Iowa caucus participants reflect on state’s role in nomination process

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Brita Hunegs | The DePaulia

CEDAR RAPIDS–  A stadium packed with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders hummed with energy on Saturday night in Iowa’s second largest city. It’s just two days before the first ballots for the 2020 election will be cast, and the Sanders team wants to galvanize support for Sanders before the precedent-setting caucuses get underway. 

The Iowa caucuses are a hotly anticipated show of a nominee’s vitality. Campaigns pour money, time and resources into swelling support in the state to lock in an early win that helps set the stage for the rest of the country’s votes. 

But Iowa’s population is 90.7% white, compared with the overall country, which is 76.5% white, according to the Census Bureau. This lack of diversity, so disproportionate to the country as a whole, is leading some to question whether it’s appropriate for the state to have so much latitude when it comes to determining the landscape of the presidential race. 

Taja Carrasco, 18, originally from the Chatham neighborhood in Chicago, is now a student at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. 

When she first matriculated, Carrasco says she felt like an outsider as a woman of color. Because of this, she doesn’t think Iowa should be so pivotal in the nominee selection process. However, the low saturation of people of color has made her more inclined to partake in this political enterprise. 

“Being here has pushed me to vote because people like me aren’t represented,” Carrasco said. “I never was supposed to vote because I grew up Jehovah’s Witness, but it pushed me out of that. I had to, to give a voice and to not be walked over by politicians and the government.”

Ayan Ali drove 4.5 hours from St. Louis to canvas for Sanders. She’s a woman of color and has issues with the process of the Iowa caucuses, but is willing to set them aside and work within the system for her candidate.

“There isn’t anything we can do to change the system unless we can get Bernie elected,” she said. “If Bernie wins Iowa, the fact that it is a majority white state isn’t going to take the victory away from me.”

Since 1972, Iowa has been the first state to voice their preferences in presidential election cycles. The caucuses are traditionally seen as a barometer for the rest of the primary campaign will turnout. 

Seven out of ten declared Caucus victors have gone on to score the Democratic party’s nomination. 

At the Sanders event, indie rock band, Vampire Weekend, played a set for the 3,000 audience members. 

The crowd cheered for other surrogates that spoke, including Sanders’ wife, Representatives, Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Pramila Jayapal, (D-WA), Mark Pocan (D-WI) and activist Cornel West. Although the excitement seemed to wane until Sanders took the stage towards the end of the evening. 

Oyinbamola Oluwatimi, 30, trekked from Indiana to volunteer on behalf of Sanders. He too thinks the lack of diversity in Iowa should be a consideration in whether or not it remains the first to vote. He also believes Sanders is the best choice for black voters.

“He is the black vote,” he said. “The policies he proposes will definitely uplift the black community,” Oluwatimi said, as Sanders took the stage for his stump speech. “Medicare for all, free education free public college, cancelling student debt are all things that plague the black community right now.”

A day later and 25 miles south of the concert, in Coralville, Iowa, people lined up against rows of lockers in a local high school to enter the gymnasium where they heard Mayor Pete Buttigieg give his pitch for why they should throw their support behind him at the caucuses, and not resign to any disappointment in the wake of the impending impeachment trial results.

“The good news in all of this is that no matter what they do on the floor of the senate, the senate is the jury today but we are the jury tomorrow,” Buttigieg said. 

The crowd was uproarious when Iowa City Mayor, Bruce Teague, took the stage and announced he is endorsing Buttigieg. Teague, who took office at the beginning of the year, thinks Iowans have the disposition for the consequential task of voting first. 

“No, it doesn’t, as a state, look like the rest of America.,” Teague said. We have a lot of people that might not be of the minority, but they are definitely looking out for someone that doesn’t look like them. Their votes are more global and not narrow with only their own considerations.”

According to a Washington Post-IPSOS poll, Buttigieg has just 2% support from black Americans nationally. A bump from a successful Iowa caucus could propel Buttigieg through a lower ranking in the South Carolina primary on February 29th. 

The state’s population is 27.1 percent black and Buttigieg polls at 7 percent there as of now. 

Yardley Whaylen, 17, stood as close to the stage as she could, excited to see Buttiegeg address the room.

“He is someone who could bring this country together instead of tearing it apart,” he said.

Although Whaylen isn’t of age yet, she will be by November and is therefore qualified to caucus. She’s lived in Iowa all her life and enjoys the attention doled out to her state by presidential contenders. But, she acknowledges a change in tradition might be in order.

 “It’s time to get a more diverse, representative state to go first and really set the stage for the country,” Whaylen said.