‘Chaotic’ Iowa caucuses provide valuable lessons for UChicago students

Meetings with voters, journalists and lawmakers highlight Institute of Politics-led trip

More than a week after the Iowa caucuses ended without a clear winner, many observers—and even the Democratic candidates themselves—have viewed the contest as an embarrassment and a failure.

But it was a transformative experience for University of Chicago students who spent three days in Iowa as part of a trip through the University’s nonpartisan Institute of Politics. They described their time in Iowa as “wild,” “beautiful,” “chaotic” and “incredible.”

While in Des Moines, UChicago students met national journalists and pollsters and local TV hosts, visited presidential candidate Tom Steyer and even toured the state capitol. But it was the actual caucusing—neighbors crammed into high school cafeterias and gymnasiums lobbying for their candidates—that was most memorable and valuable experience for students.

“As an international student, I never thought I’d be able to watch American politics unfold so closely,” said Raina Vishwanath, a fourth-year student from Mumbai. “The Iowa caucus is kind of like a surreal experience, even though you read about it and hear about it. You can’t really imagine what it’s going to be like unless you’re there, and to have that opportunity was really incredible.”

Students arrived in Iowa prepared to hear the candidates talk about the issues most important to them: reproductive rights, health care, the opioid epidemic, climate change, job growth and voting rights. But many came away concerned over the question of accessibility.

Caucuses are hours-long events, requiring participants to travel to one of Iowa’s nearly 1,700 precincts and jostle for votes over several hours. Critics argue that caucuses prevent the elderly, the sick, people who work at night, and others from participating. In 2016, only 16 percent of Iowa’s eligible voters participated in the caucuses.

“A lot of people that we talked to weren’t going to go caucus because they were saying, ‘Oh it’s three hours,’ and they can’t take that time off of work,” said fourth-year student Gabe Schoenbach.

(Video courtesy of Institute of Politics)

For Vishwanath, it was a clear example of how a process like a caucus, which was first designed to be held in a living room, needs to be updated to reflect changes over time.

“If it was accessible to everyone, then it has great benefits for democracy because there is something deliberative about it in a way that you don’t see in primaries,” she said. “That being said, just how difficult and burdensome that process is for some people can be a huge constraint on whether they participate.”

The Iowa trip was one of the many opportunities available to students through the Institute of Politics. Prior to the caucuses, the IOP partnered with the Des Moines Register to send students to cover the presidential primary debate. This summer, students will have the chance to intern with a media organization or a political party at the Democratic and Republican conventions. In the run-up to the November elections, the IOP along with University partners has launched UChiVotes, a nonpartisan, campus-wide effort to boost student registration and turnout in elections.