My interest in politics was emerging when my high school band played for presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s visit to Duluth in 1984. I began my college career as a political science major, graduated with a minor, and I consume political news and information. I have, however, never experienced something like caucus season in Iowa before this year. I initially lived in Iowa from 1993-1995 and returned when I was hired as Luther’s vice president and dean for student life in 2012, but this was the first such presidential primary season experience for me.
Over the past several months, Iowans experienced a wave of advertisements, phone calls, canvassers (I was one myself), and visits from political candidates. It is at times exhausting, but also invigorating and fulfilling. Democracy is intended to be messy and from afar one could submit this presidential election season is exactly that. However, there is a risk in that conclusion. Underneath the surface lies the work of many volunteers who give of their time, gifts, and talents toward a candidate and positions they support.
For students who engage in the political process, the learning that can occur is profound. To be a student at Luther College during a presidential election season provides a close-up view of the democratic process that goes far deeper than simply casting a vote during an election; something I hope all students who are eligible to vote do. Their voice matters—a lot!
Up until the Iowa caucus night on February 1, many presidential candidates made visits to Decorah; some candidates visited the Luther campus. Luther students had opportunities to hear from candidates, ask questions of them and even meet them. If you are a “Saturday Night Live” fan, you may have spotted the entrance to the Regents Center during the episode hosted by Larry David that aired on February 6; the Regents Center was the location for a candidate visit.
Several Luther students were involved with the caucus evening and with the campaigns of the presidential candidates. I asked students to offer their reflections on the caucus experience.
Betsy, who serves as the president of the Luther College Democrats, shared that the best part of the caucus season was how politically involved people get. She had the opportunity see her peers and members of the Decorah community come together in one room and physically engage in the process. Betsy shared that it was so much fun to see 300 Luther students stand up for what they believe in on caucus night.
Paul, a senior from California, noted that by the time the primary process moves to his home state, the nominee has generally been selected. And, unlike the close and intimate settings that can be found when candidates visit places like Decorah, a California trip is typically for political fundraisers. Paul interned with a local campaign office during January and experienced firsthand the demands of running a volunteer operation.
Geoffrey looked forward to an immersive, real-life political experience through the caucus. He also looked with enthusiasm to being part of the democratic process. Geoffrey was involved with the recent mid-term elections and his name was given to a regional director for one of the presidential candidates. Over the fall and winter, Geoffrey volunteered with the campaign and he was invited to serve as a precinct captain for the precinct caucus.
Alex is a first-year student who got involved with a candidate’s on-campus student organizers as soon as he arrived in the fall. He worked with his peers throughout the fall in preparation for the caucus. He also volunteered at the local campaign headquarters and canvassed throughout Decorah where he was able to share his enthusiasm for his preferred candidate.
Betsy served as the precinct secretary for her precinct and helped to organize the two on-campus precinct locations. This arose through her volunteer efforts with the Winneshiek County Democrats. She was asked if she wanted to take a leadership role with the caucus process and she helped to facilitate 30 student volunteers who helped check participants in, direct foot traffic (two precincts were in the same building), answer questions, and simply help the night go smoothly. Betsy was surprised, however, by the turnout for the caucus. It was much higher than she or many others anticipated and it was exciting for her to see people participate in the historical caucus process.
During the caucus, Alex was struck by the energy and support for his candidate. He met each supporter, provided them all with a sticker, and shared in their enthusiasm. The turnout was strong and in to accurately count how many caucus attendees supported his candidate, he had them walk out of the designated room single file. As the caucus concluded, delegates to the county convention were selected and he was proud to be among the 10 delegates chosen to represent his candidate in March.
Geoffrey notes that while the caucus process receives much criticism he found it to be essential to building the party and said we are blessed that Iowans become immersed in the democratic process. His unique surprise during the caucus was the speech he did not know he would have to deliver. Geoffrey said he had not been prepared nor trained for this but simply spoke his mind and managed to persuade some of the undecided attendees to caucus for his candidate.
For Paul, the caucus night was a strong testament to our democracy. The number of students who stayed or returned early from their January break to participate was remarkable, and the passion and conversations that came from all sides during the realignment period left him proud of our democracy and the role we play in choosing the next president of the United States.
In addition to students following their passions, two faculty members offered a timely course during January Term—Gender, Politics and the Iowa Caucuses. When she proposed the course Carly Hayden Foster, associate professor of political science, stated it would be a good opportunity to think about the role of gender in politics and elections with the likelihood that Secretary Clinton would run for president. Foster further noted the timing of J-term seemed ideal for studying the Iowa caucuses since J-term would coincide with the peak of the media frenzy surrounding the caucuses.
According to Foster, the goals of the course were to learn about the Iowa caucus process, think about the implications of the Iowa caucuses for our democracy in general, and examine ways that gender influences politics in the U.S.
Student experiences included a visit with Iowa State Senator Patti Ruff, discussions with local Winneshiek county Democrats and Republicans, participation in mock Republican and Democratic caucuses, and the chance to hear directly from six presidential candidates. When she was planning this course, it was impossible to predict how many candidates would come to Decorah. Foster did not expect that her students would get to see and hear Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright (speaking on behalf of Hillary Clinton).
Many students told her that they really appreciated getting to visit the campaign events, regardless of whether or not they agreed with the candidates, because they appreciated experiencing the candidates in an un-edited, non-soundbite context.
A personal highlight during my time canvassing was meeting 96-year old Grace, who responded that she while she could not attend the caucus event, she was absolutely ready for our candidate to be the next president of the United States.
Whether an individual is at the dawn of his or her political experience or a well-seasoned veteran like Grace, the opportunities to be engaged in shared dialogue about how we envision our collective future are fully available in places like Decorah. My sincere hope is that this generation of students will experience what it can be like to tackle big questions, solve vexing problems, and move communities forward…together with those with whom they may disagree.
Now things have quieted down in Iowa but perhaps are lively in your respective neighborhood, community, and state as the primary season progresses. My sincere hope is that students stay engaged and continue to think about the voice they have in our wonderful, if at times messy, democracy.