The Starting Line Team’s Favorite Iowa Caucus Moments

Photos by Julie Fleming and Emily Ross

With a little time to breathe now that most of the drama around the caucus reporting has slowed down, the Starting Line team is looking back at everything we experienced this past year. There really is nothing else in American politics like living through a caucus campaign cycle, whether you’re working on a campaign, reporting on it or just attending dozens of events or volunteering as an Iowa voter.

Starting Line expanded to six full-time reporters for this past year, some of whom hadn’t experienced the full caucus before, and we saw a lot.

For our longtime readers, we thought it’d be fun to go through our favorite moments from this cycle. Enjoy.

Joe Biden And The Bald Eagle

Isabella Murray

The day after Rudy Giuliani said President Donald Trump had pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden and his family on national TV, the former Vice President held a climate-focused town hall in Cedar Rapids.

He had yet to address the incident anywhere and it was clear that Biden had a lot on his mind as he began to discuss carbon sequestration and the Paris climate accord.

The event was at a local nature center, and during the middle of the event, Biden spotted an American bald eagle on the roof of its building.

He then diverted into the story of how his late son Beau loved bald eagles, and before his passing, the father and son-duo would sit on their lakeside property in Delaware to watch the birds. After Beau’s death, Biden said he went out to the lake and a single bald eagle landed right in front of him.

“Maybe that’s Beau,” Biden said, gazing into the sky at the nature center.

The moment was a great reminder that on the trail, you’re interacting with some of the biggest political actors on the world stage, but they are real people with really human reactions to everything — no matter how large — that’s going on around them. 

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Hitch-Hiking With The Candidates

Pat Rynard

In early August, around the State Fair and the Wing Ding Dinner, the presidential candidates planned out big, week-long road trips throughout the state. As the schedules got released, I noticed that many of them were all traveling through Northwest Iowa at the same time. So much so, in fact, that I realized you could literally hitch a ride from one candidate’s event to the next, since many of their events were just a few hours apart in the same town.

After making a couple of phone calls, I did just that.

John Delaney took me from West Des Moines up to Spirit Lake, first in his red truck, then in the blue Delaney bus for a different leg. Amy Klobuchar’s team picked me up there and dropped me off late at night in Storm Lake. I hopped on Kirsten Gillibrand’s RV the next day, and she delivered me to Fort Dodge. I saw an Elizabeth Warren event there before walking over to a separate Kamala Harris forum in town, and I rode up in Harris’ bus to Clear Lake for the Wing Ding event.

The time in between public events gives you incredible insight into what makes these politicians tick. This three-day stretch was a lot of fun, including Gillibrand insisting she wait at a gas station with me until my taxi into town arrived, late-night margaritas with the Klobuchar crew, trying to get Harris to reveal her Supreme Court picks to me, and the source of that weird smell in one of the campaign busses that we agreed would stay off the record.

Nowhere else in America.

10,000 Steps With Bernie

Josh Cook

The Fourth of July was really fun. I spent two full days walking parades with Bernie Sanders, and it was wild to experience the differences in reactions to him. In urban areas, some people were freaking out about just seeing him or shaking his hand. In places like Pella, Iowa, people were holding up Trump flags and yelling at his team as they walked the parade saying hi to folks.

Gillibrand Teaches Bravery

Paige Godden

I can’t believe I’m choosing a moment from the Iowa State Fair as one of my favorite moments from the 2020 caucuses, but here we are.

During the busiest political weekend of the fair, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took a minute to sit down and read her book, Bold & Brave, to two girls in Easter dresses.

The moment itself was very endearing and on-brand for Gillibrand, who told the girls about Amelia Earhart. 

“She was a pilot,” Gillibrand said. “She flew around the world. She was really brave.”

It was a touching sentiment during a time when women were making history in presidential politics. Six women were running to be the next president of the United States.

I personally remember this moment particularly well because I was trying to get this shot and on the way I elbowed a man, who I didn’t know at the time was Gillibrand’s husband, Jonathan.

Gillibrand was about two feet away from me and I didn’t want to say the word “sorry,” so I said something along the lines of, “It’s going to be a rough day.” 

I was trying to be good at the feminism thing, but in the end it was rude.

So, I’d like to apologize now. I’m sorry for the elbow, Jonathan.

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The Buttigieg Bus Tour

Nikoel Hytrek

I wasn’t sure what I’d get out of Pete Buttigieg’s all on-the-record bus trip across Iowa other than a few stories and a cool experience. But I met and talked to national reporters and I got to forget about some of the less fun parts of candidate travel to enjoy the trip and the reporting.

Most of the time when we do candidate travel, we personally drove from place to place. It was oddly reminiscent of high school to load all my stuff into a bus and forget about things like drive times and pit stops.

Conversations on the bus also led to some interesting glimpses of Buttigieg as a person and the way he thinks that you don’t quite get from events.

Also The Buttigieg Bus

Pat Rynard

Imagine being surrounded by over a dozen reporters for hours at a time, peppering you with questions that ranged from insightful to probing to comical to hostile. You have to be open enough to give interesting responses, but also disciplined enough because any verbal slip-up could literally end your presidential hopes right then and there.

Such was the situation for Buttigieg during the three days I spent on the bus with him, a fascinating up-close look at a self-described introvert talking about himself for hours at a time.

There was lots of interesting insights, but my favorite moment was when a reporter asked Buttigieg if, as he was running up on stage at an event, he ever worried about falling down. Some other folks on the bus exchanged a little side-eye at the question, but Buttigieg actually had a hilarious, deeply thought-out answer. He described how he had to calculate whether to shake hands or high-five people on his way up to the stage, or whether that slows your momentum down too much or puts you off-balance as you head up. It was a fun example of all the little things that go through a candidate’s head outside of just their stump speech and Q&A answers.

Hanging Out With Union Guys In Dubuque

Isabella Murray

People call Iowans spoiled, but make no mistake, they do the work. With opportunity comes great responsibility.

One of my other favorite stories to tell was when I followed Tom Townsend and Dave George, current and former business managers of local labor unions, in their home city of Dubuque as three top-tier candidates visited.

They went to three Dubuque caucus events with three different front-runners within 32 hours of each other in January as undecided voters with about a month to make a decision. 

We became familiar after talking for long periods after each event, sometimes spanning over an hour. They were very candid. After Bernie Sanders’ event, their friend Bruce, a local union guy, told me his legs were falling asleep as we were talking, and that he would greatly benefit from Medicare for All. 

Townsend and George got to meet with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in the clutch before their respective events, and they were pretty casual when I asked them how the meetings went. 

Townsend called Warren a down-home lady, and said that Sanders was pretty curt upon finding out their scheduled meeting time was coming to a close. 

The talks I had with Townsend and George really depicted how unimpressed some Iowans are with the star power of these candidates. They really are concerned about policy and how an eventual Democratic nominee might affect their ways of life.

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Warren Gets Choked Up Answering Teen’s Question

Pat Rynard

In December, Warren changed up her town hall approach, shortening her stump speech to under ten minutes and taking nearly a dozen questions per event. It immediately improved the connections she made in person with Iowans, most notably in Marion.

A 17-year-old named Raelyn, who is part of the LGBTQ community, asked Warren if there was ever a time where someone she looked up to was disappointed in her.

“Yeah,” Warren replied, her voice immediately starting to crack. “My mother and I had very different views of how to build a future. She wanted me to marry well, and I really tried, and it just didn’t work out. And there came a day when I had to call her and say, ‘This is over. I can’t make it work.’ And I heard the disappointment in her voice.”

The two hugged afterward.

It never ceases to amaze how Iowans show up to caucus events in front of the entire national press corp to share deeply personal and emotional thoughts with presidential candidates. But it’s incredibly important they do so. For a moment, it felt like Warren and Raelyn were the only people in the entire gymnasium. And in those brief moments, you see a side of the candidate you never would just from large rallies or debate stages or campaign videos.

This was not the only time during Warren’s campaign that she could have talked more in depth about her divorce, nor was it the first time she’d gotten an emotionally-charged question. Some days things just land differently with a presidential candidate, and the best you can hope for as a reporter is that you happen to be there when it occurs.

A Very Klobuchar Thanksgiving

Paige Godden

Sen. Amy Klobuchar spent Thanksgiving in Iowa. To celebrate, she brought a yam casserole to the home of her Iowa campaign chair, Andy McGuire.

Before the senator sat down for a meal, she took some time with reporters.

I didn’t get a picture of this, but there were a couple of us there and we asked Klobuchar about her Thanksgiving traditions while we colored a Thanksgiving-themed paper table runner McGuire bought for her grandchildren.

It was one of those things that would only happen in Iowa.

Watching Candidates Eat Stuff At The Iowa State Fair

Josh Cook

Watching hundreds of press care about people eating a corn-dog is one of the funniest things in American politics. Not only is it odd to watch another person eat, it’s funny that it is the sort of thing that can make people seem like “normal humans.” I think the funniest part is that Bill de Blasio gave a thumbs up after chomping on a corn dog, which is weird to do, and that moment was turned into a GIF and was everywhere until he dropped out.

Sanders Marches With McDonald’s Workers

Paige Godden

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign made quite an entrance into the first big candidate cattle call in Iowa in June 2019.

Instead of having his supporters take part in the usual sign wars, they all met a few blocks away from the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids.

A massive group of Sanders’ supporters, McDonalds workers and the senator himself marched a few blocks to the hotel while chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” and making quite the spectacle before Sanders delivered his address.

The protest vibe during the march, the fight for $15 an hour, and those massive letters that spelled out “union” became a key part of Sanders’ campaign in Iowa in the end.

It is one of those moments that’s hard to describe why it was so cool to see in person, but the energy during that march is something that’s hard to replicate.

Covering Female Presidential Candidates

Nikoel Hytrek

About 100 years after women won the right to vote, a historic number of women ran for president this cycle and I got to cover most of them.

I didn’t doubt it would ever happen, but it was cool to see up close and in person. And it was just as cool to hear and write about their ideas for reforming the country, and to watch people take them seriously.  

Liberty And Justice Celebration

Nikoel Hytrek

It was a long day and I was exhausted by the end of it, but for some reason the bustle of the Liberty and Justice Celebration was fun.

I liked listening to the speeches, and how the candidates tweaked them to make a bigger case for their candidacies. I also liked the feeling of potential the whole day carried because it led to better speeches, and it was just a different type of campaign event because you could compare all of the candidates at the same time.

I also think it’s interesting to see the logistics of how a big event like that comes together, and the LJ itself was one of the smoother multi-candidate events we covered.

Meeting Cory Booker’s Cousin

Isabella Murray

Before spending three days on a bus in Iowa with Cory Booker, the former candidate and his supporters phone-banked during the December debate — the first of the season where he didn’t qualify. 

That was the night that his Iowa-based cousin — one of the phone bankers — told me about the time Booker first told his family of his plan to get involved in politics.

Elizabeth Sharp, an entrepreneur from Des Moines, wearing a royal purple velour sweat suit (with the exact same shade of purple eye-makeup to match) and a quilted black Channel bag, explained that she was in the room when the now-New Jersey senator announced to family members that he was going to run for a seat on the Newark City Council. 

“Be careful when spelling my name,” she instructed, because the New York Times once botched the spelling. 

Both Sharp and Booker were in Los Angeles in the late ‘90s visiting their aunt and uncle when Booker announced his plan to run, Sharp said, which was a shock because no one in their family had before held public office or even been involved in politics. They were ordinarily in business or medical industries, she said. 

Sharp said that the room got quiet, and she then left to get her checkbook, coming back into the room with a $15 donation to his campaign — one of his first contributions.

Later, Booker verified the story. He laughed when remembering the moment. 

“When she donated, the energy in the room changed,” he said, adding that was the moment his run became real. 

Sharp, along with a number of Booker’s family members were regulars at his campaign events in and around Des Moines. The senator has roots in the state and often noted the connection. The touch made his run a little more personal and it was nice to see his family’s support on the trail. 

Interviewing The Surrogates

Josh Cook

Not one singular moment, but I have learned so much from talking to some of the freshmen congresswomen making history in D.C. right now. More than a handful of them stopped by to be on our podcast, and to hear firsthand the humility and grace that these women show while discussing problems plaguing working-class Americans is a stark contrast to most others in the political realm. They are so quick to admit that they don’t know everything and that they are working hard to learn, grow their ability to write policy, and understand how to create longevity in their movement. It is a degree of humbleness that is nearly unmatched in electoral politics.

#Yangapalooza

Paige Godden

Andrew Yang’s best moment in Iowa was by far Yangapalooza, a celebration held just before the Liberty and Justice dinner in downtown Des Moines.

Yang brought in a few friends, including the band Weezer, to perform for a crowd of hundreds.

After a long line-up of comics and musicians entertained the YangGang, who came from across the country to be a part of the day, they all marched to Wells Fargo Arena.

The moment was something to see in large part because of the ridiculous number of signs, MATH hats, YangGang t-shirts and other Yang-branded items his supporters sported along the way.

It was something I’ve never quite seen from another presidential campaign before. 

A Few Others

Pat Rynard

Allow me to tick through a few more real quick. Spending the Fourth of July interviewing Joe Biden at minor league baseball game. Watching the new Star Wars movie with sci-fi fan Cory Booker. Covering six separate Polk County house parties with Beto O’Rourke in one day. Standing nearby when Pete Buttigieg shut down a homophobic heckler in Carroll. And that time when Marianne Williamson spoke at a county Democrats event right after her first debate performance, and all the campaign staff from other candidates came over to watch her.

 

Who knows if Iowa will remain first or the caucus will stay intact for the next presidential cycle. We were all just happy to be a part of this incredibly unique political experience, and to share what we saw with all of our readers.

 

By Josh Cook, Paige Godden, Nikoel Hytrek, Isabella Murray and Pat Rynard
Posted 2/9/20

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