The boy, maybe 4 or 5, timidly approached the U.S. senator carrying one of those posters that display portraits of each of the presidents. He wanted an autograph. The year was 2007, and Joe Biden was in Iowa on his second run for the Democratic Party nomination for president.
“Who is your favorite president?” Biden asked the boy as he stopped his talk to about 20 people at a community center outside Webster City. The boy, too shy to speak, only pointed — to Republican Ronald Reagan.
Biden and the small group laughed loudly, scaring the boy, who didn’t get the joke. Biden then gently spoke to him. “That’s a good choice. Do you want to know another one?” He then pointed to his party’s favorite: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
It was a small moment between an Iowa child and a high-ranking U.S. senator who 13 months later would become vice president. But for a few months every four years such interactions are common as the presidential candidates travel to Iowa to campaign before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
I’ve been a witness to several moments like this on four trips to Iowa during caucus season over the past 12 years. During my first two trips, in December 2007 and January 2016, my focus was on watching democracy in action; I attended events for candidates of both parties.
But the election and presidency of Donald Trump changed me. To me, these are dark times in American politics. I believe Trump’s policies and temperament have hurt the poor, have needlessly and cruelly separated families seeking asylum, have accelerated climate change and have promoted a political discourse that has emboldened outright racists. We urgently need new leadership in this country.
In that setting, my political tourism this year, which included trips in July and December to see eight candidates, has given me unexpected hope for a brighter political future. Taken together, these events in small-town school gymnasiums or diners are the antithesis to the president’s MAGA rallies. Less shouting. Less anger. Less division. Instead, the emphasis is on common causes among people, and civility despite disagreement.
Seeing people like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker in person offers a compelling version of a different political world. Watching them tell their life stories and attempt to connect it to their vision for the change they want to see is so different from the way we see them in the news framed by television, Twitter or other outlets.
Yes, you can see presidential candidates in Minnesota before the state’s March 3 primary. But it’s different in Iowa during caucus season. In Minnesota, the events for marquee candidates will likely be in the Twin Cities and attract thousands. Aimed at the committed, such gatherings have the vibe of high school pep rallies. In Iowa, the events are smaller. Those attending are likely to have gone to events for other candidates. The candidates seem to know this, and their sales pitch is different.
The Iowa events are certainly partisan. But they are a little more low-key, less shrill, and they often include episodes revealing humanity and personality you might miss in other venues.
Here’s an example. On a Sunday morning in December, Warren was in a small middle-school gymnasium in Washington, Iowa. There were fewer than 200 people there, and she was taking questions from audience members — who were picked through a drawing. A 72-year-old woman came to the microphone and described the hardship she faced. She worked a part-time job supporting a husband, who had cognitive and physical limitations from a car crash three years ago, and her daughter, who had a severe form of arthritis that generated large medical bills and forced her on disability.
“We can’t make it,” the woman said. “I didn’t buy my medication this time because we needed toilet paper.”
The Massachusetts senator responded by talking about her well-known Medicare for All proposal and a plan to increase monthly Social Security and disability payments by $200 (funded by a tax on those who earn more than $250,000 a year). Then someone shouted from the back of the room.
“I’m sorry. What’s that?” Warren asked. It was a woman in the last row, asking how could $200 really help this family.
Warren listened to the question and without raising her voice replied: “Keep in mind: She gets $200, her husband gets $200, and her daughter who is on disability gets $200. That’s $600 a month. No, it’s not perfect. It doesn’t fix everything.”
The first woman then weighed in: “I could buy my medications and the toilet paper, too.”
Warren’s gentle earnestness with both of these voters touched me. While these unscripted moments can go viral and be seen later on cable news, most times they do not and are remembered only by those who were present.
Another memory that lingers is watching Booker speak to about 50 people inside a combination restaurant and antique store in Greenfield. It’s a town an hour southwest of Des Moines with a population of 1,800 — which is down more than 10% since 2000. With shelves of hand-carved wooden curios behind him and the panini press producing sandwiches on the other side of the room, the former mayor of Newark, N.J., talked about similar hardships faced by rural and urban areas.
While hospitals in rural Iowa are closing, poor residents of large cities are struggling to find affordable health care, he said. In addition, he said, both rural and urban areas suffer from the lack of investment in the nation’s basic infrastructure of roads, bridges and utilities. “We have to get back to old-fashioned coalition-building,” Booker said. “All the times I visit farm country in America, I feel a sense of common cause, because rural poverty and urban poverty are a common cause.”
My trips to Iowa have granted me a remarkable access to the powerful and those yearning for that access. Without donating a cent to their campaigns, I have shaken the hands of eight U.S. senators and two governors in my four trips to Iowa. Watching up close those seeking to replace Trump this year heartens me. I am impressed with their dedication and the dignity and respect they show audience members. The gracious response Biden showed the boy and that Warren showed her heckler are like a balm against the coarseness and vapidness that is dominating our political discussion.
In contrast, during the same week of Warren’s appearance at that middle school, Trump joked at a rally that the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell might be in hell and mocked his widow, Rep. Debbie Dingell.
Critics complain that Iowa should not play such an outsized role in our presidential politics. Its population simply does not reflect America’s diversity, they say. But for now the political parties have decided this is the path to nomination, and presidential candidates continue to journey to Iowa’s small-town schools and community centers in winter seeking an audience for their message. Watching them this year has given me hope that these current dark political times may not go on for much longer.
IF YOU GO
For those interested in traveling to Iowa before the Feb. 3 caucuses, here are a few tips:
Make a plan. The best source for information on candidate events is the Des Moines Register Candidate Tracker. Find out where the candidates will be and decide who you want to see. You will also have to decide what type of event you want to attend. A small-town coffee shop meet-and-greet is completely different from a rally on a college campus in a larger city. Stay near Des Moines and you may see more candidates, but the trade-off will be larger and less intimate events.
Be flexible. Watch the weather. If you are traveling from one small town to another, an inch or two of snow can prove dangerous. Events will be canceled for weather or other reasons. Campaigns encourage you to RSVP through their websites, though it is seldom required. The benefit of responding is that if the event is canceled you will find out right away. The price you pay is the endless stream of e-mails and text messages asking you to donate.
Buy a guidebook. Iowa, like Minnesota, has many quirky and cool places that are worth a detour depending on how much time you have. The American Gothic House in Eldon is six miles off the freeway and worth a look. If you are over 50 and forgive John Wayne for making “The Green Berets” because of the beauty of “True Grit,” then his birthplace museum in Winterset is a good choice. And if you eat meat and are near the Amana Colonies outside of Iowa City at lunch or dinner time, you have no excuse not to go.
Bring a question. Is there an issue that is dear to your heart? Abortion? Transgender rights? Veterans health care? The question time at these events gives you a chance to force the candidates to confront these issues in front of an audience that includes the press corps. One day this summer I attended a gathering for Booker in Greenfield. Then, three hours and 70 miles later, I attended a rally for South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Ankeny. At both events, the same woman asked the candidate about sexual violence inside the U.S. military. From the emotional catch in her voice, you knew this issue had a personal impact on her life, and I admired her for her passion and her courage in raising the issue in such a public setting.
John Welsh, of St. Paul, is a registered nurse and a former reporter and editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press.