Photo Credit Oliver Eaton
Students attend Iowa caucuses
February 6, 2020

They had just witnessed American democracy in action at the grassroots level. Neighbor talking to neighbor, trying to convince each other to support their respective presidential candidate.

But when the 28 students in instructor Kurt Christiansen’s AP government classes arrived back at Culver Academies Tuesday after their whirlwind trip to Monday’s Iowa caucuses, they didn’t know who won. And they still don’t.

But, for them, it was watching the process in action that mattered most.

The students were stationed at the Coralville Performing Arts Center, where they observed the first precinct Democrat caucus. As they waited to enter, a reporter from The Gazette in Cedar Rapids interviewed Amina Shafeek-Horton ’20 (Charlotte, N.C.) and Cole Stofflet ’20 (McCordsville, Ind.).

Cole Stofflet and Amina Shafeek-Horton being interviewed for a story on the Coralville caucus.

Once they were inside, it looked like “controlled chaos,” Lauren Cesarski ’20 (Noblesville, Ind.) and Shaopeng (Justin) Zeng ’20 (Shenzhen City, China) said. But both agreed the process also seemed to go smoothly.

With a record number of 529 people showing up to caucus, participants overflowed into the spectator area, where the Culver students were sitting. The precinct organizer was using Twitter to keep people up-to-date. Along with the electronic tally, paper ballots were being handed out and collected to provide the “paper trail” that has become so important. The official’s instructions on how to fill them out were very detailed, Cesarski added.

As the evening wore on, the Culver students got to walk around and were in the middle of the groups representing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Sanders won the precinct caucus, with Warren coming in second. Businessman Andrew Yang, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Minnesoa Sen. Amy Klobuchar all received votes in the first tally. Cesarski and Zheng agreed that it appeared former Vice President Joe Biden had been shut out. At least, he was not considered a viable candidate.

Cesarski was fascinated by the process. She enjoyed seeing people “so interested in the political process” that they were willing to publicly acknowledge their choice. No secret polls or ballots. It was “actually unreal” to witness individuals talking to others, trying to convince them to join their group, she said.

After the caucus, the students returned to their hotel to watch the results roll in. And they watched. And they watched. And they watched. By then, all the reporters were saying there was a glitch in the new electronic system. They turned in for the night, fully expecting to find out the winner in the morning.

Democrat caucus official talks with students.

But they didn’t. They started on their way home with nothing being announced. And when the students arrived in Culver, still no official word. By Thursday, Buttigieg was leading Sanders by one-tenth of a percent.

Still, with all the negativity surrounding the results, Cesarski and Zeng said the positives of the experience far outweigh not yet knowing the outcome.

For Cesarski, it was watching democracy at its basic level. People who live in the same area, talking to each other about the candidates, the issues, and why they believe the way they do. Plus, they were willing to share that with the students, knowing they couldn’t vote. “They still cared enough to make sure we were informed,” she said.

For Zeng, as a Chinese citizen, the experience provided a “completely different perspective” on American democracy. That people involved in the caucus would have “so much faith in the system” made him want to learn more about the process.

Cesarski added watching the “face-to-face” discussions between individuals was invigorating. That energy came from each person believing they were helping to make America a better place.

“We were right in the middle of it.”   

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