By Matthew Jaffe
Photo by Zane Maxwell

There’s nothing in American politics quite like the Iowa caucuses, and in order to fully understand it, you have to experience it first-hand.”
—Steve Edwards
Executive director of the Institute of Politics

As the political world descended on Iowa last week for the start of the 2016 presidential primaries, 24 UChicago undergraduates traveled with the Institute of Politics to Des Moines to be at the center of it all..

“Now it’s so real,” said second-year Baxter Stein. “You’re right there. You can see the people. You can see the passion. It gives you a different perspective on the whole race.”

The students’ three-day caucus experience included meetings with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley; visits from national journalists, party operatives, and pollsters; experiences at Democratic and Republican caucuses and rallies—and even run-ins with Heidi Cruz and former President Bill Clinton.

“It’s been fantastic to hear what people who are very close to the caucuses have to say about it,” fourth-year Sam Zacher said. “They have insights that I think people around the country don’t think about often—how the Democratic and Republican process differs and why the culture of Iowa makes it a good place to start.”

The trip capped off the Institute of Politics’ Iowa Project, a yearlong program launched in January 2015 to get students directly involved in the Iowa caucuses.

“There’s nothing in American politics quite like the Iowa caucuses, and in order to fully understand it, you have to experience it first-hand,” said Steve Edwards, executive director of the Institute of Politics. “So we created a multi-faceted program that gave our students the opportunity to be directly immersed in Iowa’s unique process.”

Coming full-circle in Iowa

The Iowa Project combined campaign workshops and field trips with summer internships. Program highlights included a weeklong residency with two veteran Iowa strategists who came to the Institute of Politics as Winter Quarter fellows. The Iowa Project students then spent the summer interning in the state, with some doing field work and others working for news outlets, including CNN, FOX News, ABC News, Bloomberg, and the Des Moines Register.

It wasn’t only experienced pros and seasoned politicians who imparted their wisdom. Cristina Ochoa, AB’15, shared her perspective of the Iowa caucuses while working as a news producer for Des Moines’ local ABC TV station.

“Today is an insane day just because there are so many parts. It’s been really neat just being in the muck of it,” said Ochoa, who was one of 18 Iowa Project fellows last year. “Just understanding the importance that Iowa plays in the political process, it’s an interesting discussion and students are really lucky to be here.”

Asya Akca, a second-year political science major, returned to Iowa for the caucuses after spending the summer as an intern at Radio Iowa.

“It honestly feels like I’m home right now,” she noted. “I know all these places. To come here as part of the Iowa Project, this trip completes the package.”

Front-row seat for voting process

One of the highlights was attending a caucus at an East Des Moines middle school. Students learned that on the Republican side, the process is simpler: After speeches from people choosing to speak in support of their preferred candidate, voters simply fill out their ballots, submit them, and move on.

The process is far more complicated for the Democrats: Voters gather in a location, break off into groups for their respective candidates, and are counted, one by one. If one candidate does not meet the 15 percent support threshold, he or she is eliminated and that person’s supporters can be recruited to join a group backing a viable candidate. Then voters are counted again.

The Democratic side was especially interesting because the O’Malley voters weren’t viable, so we saw both the Sanders and the Clinton camps go and try to poach their voters, as well as the undecided voters,” said fourth-year Aneri Amin. “That was a really interesting dynamic to see.”

“It was different interactions like that—where people really showed respect and civility and pride in their process—that was encouraging to me,” added Stein.

After the caucuses, students fanned out across the city to attend a slew of candidate election celebrations, including events for Republican Donald Trump and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

After Sanders finished his speech shortly after 11 p.m., UChicago students went back to their hotel for pizza and a few hours of sleep. The bus to Chicago was leaving before sunrise. A blizzard was on its way, and Iowa would be shutting down.

“The Iowa Project was able to expose all of us to a side of politics that I never really knew about,” Akca said. “To be able to come to Iowa and experience how this process works was truly incredible.”

Originally published on February 8, 2016.