Janelle and Alyssa, my hosts here, are taking me around the city to see the sights and to get a feel for what the voters are thinking on caucus day. Iowa City is more subdued than usual. Maybe it’s the dull grey sky, a portent of snow on the way tomorrow (“We’re gonna get twenty inches!” a terrified hyperoptimist exclaimed). Maybe it’s the fact that, at least in this corner of Iowa, there’s no mistaking who the front runner is. There’s Bernie signs in front of most houses, and people walking around proudly wearing Bernie hats, shirts, stickers, and buttons. And on top of that you have the canvassers, who have been calling Janelle for months, but the last three weeks have been unbearable. She never answers, but she knows it’s them. They call, they rigorously march door to door in the frigid January weather to ask/push/prod/shove/coerce people into going to the caucus, and specifically going to the caucus to voice support for their preferred candidate.
When it comes to going to the caucus, the Iowans I’ve encountered don’t need any convincing. It’s a point of pride that they play such an important role in presidential elections. Who to caucus for, however, is another matter entirely, and every campaign—well, every campaign that matters—is spending huge amounts of money in the days leading up. It’s pervasive. Since I’ve been here, every time I try to watch a video on YouTube, it’s been preceded by a solemn plea from Ben Carson to caucus for him. I guess I wouldn’t call that wasted money, but let’s be real here. The coffee bean caucus run by the Hamburg Inn serves as an informal estimate of what the electorate is thinking—a bellwether to a bellwether if you will—and the results were staggering. Bernie Sanders destroyed his competition. Ben Carson wasn’t even on the radar. The poll is skewed, of course, more than most—Hamburg Inn is popular among students, although when we were there it was full of people of all ages. Even accounting for that, the overwhelming feeling in this city is one of a gigantic tidal wave named Bernie Sanders roaring over everyone else.
During a walk around the city, we found a contingent of Bernie supporters. An older woman approached us and asked if we were caucusing. (Caucussing? Caucussing.) I demurred, and Alyssa explained that she was supporting Bernie with reservations. We expected she’d be happy with that, but she asked about what Alyssa’s reservations were, and what followed was a nuanced conversation about race and Bernie Bros, during which she frequently agreed with Alyssa’s objections. She then told us she was from Burlington and had been volunteering for Bernie since 1984. It was very surreal, and it didn’t stop there. This whole time a band had been setting up next to the table, a couple of guys with guitars and a bass and a little glockenspiel. They had the look of a local amateur band, and I was ready to move on (we were heading to get froyo), but Alyssa stopped me. “I think I recognize that band…” She went over to the table and came right back. “I knew it! It’s Guster.”
Right as she said this, the four guys standing in front of Yotopia burst into song, singing harmony without microphones, shouting “Iowaaaaa!!!” between songs. They ended with a rendition of “This Could All Be Yours”, thanked everyone, and packed up their gear. It was an honest moment, not done for publicity (there couldn’t have been more than 20 people who walked by during the set) and it was an interesting feeling for someone like me, who had grown accustomed to bitter cynicism, to see a group of people earnestly expressing their support of an ideology without a trace of bitterness.
(artwork credit Justin de la Cruz)