On the 2016 Iowa Caucus campaign trail

Monday, February 8, 2016

For the third consecutive presidential election cycle, I visited Iowa for several days before its presidential caucuses. I watched the last few days of campaigning; talked with ordinary Iowans, campaign staff, and a handful of candidates; and attended a caucus in rural Donohue in eastern Iowa.

My trip to Iowa occurred in the context of my being a political scientist who teaches and writes about the presidential selection process. In my four days on the Iowa scene, I attended campaign events of Republican candidates Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush, and Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. I had a ticket for Donald Trump's much-publicized event that raised money for veterans as well as substituted for his participation in a debate, but the event was overbooked and I was turned away.

My Iowa stint yielded photographs and brief exchanges with Christie, Paul, Huckabee, Fiorina and O'Malley, and handshakes-but-no-photographs with Clinton and Republican candidate Rick Santorum, whom I happened to come across outside a hotel after having attended a Bush campaign event. I also had a serendipitous "it's a small world" encounter with Iowa's former long-time U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.

Enough of such "statistics" and the like. The reflections and accounts below highlight several issues worth pondering, I think, and recount some trials and tribulations that caught my fancy as I observed candidates on the campaign trail.

The condition of American democracy in the eyes of candidates

DePauw University Professor Bruce Stinebrickner visits with Republican candidate Carly Fiorina in Iowa. (Courtesy photo)

Anyone paying much attention to the 2016 campaign would likely know that "what's wrong with American democracy" is a prominent focus of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. For Sanders, U.S. democracy has been undermined by government responsiveness to the "1%" at the expense of the 99%. The primary cause is "a corrupt campaign finance system" in which wealthy individuals give millions of dollars to candidates whom they support and from whom they receive favors in return. To bring American democracy back to life, a "political revolution" is needed to mobilize millions of Americans who are currently alienated from American politics. Sanders' candidacy is, in his view, bringing about just such a revolution.

Listening to candidates in Iowa made it clear to me that Sanders is not the only candidate setting forth a vigorous critique of how contemporary American democracy operates and prescriptions for fixing it. According to Carly Fiorina, "restoring citizen government" in the United States depends on putting an experienced leader into the presidency and empowering that "servant leader" (herself, of course) to fix a government that has grown too big, too bloated, too bureaucratic, and too unresponsive to what Americans want and need. For Fiorina, zero-based budgeting -- wherein every dollar spent by government needs to be justified annually -- is one key to fixing what is wrong with American democracy. Such a commonsense approach, according to Fiorina, will lead to less government spending, more transparent government, and greater accountability. Fiorina says that we must end the recurrent sequences wherein government creates a problem and then grows larger as it tries to solve the problem it has itself created.

For Ted Cruz, the solution to American democracy gone awry is returning to constitutional principles and values and to more faithful adherence to divine guidance. While the condition of American democracy has been worsening for decades, in Cruz's view the seven years of the Obama presidency have greatly accelerated the decline. The next president needs to undo Obama's "illegal, unconstitutional executive orders" and return the country to the Framers' constitutional vision. Cruz asked those at his campaign rally in Ames, Iowa, to "commit to pray one minute a day to continue the awakening (that his candidacy presumably represents), so that we can pull back from the abyss."

Rand Paul's critique of American democracy seemed similar to those of Fiorina and Cruz, but with particular emphasis on the importance of reducing the size of government. In Paul's view, as government shrinks to the "limited government" that the Framers envisioned, citizen autonomy and freedom will grow. Paul contrasted himself with front-runner and fellow Sen. Ted Cruz in the following terms: Cruz says "I'm smart, give me power, and I'll fix it," but, according to Paul, "we don't want a strong president." If he becomes president, Paul said, I'll work to make government "so small that you can barely see it."

Other candidates have no doubt expressed views on the question of what, if anything, is wrong with American democracy. In my hearing, however, it was the quartet of Sanders, Fiorina, Cruz and Paul who paid most explicit attention to this topic.

"Talking" vs. "doing"

Bruce Stinebrickner meets briefly with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during visit to Iowa. (Courtesy photo)

Let me turn now to what I call the "talking" versus "doing" distinction. I had heard candidate Chris Christie addressing this issue before I went to Iowa, but I heard variations on the theme while in the Hawkeye state. New Jersey Gov. Christie focused on the virtues of executive experience in government (which can be acquired by being a state governor, of course) and questioned the worth of experience in Congress, where members talk and vote but never have to make "the tough decisions" or actually "do" anything. I heard former Florida governor Jeb Bush and fellow Republican candidate Carly Fiorina echo Christie's perspective.

Former corporate executive Fiorina suggested, unsurprisingly, that leadership experience in the private sector is the best preparation to be president, while also noting her service over the years on a number of government advisory panels and the like. The primary targets of these "talking" versus "doing" critiques seemed to be Sens. Cruz and Rubio (no executive experience) and businessman Donald Trump (no government experience).

In a surprisingly well-attended campaign appearance on caucus Monday in Des Moines, I heard Jeb Bush present his version of the talking/doing distinction. Bush emphasized that he needed to persuade the American people, especially Iowa caucus-goers, of its merits. He energetically -- yes, energetically --urged his Iowa supporters to repeat the argument to fellow Iowans and persuade them to caucus for him as well. I was struck by Bush's focus on persuasion, which is, of course, accomplished through "talking," the very activity at which, in a different context, Christie, Bush, and Fiorina scoff. It seems that even self-identified "doers" such as this trio need to "talk"--and talk skillfully at that--to persuade their listeners that their record of "doing" makes them worthy of caucus-goers' and other Americans' support.

Stinebrickner's gullibility

My experiences on the 2016 Iowa caucus campaign trail made me begin to wonder about myself and my own gullibility. Let me explain. I saw candidates Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and Martin O'Malley give inspiring talks to relatively small groups of Iowans. (The Fiorina crowd, the largest of them, numbered no more than about 120 people, and the O'Malley audience was probably no more than 45.) I also heard Rick Santorum say in an interview with a TV network that, after Iowa, he expected to be locked in a two-candidate competition with Ted Cruz for the conservative vote in the Republican nomination process. And I saw Jeb Bush emphatically and even passionately make the case -- to what was probably the loudest and most enthusiastic crowd that I saw -- that he was going to be the next president of the United States.

These lower-tier candidates each made the pitch that they had a realistic chance of getting their party's nomination and becoming president, and urged their listeners to believe their account and to redouble their efforts. I confess that, in the moment, the pitches seemed genuine and potentially credible to me. Was I gullible or stupid? Did these candidates themselves believe what they were saying? Do such tail-end candidates have to believe such pitches in order to continue to put one foot in front of the other in their grueling day-to-day enterprise? I don't know the answer to these questions. I do know, however, that, I felt ever so slightly aggrieved and even silly when I learned that Huckabee and Paul had ended their presidential campaigns immediately after the Iowa caucuses. How could I have been so na*ve as to believe their "I-have-a-realistic-chance" pitches? Had they actually believed what they were saying when I heard them speak?

Trials and tribulations on the campaign trail

On the Friday morning before the caucuses, I saw Christie at his campaign headquarters giving a pep talk to his supporters who were preparing for an all-day door-to-door canvassing effort. Christie arrived, gave a short inspirational speech, and then began to meet-and-greet the 30 to 40 people in the audience. I knew that getting a handshake, brief exchange, and photo with the governor was not going to be difficult. Next to me in the short line was an elderly woman (i.e., she was about my age) and we chatted a bit as we waited for our turn with Christie. After a handshake and greeting from Christie, she extended her cell phone and prepared to take a selfie of the two of them. But she seemed to fumble a bit in executing this maneuver, leading Christie to laugh and say "Hey, I'm good at that, let me do it." And so the candidate adeptly took the photo and showed it to her, with both agreeing that it was "good." A young Christie aide chimed in, "Yeah, the governor is good at taking selfies, especially for an old guy." After Christie and I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries ("Where are you from?/I'm a transplant from the New York area./Whereabouts?/Long Island./So we share good East Coast roots, eh?"), I handed the aide my phone and he took a (good) shot of me and the governor. I have little doubt that, like the woman before me, I would have been (at least) somewhat inept in trying to take the photo myself.

This Christie story leads to a bigger point. Candidates have to engage in such up-close-and-personal encounters with Iowans, but they also have to manage encounters in the context of other campaign necessities, including the next campaign appearance, media appointments, and the like. Presumably, these competing imperatives are especially relevant for top-tier candidates such as Clinton, Sanders, Cruz and Rubio, who draw the bigger crowds, typically between 500 and 1,000 people.

The goal for the leading candidates who get relatively big crowds and have multiple campaign appearances and commitments each day is to appear to be open to encounters with individual Iowans, engage in a few of them, and then exit the venue as gracefully as possible. The encounters must be limited to a reasonable number, but limited in what seems a natural way that does not overly disappoint -- or worse, irritate -- supporters who want to "press the candidate's flesh" and do not get that opportunity.

The ubiquity of cell phone cameras seems to add an extra burden. No longer does a handshake and/or a scribbled autograph do. Most of those trying to press-the-candidate's-flesh want a photo, and such photo-taking consumes additional candidate time. There's also the question of what to do if the first photo is not a "good" one. If that happens, should the candidate pause for a second photo with the same admirer?

Sometimes a "rope" separating the speaker's platform and the crowd is used in attempts to managing these situations. At a Sanders event I attended at Iowa State University, the rope approach was used to limit -- but not eliminate -- face-to-face encounters between candidate and admirers. According to news media reports, candidate Sanders is not enamored with such pressing of the flesh.

In a room approximately the size of a basketball court, Sanders addressed a crowd of an estimated 525 people, mostly Iowa State students. Having completed his 20-or-so minute speech, he descended from behind the podium to the rope, turned to his left and began to make his way the 30 or so feet to that end of the rope, whereupon, it was clear, he would turn left again and make a "natural" exit through a door next to the stage. Hands were shaken, autographs were given, greetings were exchanged, and, of course, photos were taken. Standing 20 feet away, I observed Sanders' demeanor, which seemed to confirm that this pressing-of-the-flesh was not among his favorite activities.

As Sanders reached the end of the -- and his? -- rope by arriving at the spot from where he was going to escape from the flesh-pressers by making a 90-degree left turn, I thought I saw a look of relief begin to show on his face. Who could blame him? His flesh-pressing ordeal was just about over: After a couple of more minutes amidst the sea of humanity that was pressing up against the rope in that corner of the room, he could be on the road to his next event in Des Moines. Suddenly, someone turned on what passes for music among the younger generation -- loud, blaring, obnoxious noise. Still worse for Sanders, one of the two loudspeakers was situated precisely in the spot in which he was now located. His incipient look of relief turned to discomfort as the booming noise inundated him. I moved back from about 20 feet away to about 50 feet away. I could still see, but the noise was less deafening for me. But candidate Sanders had no such recourse. For the next several minutes, he continued to pose for photos, sign autographs and shake hands, even as he suffered. Poor Bernie . . .

Media take-over of government buildings, and "It's a small world"

Bruce Stinebrickner (right) in chance meeting with former Sen. Tom Harkin outside the elevators in the Iowa State Capitol building. (Courtesy photo)

During a couple of hours of downtime between candidate appearances that I was attending on the Friday before the caucuses, I wandered into the magnificent Iowa State Capitol in downtown Des Moines to have a look and discovered that the beautiful Capitol rotunda was the scene of feverish activity by a dozen or more carpenters, sound and light engineers, and the like. Fox News was taking over the Capitol for several days and the Fox News anchor desk was being assembled right before my eyes.

Next I headed over to the nearby Iowa Judicial Branch Building, another very attractive state government building. Entering the building, I asked the security guard where the Iowa Supreme Court chamber was located. "On the third floor," he replied, "but you may have to fight your way past the CNN people." He told me that CNN was taking over parts of the building to serve as its broadcasting base for the caucuses.

Once through security, I looked in vain for a stairways or elevator to take me to the third floor. Then I asked a nearby man how to get to the third floor. "You have to take the elevator," he said, "just follow me." He, I, and a companion of his entered the elevator, and at that point I took a closer look at the man and inquired "Are you former Senator Tom Harkin?" (Harkin represented Iowa in the U.S. Congress for 40 years, retiring in 2015 after serving 30 years in the Senate. In 1992 he sought his Democratic party's presidential nomination, but lost to Bill Clinton.) "Yes," he replied with a smile, "and who might you be, and what do you do?" "Bruce Stinebrickner, political scientist from DePauw University in Indiana."

When he replied, "Oh, I know DePauw," I reflexively began to spell out "DePauw," figuring that he was confusing Greencastle's DePauw with that other place in Chicago. But he pushed my clarification attempt aside with a gracious smile and a wave of his hand, saying "Oh, I know DePauw. I have a good friend who used to teach journalism there." A light bulb went on in my head, and I replied that "Ken Bode is a good friend of mine, too." With that, Harkin and I got off the elevator and spent a pleasant few minutes catching each other up on what we knew of the Bode family's doings, discussing the impressive Iowa Judicial Branch Building in which we were standing, and posing for a photo that his aide obligingly took. And we marveled at the "small world" element of two old friends of Ken and Margo Bode making their acquaintance in a chance encounter in a Des Moines elevator.

The security guard was right: CNN had taken over parts of the building. Harkin was apparently there to do an interview with CNN correspondent Jake Tapper, whom I saw waiting to do the interview. The guard greeted me as I left the building, and I asked just how CNN got permission to base their Iowa caucus operation there. He replied to this effect: "You won't believe this, but for all the commotion they cause they pay only $1,000 a day. Only $1,000 a day! It's ridiculous." I inquired how much Fox News paid for its use of the Capitol rotunda, which seemed to further raise his ire. "I think that they might get the Capitol for free. Can you believe it?" I haven't sought to confirm or disconfirm what the guard told me about rental prices, but he obviously was not happy with the occupation of state government buildings by Fox News and CNN.

Public speaking skills

For all the critical talk of this year's crop of presidential candidates, the candidates I saw in Iowa were, as a whole, first-rate public speakers. The campaign speech I heard Marco Rubio give at an Iowa State University venue was, I think, as well-delivered a talk of that sort as I have ever heard. (To provide perspective, I think that the second-best such campaign speech I have ever seen and heard was delivered in 2008 by a candidate named Barack Obama.) Carla Fiorina also gave a superb performance (followed by Q-and-A) in a less-than-ideal setting for public speaking -- a large Des Moines restaurant in a shopping mall amidst both people ordering and eating their Sunday morning breakfasts and a standing crowd of about 120 people there to see Fiorina. With noteworthy aplomb, she handled the challenging venue graciously and effectively. Her speaking style was impressive, and she also did a good and articulate job during the question-and-answer session that followed. It should come as no surprise that Ted Cruz spoke very well at an Iowa State event that also featured TV celebrity Glenn Beck (a very good public speaker) and the candidate's wife Heidi, who also spoke effectively and well.

Even though probably not as polished and impressive speakers as Rubio, Fiorina and Cruz, candidates Christie, Sanders, Huckabee, Paul, O'Malley, and, yes, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton hardly seemed to be public speaking slouches. Of all the candidates I heard in Iowa, only Ben Carson seemed an inept public speaker.

The ability to speak well in a public setting is hardly a sufficient condition to be a successful presidential candidate, much less a good president, but it is almost surely a necessary one. With the focus on style and polish, the crop of 2016 candidates that I heard in Iowa, taken as a whole, displayed impressive public speaking skills.

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