The 2020 Iowa caucuses: Part III

Friday, February 14, 2020
DePauw University political science Professor Bruce Stinebrickner (right) is in the midst of his first encounter with Republican presidential candidate Joe Walsh (left) at the Freedom Blend Coffee Cafe in Des Moines. Walsh’s wife, an unidentified man and Stinebrickner share conversation. “Candidate Walsh was so intriguing to me that I went and saw him a second time in the afternoon,” Stinebrickner said.
Courtesy photo

Part III: Concluding Comments

In Part III, he will turn to his observations on two Republican candidates as well as some concluding comments about the process.

Joe Walsh

Who is Joe Walsh? He is a former one-term Congressman, a former conservative radio host, and a former Tea Party stalwart who in late August 2019, announced his candidacy for the 2020 Republican party nomination. Rest assured that I was only ever so vaguely acquainted with who Joe Walsh was when, during an open spot in my schedule at 8 a.m. on Jan. 30, I ventured to the Freedom Blend Coffee café in Des Moines for a publicly scheduled 30-minute “meet and greet” so that I could check candidate Walsh off my list. But I got much more than I had expected when I joined a small group of folks (perhaps a dozen in all, including his wife and a couple of staff members) who were present that morning.

Joe Walsh grabbed my attention — and greatly interested and impressed me — with his responses to a half-dozen or so questions I posed after he saw me enter while chatting with another individual and gave me a welcoming nod of his head. After Joe and his wife left for a second meet-and-greet at another coffee place, I began trying to revise my schedule for the day so that I could attend a two-hour session that Walsh was scheduled to have that afternoon with Urban Dreams, a non-profit outfit that has as one of its constituent members the Des Moines NAACP.

That longer afternoon session did little to alter my initial impressions of Joe Walsh and his interesting story. During the afternoon session, he explicitly apologized for some of his statements while in Congress and on his radio show. A questioner said that Walsh had been an anti-Obama “birther” and had opposed admission of Muslims into the United States. He didn’t deny those claims and issued his apologies anew.

He also admitted that he had been a Trump supporter and voted for him in 2016. He said that while he thought that candidate Trump was a bit unusual and erratic, he didn’t pay close enough attention to the man until after he became president, when his statements, tweets and other activities were put in front of Americans on a daily basis.

So he turned against Trump some months into his presidency and made a complete break, he said, when he saw Trump embrace Putin at Helsinki in July 2018. Walsh said that he reported his newfound position about Trump on his talk radio show, which led to a decline in his audience ratings. After he declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination in August 2019, he lost his radio show. He said that in dismissing him his employer relied on FEC regulations that would have given any other Republican candidate equal time on the network, but Walsh also told me that he would likely have been let go for declining audience ratings anyway.

While a staunch libertarian conservative who expressed grave concerns about the mounting federal government deficit and the size of the government, Walsh said that he values integrity and honesty, not to mention civility and competence, in government leaders even more. Thus, he said, he abhors Trump. Asked whether he would vote for a Democratic candidate against Trump in November (if he didn’t win the nomination, which even he agreed seemed unlikely), he answered with a resounding “yes.”

He noted that he and Bernie Sanders could hardly be further apart on issues, but said that he would vote for Sanders without hesitation in November. He continued by saying that he respected Bernie for his “authenticity,” an important value for him, and that he simply cannot stomach Trump. More than once he asserted that Republicans were no longer a “party” but instead had become a “cult” under Donald Trump.

I asked Walsh how he was doing in fundraising. He replied that he had raised a total of $500,000 to $700,000, and that he had a full-time staff of about 10. He campaigns frugally, hoped to make some headway in the two states in which he was concentrating, Iowa as a first priority and New Hampshire next.

He strongly criticized Republicans’ canceling 2020 primaries/caucuses in about 10 states, and said that the Iowa Republican party had come under enormous pressure from the Trump campaign organization to cancel its caucuses as well. He said that robbing Americans in 10 states of any say in the Republican party’s 2020 presidential nomination process was simply an outrage, an “un-American, anti-democratic” outrage.

Joe Walsh struck me as articulate, personable, engaging, smart, well-informed, thoughtful and interesting. His unequivocal apologies and expressions of repentance for some of his earlier views and support of Trump were unusual to hear and see. His wife, with whom I spoke several times at the two events at which I observed her husband, echoed and reinforced her husband’s candidacy and views.

I didn’t expect Joe Walsh to make waves in the 2020 Republican nominating process, but he certainly caught my eye for what seemed an unusual degree of commitment to an extremely-unlikely-to-succeed venture that carried considerable risk. He and his family receive death threats on a fairly regular basis, he said. And he also said that he didn’t know what he was going to do to earn a living if (ha-ha!) his candidacy against Donald Trump does not succeed.

He said that he had gone to the site of the Trump rally at Drake University in Des Moines on the evening of Jan. 30 and talked to Trump supporters who had been turned away at the door because the rally venue was filled to capacity. He reported that his wife had worried about the danger of his doing so, and that he had experienced threats and no little hostility from some of the Trump supporters with whom he spoke.

I had thought before going to Iowa that I should pay attention to variation among the candidates in the emphases put on President Trump and on defeating him. But that avenue of inquiry didn’t pan out to be as interesting as I had anticipated. While all the Democratic candidates referred to Trump and the need to defeat him in November, I did not detect much significant variation among them. Every candidate seemed to have lots of other things to talk about besides the desirability of beating Trump and proceeded to say them. Perhaps Biden and Klobuchar highlighted “beating Trump” a bit more than the other Democrats, but, if that were so, that would hardly be surprising.

Of all the candidates, Republican Joe Walsh put by far the most emphasis on beating Trump and on preventing a second Trump presidential term at all costs. Furthermore, Walsh expressed a degree of personal and political animus, disdain and even contempt for his fellow Republican that no other candidate matched.

If you hadn’t heard of Joe Walsh before reading this article, now you have!

(P.S. Joe Walsh announced on the morning of Feb. 7 that he was ending his candidacy. He received 1.1% of the votes at the 2020 Iowa Republican caucuses.)

Bill Weld

Former Massachusetts Governor Weld is a moderate Republican, mostly on the opposite end of the Republican/conservative spectrum from extreme libertarian Joe Walsh. I remembered in a general way Weld’s history as governor of Massachusetts and how his tenure ended: He resigned his governorship in 1997 after President Bill Clinton nominated him to be ambassador to Mexico, only to have his ambassadorship blocked in the Senate Judiciary Committee by its chairman, Senator Jesse Helms. When I said to him that that setback in the Senate and the associated end of his Massachusetts governorship must have been quite a “bump” in the road for him, he replied that it had all worked out well. He said that he had gone into “foreign business consulting” after his ambassador appointment debacle, and that his years as a consultant had turned out to be “highly remunerative.” Weld was the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential candidate in 2016.

I met and talked briefly with Weld twice at coffeehouse meet-and-greets. He generally seemed capable and articulate, and spoke softly with a Boston accent. He said that he felt that he had a “duty” to run against Trump in the Republican party nominating process, but he did not lead me to believe that he thought that he actually had a chance.

Unlike Walsh, Weld did not seem to have concerns about financial hardships or risk to possible future income streams resulting from his candidacy.

(Bill Weld received 1.3% of the votes at the 2020 Iowa Republican caucuses.)

Political Tourism and Unwelcome Intrusions at Candidate Events

Political Tourism

Four years ago I began to notice what seemed a new phenomenon in connection with the Iowa caucuses. I came across an enterprising tour guide who had brought a van with 8 to 10 fellow Tennessee residents to Iowa to watch the last few days of the Iowa caucus spectacle. In my last two trips to Iowa the audiences at campaign events seemed to include more and more folks who were neither Iowa residents nor news media people (reporters, photographers, camera operators and the like).

In 2020, the term “political tourism” came to my attention and perhaps it is now helpful to divide audiences at campaign appearances into three groups: (1) Iowa residents and thus potential caucus participants, (2) media people and (3) “political tourists.” (I suppose that my being a political scientist who writes and teaches about the presidential nominating process might have me straddling the last two categories.)

“Political tourists” were the people I seemed most likely to see repeatedly and get to know partly because, like me, they typically attend multiple campaign events each day over the short period of time during which they are in Iowa. This year I met and got to know two political tourists from the Washington, D.C. area, and one from Minnesota.

Moreover, I met a young man from Phoenix, Ariz., who had flown in for the weekend just for the fun of it, and a middle-aged and well-dressed man from Philadelphia who had watched the Super Bowl on Sunday evening with his two kids, taken a late flight in order to see what he could see in Iowa on Caucus Day, and managed to be in the audience for the Feb. 3 “Morning Joe” MSNBC show, which originated in Des Moines that morning.

Thus, the Philadelphia man told me, his kids had watched the Super Bowl on Sunday with him, gone to bed, and woken up and seen him on Monday morning TV in the “Morning Joe” audience. He was taking a late Monday night flight back to Philadelphia. He also told me that he had been a political tourist at the New Hampshire primary a number of times and was going again in 2020, but that this was only his second (or third?) trip to Iowa.

Unwelcome Intrusions

Far more sobering than my growing awareness of “political tourism” were three unwelcome acts that I witnessed in connection with three different candidates.

While Joe Biden was working the rope line at the first Biden event that I observed, a young man suddenly moved toward Biden and began aggressively shouting hostile things about the candidate’s “lying about Social Security.” Biden turned to the man and forcefully denied the accusation, whereupon a couple of Biden staff members — I am almost certain that they were not security personnel — quickly moved between their candidate and the hostile man and then got Biden to continue working the rope line in the direction that took him away from the shouting individual.

The second incident involved candidate Joe Walsh. During the meet-and-greet at the coffee café at which I first encountered Walsh on Jan. 31, one of the dozen or so people there suddenly approached Walsh shouting hostile and threatening things to him. A young man, who later told me that he was not a Walsh campaign aide and who was there, like I was, to see what candidate Walsh was like, took it upon himself to restrain the shouting man and usher him out of the café.

Finally, during the Yang event that I attended, two men suddenly rushed up to the candidate as he was speaking. One initially whispered to him briefly and then they yelled at him. One of them turned to the audience and unrolled a banner saying “Andrew Yang Is a Robot” while, I was later told, a confederate in the audience filmed what was happening. A uniformed policeman quickly moved the two intruders away from Yang.

The policeman later told me that he was the local chief of police and that his office just happened to be in the same community building in Grundy Center, Iowa, in which the Yang event was occurring. He said that he had decided to stroll down the hall to stretch his legs and see how the Yang event was going, and just happened to be in the back of the room when the intrusion occurred.

Perhaps these intrusions, the likes of which I had not seen in my previous trips to Iowa, to some extent reflect the increasingly polarized and uncivil political times in which we live.

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  • Transparency- I consider Bruce a close friend and we disagree on many political thoughts.

    This is great work!!! Best read in the BG in quite some time. Well done my friend

    -- Posted by beg on Fri, Feb 14, 2020, at 11:48 PM
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