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Students observe political process at 2020 Iowa caucuses

On Monday, February 3, the night of this year’s Iowa caucuses, Carleton students, along with Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science Melanie Freeze, traveled to Mason City, Iowa’s North Iowa Area Community College (NIACC) to observe the caucus process and invite voters to participate in exit surveys.

The trip aimed to provide students with an experiential learning opportunity that would teach them about the Iowa Caucus and its voting process.

“Another goal is to conduct research to help us better understand democratic deliberation, the factors that shape willingness to engage in political persuasion and the implications of new caucus rules on caucus-goers’ experiences,” Freeze said.

“The observations were a success and so much fun,” despite confusion about new voting rules, Freeze posted on the Political Science department page after the caucuses.

The Iowa caucus process occurs every other year and involves state residents gathering at local caucus meetings and discussing and voting on candidates. One quirk of the Iowa caucus is its two alignment periods. If a candidate does not receive 15 percent of the vote within the first voting period of the given caucus, then that candidate is considered unviable, and their supporters are able to support a different candidate in the second alignment period. Supports of viable candidates use the second alignment period to convince supporters of unviable candidates to switch their votes. This can lead to the employment of interesting rhetorical tactics during conversations between supporters, like when an Amy Klobuchar tried to switch a Yang voter by arguing that “Yang is pretty moderate in some regards, like Amy.” Even so, the process is generally viewed as a reliable predictor for future candidate election performances and, as the first major polling event in presidential primaries, gathers much attention nationally. Lydia Field ’20, a political science major, emphasized the importance of seeing issues first-hand in another state.

“I think that it will be interesting for me to see what issues are most important to people, especially in a swing state,” she said in an interview conducted before the caucuses. “I’m from Connecticut, a consistent blue state, so I’ve never seen firsthand how these decisions are made in swing states like Iowa.

“I’m very passionate about politics, but I haven’t taken many opportunities to really participate in the election process, besides voting,” she added. “I thought this would be a great opportunity to see how the caucus process plays out.”

Students observed four Mason City precinct caucuses on Monday, where they were divided up into teams of four to five members and took notes and offered caucus attendees access to an online survey which was made live after the caucus so as not to interfere with the voting process.
Freeze’s decision to host this year’s trip stemmed from her experience observing an Iowa caucus precinct in 2016.

“It was such an interesting and fun experience, I knew that I wanted to try and replicate the experience with students if I ever had the chance,” she said.
Field also emphasized the Student Observers’ role of having dialogues with caucus-goers as a form of observation.

“We will also be socializing with caucus-goers prior to the start of the actual caucus to gauge why they decide to participate and what their expectations are,” she said before the event.
Some members of the Carleton Democrats (CarlDems) student group also traveled to Iowa the prior weekend, specifically under the “Carls for Warren” label, in order to canvas for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.

Rebecca McCartney ’21, a participant in both trips, voiced appreciation at being able to become acquainted with the general Iowa caucus’ political process as a way of pushing beyond her “usual paralysis of feeling angry at the political state of things and not knowing what to do about it.”

Despite political beliefs, however, students seemed to express enthusiasm for the political process and the activist nature of the Iowa caucus process.

“I went to visit a friend in Iowa this summer and we got to see a couple of the presidential candidates and see how intense the campaigning is there,” said Siena Leone-Getten ’21, president of CarlDems. “So I’m excited to see people come out and advocate for the candidates they are supporting and to finally see the results of so many months of campaigning focused on Iowa.”

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