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  • Writer's pictureChris Veninga

The Little Guy

As I stood outside The Republican Party of Iowa headquarters, I looked to my left to admire the architecture of the grandiose Iowa Capitol Building, its iconic gold dome glistening in the sunlight of a fall afternoon. A building that, one might say, ironically is too grandiose for a state located in flyover territory. Before 1972, the state was hardly given a passing glance by politicians traveling around the country because they only went to states that could get them the winning votes. But ever since Jimmy Carter’s legendary Iowa tour that helped him win the presidency, the state has taken center stage in the American political sphere, the “kickoff” of presidential election cycles that engulfs this country every four years. The “First In The Nation” status is a badge of honor worn by Iowans of all political affiliations. In the eyes of politicians and political scientists everywhere, the state is considered far from flyover territory, at least every four years.

I looked around, a bit surprised that The Republican Party of Iowa’s headquarters was far less shiny than its giant neighbor. It was a neat little house on the side of the road — it could easily be confused for a residential dwelling that your typical Des Moines resident would live in. I approached the small entrance, a nonchalant white door, and did not even have to knock before two men answered it, the door opening up to a small, white kitchenette. Both of them looked at me with skepticism. Frankly, I don’t blame them! What was this college kid (a demographic usually firmly on the side of the opposing party) doing outside the headquarters on a random Wednesday afternoon?

I introduced myself as a Drake University student studying under Dr. Rachel Paine Caufield and part of the Iowa Caucus Project. At this point, one of the men, Zach Hoffman, smiled and said that he studied under Dr. Caufield for his senior seminar at Drake. I explained the assignment to them and they welcomed me into the building.

I walked through the kitchenette into the next room, which looked much more like a headquarters-type building than the simple outside appearance of the structure had let on. Four giant tables arranged in a square took up the majority of the wood-floored room. Several elephant emblems, statues, and pictures were on various shelves and walls. The room was even dedicated to Senator Chuck Grassley and had pictures of Iowa Republicans past and present framed on the wall, as well as political cartoons, and a bold picture of the capitol building with large text proclaiming “First In The Nation!”

Zach Hoffman, the political director of the party and Kush Desai, communications director, sat down across from me as we sat on comfortable leather rolling chairs. These two men and their office are largely responsible for organizing one of the largest political events in the nation: the Iowa Caucuses.

“Iowa Caucuses are run by the political party, not the government.” said Hoffman. “We need to make sure that all 99 counties are informed.”

I asked a question to the effect of “what’s your role here?” to which Zach replied: “I’m the one to make sure the caucuses are executed properly.” Easy work, right? No pressure when the whole country is watching your state.

Desai elaborated on his role as well. “Gathering volunteers, getting help, and making sure things are locked down; my job is to deal with the media and the Democrats’ shifting strategy.” He went on to add that staying in touch with the media so they do not get a warped vision of strategy or the party’s plans was key to his job.

Desai also mentioned that no detail, however small, would go left unchecked. “Things running smoothly is paramount. We’re focused on being sure the caucuses have sufficient manpower and every granular detail is locked down.” After all, as we have witnessed in recent history, things can most certainly go wrong... only last time, it was Democrats fumbling the process, jeopardizing the state's first-in-the-nation status for the 2024 caucus and primary season.

“A lot of it is internal processes. Everything needs to be on time and we need to have the internal timeline in check.” Hoffman added.

Desai and Hofffman also stressed how doorknocking, informing and educating citizens, and recruiting volunteers ultimately lead to good turnout. Grassroots boots-on-the-ground campaigning lead to a smooth caucus. Volunteers who care about their political causes are at the heart of the whole operation.

But what I thought was most interesting is that neither of them really seemed to be pushing a candidate or projecting who’s going to win. Walking into the interview, I expected one of them to at least say something pro-Trump, pro-Scott, or pro-'x' Republican. But the candidate did not matter. What mattered was the integrity of the event on Jan. 15, as well as the buildup to that date with political events, speeches, and canvassing.

“We’re just focused on running a good caucus. In time, the voters will let us know.”

Afterwards, I realized that asking “who do you think will win Iowa?” is a lot like asking the National Football League Commissioner who he thinks will make the playoffs. They can make his educated guess and may even be a fan of a certain team. But ultimately, their job is to see that the season goes well and that once the playoffs arrive, they too, run smoothly.

It was at this point in the interview that I realized that I was asking the wrong questions (at least somewhat). I came prepared with questions that had more to do with policy decisions, candidate pros and cons, Republican vs. Democrat, etc. But the caucuses are meant to be an internal party litmus test, not an external battle like presidential debates are. These two men, as well as the entire elephant-adorned office, were getting prepped to see who their party should nominate, not to see how they could attack the Democratic establishment. It was at this point, also, that I felt like an idiot.

“We’re first in the nation. We’re excited for candidates and the people in Iowa and excited for the Caucus,” Hoffman said.

As I left the building, Hoffman was asking me how I got involved with the class even though I’m a Digital Media Production major. I said I’m not a very political person (which, in hindsight, I don’t think is true I just do not want to work in politics), but I want to learn more from people who are, in fact, political people. As I left, Hoffman said that he hoped to see me caucusing when the night rolled around. Unfortunately, I will most likely be in London on caucus night. Even though I’m excited for the trip, I am bummed that even though I’m taking this class, I will not be able to witness the actual event. The Founding Fathers would most likely call me a traitor and unpatriotic for that.

My experience at The Republican Party of Iowa was brief (no longer than half an hour), but nonetheless informative. As someone who identifies as a Libertarian and who has an incredible amount of skepticism of the United States’ government, oftentimes you will have to twist my arm to say something positive about politicians. Many libertarian posts I see on social media delve into content that boils down to "your participation and vote in the governmental election process does not matter; it is all for show and a big sham” (and then ironically they’ll say “Vote for Ron Paul!”). But after traveling to Washington, D.C. last semester and participating in the Iowa Caucus Project, I realize that is very far from the case. The intricacies, preparation, emotions, and activism that goes into these elections are truly fueled by the people; Hoffman and Desai elaborated how much ordinary people shape the caucuses. Peoples’ whole lives are shaped by their work in the political sphere and they are actively promoting the voice of the people  not just governmental and financial elites. The government has trouble fixing potholes, but I do not think they can just orchestrate this intricate caucus process where thousands of people go out to work or volunteer and make their voices heard.

What I am realizing about the Iowa caucuses is that it literally and metaphorically gives those who typically don’t get their voices heard a pulpit to speak on. Hoffman and Desai specifically said “all 99 counties” needed to be informed and caucus. Beyond that, even though Des Moines is the largest population center in the state, it pales in comparison to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston. Des Moines’ annual economic and cultural impact is much less significant than these other markets. And yet, the city and the state become the center of the American political universe every election cycle.

Personally, I like to think about it in sports terms. Whenever I watch sports news, most of the time they will be focused on New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Houston. Though I understand that these locations are where the viewers and the money is, I am often peeved to see negative coverage or hardly any coverage at all directed toward teams in smaller markets. The same thing applies to the Caucuses. Only this time, the small market gets their chance in the spotlight.

In both sports and politics, I have seen people tear down small markets and bolster big ones as if their opinions of how their team and country should be run trump the smaller markets. Heck, there have been calls to abolish the electoral college because it doesn’t take the popular vote into consideration and “dirt can’t vote.” So why should Iowa, of all places, get to go first in the election process? Why not New York, California, Florida, or Texas?

Obviously, the political opinions of these states and the people in them matter in an election process, but states like Iowa and New Hampshire represent the little guy. These are the people who will not always get the coverage those bigger markets get, but the little guys still care just as much about how their country is run.

A while ago, I was listening to Abe Lincoln’s Tophat from the Last Podcast Network that mentioned a rumor about a Gavin Newsome (governor of California) and Ron DeSantis (governor of Florida and current Republican candidate) presidential battle. The host of the podcast said something along the lines of, “It sounds cool, doesn’t it, California vs Florida? Two of the titans of the American economy and home to some of the biggest population centers. But these states, for the most part, do not represent what the rest of the country wants.”

And that’s where Iowa comes in part of flyover country and part of the “dirt” that comes out to make their voices heard. Though Iowa is not the only state in flyover country, it represents the Midwest and smaller states and the fact that all American voices matter not just those in massive markets or with deep pockets.

As I wrap up this blog post, I am excited to learn more about this process from people like my classmates, Dr. Caufield, and Zach Hoffman and Kush Desai. Iowans are and will continue to organize and make their voices heard throughout the state, and I am glad I have a front row seat.

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