. “So what?” one elderly activist grumbled, even as she showed some “Iowa nice,” picking up the bandage wrappers from the office floor.
This confrontation was a far cry from the state fairs and steak fries that are usually featured in coverage of the Iowa caucuses. And that seemed to be the point.
“We’re not interested in candidates’ stump speeches. We’ve heard enough of those,” Jack Reardon, an organizer with CCI, told me. Those speeches get “a lot of media coverage, but it’s not reflective of how a majority of people across this state, across this country, are feeling about politics,” they added. “People aren’t interested in a particular candidate. They’re interested in something that can change their lives.”
Every four years, Iowa briefly assumes an outsize level of importance in American politics, then disappears almost entirely from the national discourse. Since 1972, Iowa has held the first presidential contest in the nation—a privileged position that brings a deluge of hopeful candidates, campaign resources, and media attention to the state. (New Hampshire’s primary follows a week later; the nation’s most populous states, including California and Texas, don’t vote until March.) Winning the Iowa caucuses is seen as a significant indicator of a campaign’s viability, even though the Iowa electorate, which in 2016 was 91 percent white, is hardly representative of the national electorate. As early as 1984, The New York Times reported “growing talk in national committee circles of stripping the state of its first-caucus status in 1988.” It never happened. This year, Castro made headlines calling for the Democratic Party to rethink its nominating process, saying that Iowa and New Hampshire aren’t “reflective of the diversity of our country or of our party.” The 2020 Iowa caucuses will take place February 3, and by then, Democratic presidential candidates are anticipated to have held over 3,000 events in the state since the start of 2019 and have spent an estimated $11 million on advertising there.
The way Iowans vote has come under fire, too. Iowa’s contest is a caucus system, which holds voters captive for hours at their local precincts. Caucusgoers must arrive at a specified time on an early February evening in a state prone to extreme winter weather conditions. To show their support for a particular candidate, voters huddle with others who share their preference. In the Democratic caucuses, if a candidate doesn’t reach a 15 percent voter threshold, that preference group dissolves, and those voters choose another nominee; that’s why the process takes hours. Voters who work nights, who cannot find child care, or who are physically unable to access the site because of disability, distance, or lack of transportation are unable to participate.
Both defenders and skeptics of the caucus system point out that those who attend are taking part in the exercise of direct democracy. In order to persuade unattached voters, caucusgoers debate the merits of the candidates; political newcomers can end up in conversation with elected officials. At her first caucus in 2018, Denise Cheeseman, 21, now a full-time organizer with Iowa Student Action, volunteered to be a precinct captain for gubernatorial candidate Cathy Glasson and wound up debating policy with the then-mayor of Iowa City. “It was such a surreal experience…. I was just a kid, and then I’m arguing with the mayor about climate,” she said. “Which is the cool thing about the caucus. It’s meant to be the most grassroots form of political engagement.”
Dave Leshtz and Jeffrey Cox have edited The Prairie Progressive, a newsletter about Iowa politics, since the 1980s. Until the early 2000s, state party platform issues were “the real meat” of the caucuses, Leshtz said. “People would stay late because they really want to get a platform through.” Leshtz and Cox recounted precinct platforms that demanded repeal of the Second Amendment, called for Irish unity, and endorsed the principles of The Communist Manifesto. “They ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime,” said Leshtz. “But then they are, at least in theory, put together and studied at county convention by the platform committee. That’s how they wind up with the state platform.” They agreed that this had changed by the 2004 election. “People got so wrapped up in the glitz of the caucuses, and that’s what the game became,” said Leshtz. “It used to be we spent more time on gathering sample resolutions. I don’t think anybody knows that now.”
The Democratic primary process needs an institutional overhaul. But the popular image of the Iowa caucus electorate also needs revision. On the prairie, change is quietly underway. There are indications of a forthcoming resurrection of the forgotten grassroots culture of the caucuses, now for an intersectional age.
A key driver of this shift is that Iowa’s demographics are changing rapidly. Since 2000, its Latino population has more than doubled; the median age for Latinos in Iowa is 24. Drawn by employment and refugee resettlement programs, the Asian population has grown by 125 percent during that time. Minorities make up a quarter of the state’s student population, compared with 10 percent in 2000. In fact, immigration is the primary factor driving population growth here. If one excludes Latino immigration to Iowa over the past 30 years, the state’s growth would be negligible. Iowa is now 85.3 percent non-Hispanic white, 6.2 percent Latino, 4.0 percent African American, and 2.8 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. Ethnic and racial groups aren’t monolithic, of course, but even small blocs can be electorally significant when effectively mobilized.
Meanwhile, pressure from the Democratic National Committee has forced the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) to implement changes to make the caucuses more accessible to those who have historically been excluded. The most significant change for 2020 is the addition of satellite caucus sites in and outside Iowa, which could substantially broaden participation.
In addition to structural changes to the caucuses, the 2016 election had the result of pushing grassroots organizers to renew their engagement with electoral politics. Activists are using the 2020 caucuses as an opportunity to remake the Democratic electorate through their organizing, with the intent to diversify the caucus base and prompt caucusgoers to think beyond the electoral cycle. Now the question is can the combination of the IDP’s reforms and organizers’ engagement produce a more diverse and representative turnout for the 2020 caucuses?
In the run-up to the Democratic caucuses, voter groups typically mobilize alongside the candidates’ and party’s ground games. In 2020, in addition to groups like the League of Women Voters of Iowa and the Human Rights Campaign, which have long been working on voter turnout in the state, Iowa chapters of groups founded during and after the 2016 election, including Indivisible, SwingLeft, and NextGen America, will be out in force. Local organizing groups that historically did not focus on electoral politics, like CCI, which was shocked by Trump’s election and the effects of Republican trifecta control of Iowa state government, and Indigenous Iowa, which was inspired by the increasingly popular fusion of movement and electoral politics, have also gotten involved. Because of this massive voter mobilization, Democratic officials expect this year to rival 2008’s record turnout of nearly 240,000 Democratic caucusgoers.
Just after CCI’s Medicare for All action, I met Joe Enriquez Henry, the Iowa political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a nonpartisan voting and civil rights organization, at Ritual Cafe in downtown Des Moines. The 2020 election cycle will culminate at least a decade of intensive organizing by LULAC to make Iowa’s Latino community a strong player in the state’s electoral politics. “We’re inviting ourselves to the Iowa caucuses this year,” he said. “Usually the caucuses are an inside game. They’re geared to encouraging the same old white crew, who’ve been politically connected and who have higher incomes, to go. But they’re going to see a lot more brown faces this time around.”
Though Latinos currently make up fewer than 7 percent of Iowans, Henry said they could account for 25 percent of the 2020 Democratic caucus electorate. (In 2016, entrance polls indicated Latinos made up only 4 percent of the Iowa Democratic caucus electorate, and some 2008 state entrance polls did not even identify Latino voters; the racial identifiers were “white,” “black,” and “other.”) In 2016, 171,000 Democratic voters showed up to caucuses. LULAC aims to get 10,000 new voters to participate in the 2020 caucuses and registered at least 3,000 by the end of last year. In October 2019, LULAC claimed a victory after challenging a 2017 state voter ID law. While some portions of the law were upheld, the judge struck down its most egregious attempts at voter suppression, including a requirement to show a voter ID number for an absentee ballot.
Henry sees enormous potential in activating young voters in particular. In Iowa, 17-year-olds may caucus if they will be 18 by the time of the general election, so LULAC does voter registration drives in high schools. “There’s a lot more young people who are involved because of all the hateful rhetoric from Trump,” he said. “We have a lot of young people coming out of mixed status families because our population has grown exponentially in the last 10 to 15 years. The young people in these mixed status families, they get it. And they want to do something about it.”
I drove east on i-80 to West Liberty, population 3,800, to see some of LULAC’s organizing efforts in action. In the darkness, I barely registered that I had emerged from the cornfields into a neighborhood—a handful of houses, gas stations, and Mexican groceries that had accrued around the meat-processing plant West Liberty Foods. More than half the town is Latino. Most of the families here emigrated from the same town in Mexico’s Durango State, but increasingly there are people from Central America and Puerto Rico coming to look for work. Over the past few decades, this has become the face of rural Iowa; as the demand for labor at meatpacking plants grew, so did the Latino and then Southeast Asian populations.
On a quiet Friday night in early December, the only light emanated from St. Joseph’s Parish Center, where LULAC hosted a lotería, a traditional Mexican bingo game. As children ran about and the local priest called out selections from the card deck, I talked with Michael Aragon, 20, a LULAC scholarship recipient at the University of Iowa who grew up in West Liberty. He volunteers with various LULAC initiatives, including loterías and voter outreach in his hometown. He tutors green card holders for their citizenship exam with the West Liberty Citizenship Education Initiative, which was launched in collaboration with professors at the University of Iowa’s College of Education and West Liberty schoolteachers in response to the 2016 election. Tutors prepare candidates for the exam, and LULAC covers half of the nearly $1,000 exam fee. Right after the naturalization ceremony, LULAC registers the new citizens as voters and begins to educate them on the voting process.
“It activates and expands an electorate that’s been overlooked,” Aragon said, mentioning there had been an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation in town just a few weeks before. “There’s a lot of fear in the community right now. I think voter education is really necessary.” LULAC uses events like loterías to not only register voters but also build civically engaged communities that foster a culture of voting in the growing number of Iowa towns that resemble West Liberty. The loterías raise money for scholarship recipients, like Aragon, who then become invested in LULAC’s voter outreach initiatives.
In larger communities like Des Moines, LULAC focuses on reaching potential voters where they are. Nataly Espinoza-Lara, 34, is a LULAC field director based in Des Moines. She came to the US 18 years ago from Mexico and recently became a citizen. Her daughter, America Herrera, 18, is a high school senior and also organizes with LULAC. “I never thought I’d be an activist,” Espinoza-Lara said in a phone interview. In 2009 she was an undocumented single mother working several jobs to stay afloat. At a restaurant where she worked, her employer withheld her wages. She went to Iowa CCI for help. CCI staged a protest of 100 people at the restaurant with signs that read, “Pay your workers” in Spanish and English. Eventually Espinoza-Lara got her wages restored. “They changed my life,” she said. Soon after that, she became active in community organizing.
Espinoza-Lara and Herrera register voters and educate them on the caucus process by setting up information tables in Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants, taking slots on Spanish-language radio stations, and talking with people at food banks. Espinoza-Lara said the Sanders and Castro campaigns have been present in the community but it remains untouched by the majority of presidential campaigns and the IDP. “They don’t reach out to poor people,” she said. “I don’t see [the Biden, Warren, or Buttigieg campaigns] anywhere. Do they only answer wealthy people?”
A major part of Espinoza-Lara’s and Herrera’s work is door knocking in heavily Latino neighborhoods. Espinoza-Lara asks people what they need in order to vote—transportation, more information—and then tries to provide it. “Some people will never open the door now,” she said. “Before 2018, it was different, but ICE is picking up so many people. People are scared, even people who have documents. When someone opens the door, we say to them, ‘Look, we have to change this.'”
Herrera said that the majority of people who refuse to register are probably undocumented. But the organizers always ask if they have family members who could register. “With those family members, they don’t feel powerless because their families can make a difference and speak for them,” she told me. She frames voting as a form of empowerment. “We tell people, ‘This is for you, not for us.’ That’s important. We approach people with a sense of giving them power by voting instead of saying, ‘We need your vote.'”
The LULAC organizers I spoke with emphasized that voter registration is not necessarily synonymous with voter education and access. For many first-time voters to be able and willing to participate, the caucus system necessitates a particular civic education, and some community organizations are focusing on that in 2020. The Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, an immigrant rights organization that concentrates on wage theft, is involved in caucus organizing for the first time, holding a caucus training session with Arabic and Spanish interpretation services. But that education is a two-way street. It is also welcoming candidates to hold events in its space in an effort to make the communities that it supports more visible to the campaigns. I spoke with Rafael Morataya, the center’s executive director, after an event with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. “A lot of candidates say, ‘I didn’t even know there are immigrants in Iowa,'” Morataya said.
That awareness is emerging. “I think engagement is starting to happen,” said Mazahir Salih, a Sudanese American Iowa City councilwoman and cofounder of the center. She said the retail politics aspect of the caucuses—the campaign events and voter education sessions—can be a mobilizing factor for new swaths of the electorate. “It’s exciting to see candidates, especially for low-income people who do not have strong access to the news or the Internet.”
As grassroots groups ramp up their involvement in voter registration and mobilization, the Democratic establishment is in the process of making the most significant changes to the party’s caucuses in years. After the 2016 election, the DNC enacted reforms to make its presidential primaries more accessible, with a focus on caucus states that had no form of absentee voting. In response, the IDP proposed a virtual caucus system, which the DNC rejected out of cybersecurity concerns. In September the DNC approved the IDP’s plans to significantly expand the number of satellite caucus precincts (in 2016, there were four), which allows voters unable to caucus at their assigned precincts to apply for caucus locations in alternative locations, such as factories, assisted-living homes, LULAC halls, and community centers.
Over 190 applications were made for satellite sites, and the IDP recently announced 99 approved sites. The locations of the sites are not limited to Iowa: There will be satellite sites in Palm Springs, California; at the University of Pennsylvania and the Brooklyn Public Library; and in Glasgow, Paris, and even Tbilisi, Georgia. Only registered Iowa voters will be able to participate. “We’ll be able to bring democracy closer to those who wouldn’t be able to get to their precinct sites,” said Troy Price, the chair of the IDP. “These will be the most accessible, transparent caucuses we’ve ever had. This will increase participation, and I’m excited about the possibility for the process.”
It’s a big change, but it may not be enough. While a few unionized shift workers retained a satellite site at their workplace, a Sanders campaign canvasser I met told me that many people declined to commit to caucusing because they can’t take time off from work and were concerned about bringing electoral politics into their workplace. Salih suggested that the IDP provide child care to increase participation.
The obstacles Iowans face when caucusing are more extreme versions of problems shared by voters throughout the country. Election Day is still not a national holiday. Many potential voters are isolated from the culture of voting because traditional politics prioritizes “regular” voters, meaning older white voters. According to the Primaries Project at the Brookings Institution, more than half of 2018 Democratic primary voters were white, and nearly 70 percent were age 40 or older. A US Census Bureau study of the American general electorate showed that 73.3 percent of all voters were white in 2016. For most candidates, “their white consultants are saying that they should only be focused on regular voters who happen to be above the age of 50, who are white and have money,” said LULAC’s Henry. Focusing on those who already vote becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on who makes up the electorate.
The political world’s intense focus on Iowa in the months before the caucuses and its long absence from the state thereafter also demonstrates how our electoral system produces a brief, intense engagement with politics followed by a long period of depletion and exhaustion—rather than a sustained and active relationship with it.
This caucus season in Iowa, local activists are finding that building power requires not only engaging with electoral politics but also developing voters’ long-term civic engagement habits. “When we start learning about civics and elections, [it’s] like, ‘You go vote in November and then vote in the school board, and you did your job,'” said Hugh Espey, the executive director of Iowa CCI. “But the moneyed class, the power elite—that’s not how they see it. They see that this is nonstop. They’re working at it all the time. We have to work at it all the time and build power, too.”
“When I went to my first caucus, the next day I was like, ‘Let’s go,'” said Iowa Student Action’s Cheeseman. “But then everything quiets down for six months after an electoral cycle. We’re trying to transition people to the next track and be like, ‘Yeah, you want to go?’ We have this local campaign, and we’re still going.”
Steven Meier, 39, is a member of United Auto Workers Local 94 in Dubuque and of the city’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter. Despite having lived most of his life in Iowa, he never caucused before 2016 and had rarely voted. Sanders’s campaign that year inspired him to see many of his family’s struggles as systemic rather than blame other people for his problems, he said. “I showed up at the caucus and had no idea what to expect, then suddenly I was on the platform committee, then a state delegate. Now if there’s a local or state election, I do it all,” he told me.
Meier is organizing for the Sanders campaign again this year and doesn’t plan to quit once the caucus season is over. “Even if Bernie doesn’t win, that’s not going to stop us in Iowa. We’re building a culture of long-term organizing, but [the caucuses are] a moment to push that organizing, to get people out in the communities.”
I talked to Sara Castro, 20, a history major at Grinnell College who also organizes with Iowa Student Action, after the CCI Medicare for All protest. ISA is mobilizing student voters through advocacy for free public college and student debt forgiveness. Though the group began only in the run-up to the 2016 caucuses, it is now active on six campuses across the state, including the University of Iowa and Iowa State. “We’re trying to use that conversation [about free college and student debt as caucus issues] to bring in people and keep them engaged,” explained Castro. “After all the campaign staff leave in February, no matter who wins, we still want to win our issues.”
An average of the latest Iowa polls from December 7 to January 3 by RealClearPolitics has Sanders narrowly leading the field at 22 percent, with former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and former vice president Joe Biden close behind at 21.7 percent and 20.3 percent, respectively. But the polls have been volatile, and many likely caucusgoers remain undecided. And a badly timed snowstorm typical of Iowa winters could change everything.
No matter the outcome, the Iowa caucus electorate is poised to change—and create change itself. “I’m pretty excited about the future,” LULAC’s Herrera told me. “I know that if we keep doing what we’re doing, it’ll make a big difference later on.”
It’s unclear how long Iowa will retain its prized first-in-the-nation status. As of now, there are no concrete moves by the DNC to move the Iowa caucuses later in the primary calendar. But the organizers and activists I talked to will keep pushing Iowans toward a deeper form of political engagement. “We can use [the caucuses] for other things, not just to turn people out to elect a candidate,” said Castro. “People are being radicalized by the [electoral] process, and [that] can be invested back into political organizing. We’re using the whole momentum of Iowa to move our base and our vision.”