Five Things I Learned in Iowa

By Nicole Giambusso

Nicole Giambusso, O'Neill and AssociatesIowa Caucus season always brings me back to my days as a field organizer there during the 2008 presidential campaign (full disclosure, I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter). Recently, I’ve realized that the caucuses are an enigma for many people who haven’t experienced them. Here are some takeaways from my time in Iowa for those seeking a little clarity on this iconic political milestone:

The Democratic Caucuses require candidates to be “viable.”

In Iowa, the Democratic and Republican caucus rules differ. During a caucus, Democratic presidential candidates must be deemed “viable” – that is, 15 percent of total voters in the room have to be supporting them in order for those votes to count at all.  When a candidate is deemed non-viable, their supporters are then asked to support alternate candidates. As one could imagine, supporters of low-polling candidates are highly sought after by campaigns vying to be their second choice. The Republicans don’t have this viability requirement. (If they did, I’m sure this year’s crowded field would make for a long and interesting reshuffling process).

There are no secret ballots in Democratic caucuses.

While Republican caucuses use secret ballots, the Democratic caucuses ask voters to stand in a given section of the room to vote publicly for their candidate of choice.

There are no absentee ballots.

Caucusing has to take place in person. I spoke with several potential voters unable to caucus due to factors such as work, lack of child care, or health issues. Barriers remain today, although both parties are making it possible this year for members of the military serving abroad to take part, and the Democrats are taking additional steps toward greater accessibility.

Many Iowans love the process.

A number of Iowans love engaging with campaign staffers who flock to their communities each election cycle. Kind locals – some of whom were not even declared Hillary supporters – fed me zucchini bread and acorn squash, left their doors unlocked in case I needed a snack, restroom or computer, and even gave me a ride in a corn combine. Many Iowans seemed to love the process not only for the chance to see candidates up close, but for the energy and enthusiasm it brought.

Iowa is just as ideologically complex as anywhere else.

The precincts I covered ranged from small towns to expansive farmlands, and like voters across the U.S., they ran the gamut ideologically, from conservative democrats to progressives and everything in between. I even recall a handful of voters telling me they were torn between Obama and Huckabee: two candidates with little in common but their charisma (and of course, winning their respective caucuses that year). These memories flooded back when I read the recent Boston Globe story highlighting New Hampshire voters torn between candidates like Governor John Kasich and Senator Bernie Sanders.

Among other things I learned in Iowa are the real meaning of winter, that there’s such a thing as fried ice cream, and that working with passionate people can make the coldest weather and longest hours enjoyable. As I watch the February 1 caucuses from a distance, I’ll be hoping for a glimpse of the excitement – and of course, for my chosen candidate to pull ahead this time around.

Nicole Giambusso is a director in O’Neill and Associates’ communications division.