Forget D.C. Every politico knows that Iowa is the place you want to be for the most exciting campaigns in the country with the Iowa Caucus. That’s particularly true for young people and college students who want to get involved in politics. Nowhere else in the country can students meet a presidential candidate nearly every week and work alongside some of the best campaign professionals in the country. And it’s easy. It’s so unbelievably easy to get involved here that it’s a wonder more young people around the country don’t flock to Iowa for the caucus and/or attend its great colleges and universities. So Starting Line will let you in on the open secret of what makes Iowa such a special place.
What is the Iowa Caucus?
The Iowa Caucus has become the main lead-off event in the presidential nominating process. Nearly every Democratic and Republican White House hopeful works the state like crazy, knowing that a win could provide the momentum needed to claim their party’s nomination. Candidates who place poorly in Iowa have often dropped out soon afterwards. The caucus has become a media spectacle, yet still retains that grass-roots feel that gives every candidate a chance at winning, no matter how much money or national name ID they have.
Every four years during the caucuses, Iowa becomes the center of the universe. D.C. essentially moves to Des Moines and the rest of Iowa for the better part of a year. The best political staff in the country hang out in small coffee shops and direct large staffs around the state. Satellite trucks are parked on every corner of downtown Des Moines. National news shows often broadcast with the Iowa State Capitol in the background.
So what makes the actual process different? Unlike a regular primary election, where voters go to state-run polling stations as they do in a general election, a caucus is a party-run affair where neighbors gather at a local meeting spot at a specific time to choose their candidate. The state is split into 99 counties and about 1,700 precincts, so each individual precinct caucus gathers at a local school, church or community center, usually around 7 P.M. Once there the jockeying begins.
Leaders or precinct captains for specific presidential candidates often stand up and give their pitch on why others should caucus for their candidate. Friends and neighbors do their best to persuade each other to come over to their side. This can go on for well over an hour. In the Republican caucuses, voters write their choice on a piece of paper and the numbers are tallied. In the Democratic caucuses, voters literally stand or sit publicly in different corners of the room for their candidate. All of this creates an incredibly unique experience where voters actually interact and debate with their neighbors over who they want the next president to be.
How College Students Get Involved
“Iowa is a special place,” says Drake University sophomore Jordan Sabine. “I could not have done all of this anywhere else.” That’s a feeling every college student gets when they volunteer on Iowa campaigns. Especially so during the caucus. The entire Iowa Caucus remains a very grass-roots affair, where personal interactions between the candidates and voters trumps big TV ad spending. If you want to ask a candidate a specific policy question, you can. That makes for very open and accessible campaigns.
In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama made outreach to young voters a key component of his insurgent campaign for president. On just his second trip to Iowa after announcing his campaign, he rode on a school bus between events with a contingent of local College Democrats. A year later many students were on hand at his victory speech in Des Moines following his historic Iowa Caucus victory that set him on the path to the White House.
Other college students have found themselves in moments in political history while interning or volunteering during the caucus. Erin Dreisbach, a then-Drake student interning for NBC News during the 2004 caucus, was standing behind James Carville when the infamous “Dean Scream” occurred on live TV, the moment that sealed Howard Dean’s fate. Now a teacher, Dreisbach says, “Anytime a kid tells me they want to go into politics, I immediately share my experiences with them and suggest they seriously consider becoming Iowa bound.”
College Republicans got all the fun in 2012 with their highly competitive presidential race. Many students interned for candidates like Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry. They get another big moment in the sun in 2015 and 2016 with an even larger field of Republican presidential hopefuls. “Through College Republicans I have had the opportunity to not only educate fellow students, but also meet current and future leaders of our nation,” says Michelle Aberle, the executive director for the Iowa Federation of College Republicans and an ISU student. “College Republicans will be at the forefront of this process and I am excited to have the opportunity to get involved.”
Some students will take a semester off during the caucus or other general election campaigns to work on a campaign. Others find special internships that give them an inside look few other students in the country will ever see. Niki Smith, also a former Drake student, worked at the Des Moines Register as a caucus clerk during the 2008 caucus. Smith recalls she “met every candidate from my desk in the newsroom and developed relationships with the communications director for each campaign … I also got a glimpse at candid versions of each candidate, which to me was a more genuine look at who they really were.”
My own personal experience in the state is similar. I chose to attend Drake University in 2003 so I’d be right in the thick of the Iowa Caucus. One month into my freshman year, I got to drive John Kerry around the state (this was before he was the nominee). I interned in a Kerry headquarters that housed some very talented staff. That included folks like Ari Melber, now a MSNBC host, and Addisu Demissie, who went on to run Cory Booker’s senate race.
Drake University’s Mission to Train the Country’s Next Great Political Operatives
While all of Iowa’s colleges and universities offer students opportunities to jump in the political world, Drake University in particular is leading the way in creating unique programs designed for students wanting to go into politics and campaigns. At the start of Fall semester, Drake launches its new major: Strategic Political Communication. A combination of public relations and political science, the new courses aim to prepare students to work on or run campaigns right out of college. Rather than focus on just theory, Drake hopes to teach the skills needed to get hired as a communications director or field director on a political campaign.
Sabine, the Drake sophomore, is very excited for the program. From Seattle, Sabine chose Drake with an eye on a career in politics. “I figured I could go to DC and compete with tons of people who all wanted to work in politics,” Sabine says of her decision, explaining she chose Drake in the hopes of standing out in a smaller pond of politically-engaged young people. She’s minoring in marketing, and appreciates the different approach Drake’s new major will take. “It’s nice to take a PR class and instead of talking about corporations, companies and products, we’re talking about people.”
“One aspect about the program that I highly appreciate is the fact that this program is entirely unique and another student at another university will not have the same opportunities that I will have,” says Drake student Zach Blevins, who is adopting Strategic Political Communications as his new major. “Political science programs and public relations programs are very common at other universities, but very few universities are able to fuse the two concepts together.”
Drake has the obvious advantage of being the only major university in Des Moines, the headquarters for caucus campaigns and many media outlets. Drake students can capitalize on that with the new major’s capstone project, which plans on having students work for actual political clients in town. Already in this most recent election cycle, many Drake students interned for Joni Ernst’s campaign. Others worked on the Democrats’ coordinated campaign in Iowa.
Iowa: The Place to be for Politics and Campaigns
For those young people interested in a career in politics, many seasoned campaign staffers will tell you that working in Iowa is resume gold. Even in the off-years, Iowa is still a great place to be for campaigns. A swing state in presidential and statewide elections, Iowa also conducts non-partisan redistricting when drawing their legislative district borders. That means there’s always plenty of competitive Congressional and state legislative campaigns as incumbents can’t create their own districts to protect themselves. Still, the Iowa Caucus, of course, is what really makes the state so special.
As Starting Line spoke with a number of students, professors and campaign staff about their Iowa Caucus memories, many noted the difference in experience young people get in Iowa and D.C. Some suggested young people look to D.C. if they’re interested in how government works, and look to Iowa if they want to know how campaigns work. Considering the dysfunction and gridlock in our government and Congress these days, I think it’s clear which would be more fun. However, I would phrase it this way: If you want to see how the world is, go to Washington D.C. If you want to change it, come join us here in Iowa.
Questions about going to college in Iowa or how to get involved in the caucus? I’m happy to answer them – email me at IowaStartingLine@gmail.com
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