Sandwiched in-between Burlington and Muscatine, along the Mississippi River, the “bedroom community” of Wapello, Iowa, is not a common stop for Democrats on the presidential campaign trail.
But on Feb. 3, an unexpected candidate drew some “pretty surprised faces,” Holly Stineman said, as caucus-goers in Wapello showed their support for Andrew Yang.
“The energy around the whole campaign, the Yang Gang, you know, was very intoxicating for a lot of people in this sleepy little town,” Stineman, a 64-year-old Wapello resident, said.
Yang made an unprecedented two stops in Louisa County in January, both in Wapello, the county seat home to about 2,000 people.
The visits paid off.
Yang won the most delegates in what appears to be just four precincts around the state, but Wapello was unique for the candidate in its size and turnout. Several of the low-polling candidates, including Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard, nabbed individual precinct wins, mostly in tiny rural precincts where a mere two or three people could get you a win.
The Wapello precinct, however, had 90 attendees, the most of any site in Louisa County, and Yang came in with 29 supporters on the first alignment (Bernie Sanders was second with 15), then grew to 36 on the second alignment (Joe Biden was second there with 21). Yang received .60 state delegate equivalents there, twice as many as the .30 that Biden, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren each got.
“When we first heard [Yang] was stopping at our little burger joint, that place was packed. People were very happy to see a candidate, and the fact that he came by twice just blew people away,” Stineman, a first-time caucus-goer, said.
Only Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former congressman John Delaney, who dropped out Jan. 31, held public events this cycle in Louisa County.
Yang, who was also viable in the neighboring town of Morning Sun, tied for fourth place in SDEs in Louisa County at 14%, along with Pete Buttigieg.
Joe Biden 3 delegates
Elizabeth Warren 3 delegates
Bernie Sanders 3 delegates @AndrewYang 6 delegates
40% of the caucus
— Hoosier YangGang🖖🏽☂️ (@Indiana_Austin) February 4, 2020
T.J. Garrison, a 44-year-old father of two, said he was “not really” surprised by the support for Yang in Wapello because “all’s it takes is for someone to listen to him or go see him, especially if you see him in person. He’s a great guy. You’ll realize that he’s not a career politician and he’s one of us. It’s easy to want to vote for him.”
Both Garrison and Stineman were interested in Yang before it came time to caucus — Garrison heard him on Joe Rogan’s podcast and Stineman learned about him through her 18-year-old great-nephew.
But how did that tenuous support from Iowans who had never caucused before turn into a small cohort of committed caucus-goers?
A self-described “redneck Jew from southern Indiana” started knocking on doors.
Matt Austin is a 40-year-old traveling salesman from Bloomington, Indiana. He arrived in Iowa a month before the caucuses and spent 10 days door-knocking in Wapello and Morning Sun, a Louisa County community of less than 1,000 people.
“Matt was very good at expressing Andrew’s ideas and answering a lot of questions that the candidates just don’t always have time to answer,” Stineman said. “Matt was great. There was a lot of enthusiasm there.”
Wapello wasn’t the only town in Louisa County to caucus for Yang. Of the 306 people who participated in the county’s Democratic caucuses, 14% of them supported Yang on the first alignment.
“I’ve been a door-to-door salesperson for over a decade-and-a-half,” Austin said. “I know rural areas — well, I can knock pretty much everywhere. I know people, and this is the easiest product I’ve ever had to sell.”
Hey #YangGang, if I haven’t proven myself than I don’t know what else I can do
6 delegates & 40% of the precinct!!
I’m headed to SC the last 2 weeks of Feb
My goal is to train every office/group of canvassers. I will then knock doors w/ ever canvasser for 30minutes. pic.twitter.com/tBOtKG8a0E
— Hoosier YangGang🖖🏽☂️ (@Indiana_Austin) February 4, 2020
He first learned about Yang, who received the support of 5% of Iowans on the caucuses’ first alignment, but garnered only 1% of state delegate equivalents, after the first debate in June. From there, Austin said he was “intrigued” and “did a little research, listened to some podcasts, and I was hooked.”
“I immediately started taking action,” Austin said. “I would hold ‘Andrew Yang for President’ signs outside the Indiana University basketball games, outside of theater events, wherever there were large amounts of people. Since I had over a decade-and-a-half of door-to-door experience, I figured the largest impact that I could have was to actually go on the ground and knock doors.”
Tomorrow he heads to Las Vegas to knock doors and train people on “basic canvassing techniques.”
Garrison was able to encourage a handful of people in the Southeast Louisa precinct to caucus for Yang, but “Matt got all the rest of them.”
“I only got four,” he said, “the rest he got just by having conversations with them.”
Garrison’s father was an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump until Austin knocked on his door one day and spoke with the retiree for more than an hour. He was one of the 36 people to caucus for Yang in Wapello. Garrison believed his father was unlikely to vote for Trump again.
“He’s not a career politician,” Garrison said, of why he supported Yang. “He’s a dad, like me. I got two teenage kids, married, family. He was pretty easy to connect with over a lot of the same issues and stuff.”
Though Yang was his preferred candidate, Garrison said, “If he doesn’t get the nomination, I’ll still vote for whoever it is.”
Stineman, who caucused with her 18-year-old great-nephew, felt the same way.
” … I already know I’m going to vote for the Democrat, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see whom I feel is the best choice there, so that is why I participated in the caucus because I thought it was my chance to show this is the candidate that I think we need in the White House,” she said. “I’m afraid the president that we have now is leading us down a mighty dark hole.”
— Warren Park 🧢 (@ParkWarren) February 4, 2020
Yang’s forward-looking vision and understanding of the country’s changing economy appealed to Stineman.
“He’s the only one I’ve seen so far that actually is focused on making a better country, not just telling us it’s a better country, but actually saying we’ve got a lot of work to do to make that better,” she said. “His look on the future, I just think we need to get moving where we need to be. We’re kind of getting left in the dark here.”
As a first-time caucus-goer, Stineman was “leery going in” because of negative experiences friends had shared with her in the past, but by the end she was “sure glad” she participated.
“We enjoyed it very much and I have to give a lot of that credit to Matt Austin,” she said. “He kind of guided us through it and helped us be comfortable with the process. It was a good thing.”
By Elizabeth Meyer