• 23 presidential candidates.
• 7,040 miles.
• 21 days.
• 80 candidate events.
• 25 different Iowa towns.
• One 2008 Kia minivan.
Those are the numbers that summarize my quest to observe, talk to, and profile every Democratic presidential candidate in the 10 months leading up to Monday’s Iowa Caucuses. (Note: In election years with an incumbent candidate, I focus only on the challengers. So in 2012, I observed 12 Republicans.)
But numbers alone don’t tell the story of the 2020 candidates and the most unique retail campaign environment in America. Here are a few indelible moments from Iowa.
Biden up close: After Joe Biden’s speech in Waterloo, Iowa, he went to the rope line to shake hands and take selfies. I rushed over to take up-close pictures of him. My flash jammed, and he got hit with a blinding white light dozens of times. After 15 minutes, Biden had enough. He looked up and motioned me to come over. Crap! I’m going to be bawled out by the former vice president of the United States. “Let me shake your hand,” Biden said. “You’re the hardest working man I’ve ever seen.” Annoying was more like it, but Joe Biden let me off the hook.
Bernie is focused: During Bernie Sanders’ speech in Waterloo, a man standing behind him collapsed due to the heat. Bernie kept going until the crowd’s exhortations of “Bernie, stop, there’s a guy lying on the ground behind you!” reached a crescendo. They whisked the man away, and Bernie continued.
The Kansas Card: Amy Klobuchar was not too interested in talking to me until I mentioned I was from Kansas. “Kansas? Laura Kelly is a great governor!” Pete Buttigieg’s eyes brightened when he heard where I was from: “Topeka? I love your mayor!” And John Hickenlooper wistfully recalled the day he spent in Topeka long, long ago when he was a young man “riding the trains.”
Candidates unplugged: Kirsten Gillibrand arm-wrestles a college student and beats her handily in Ames. After Jay Inslee introduces himself to a couple in a park, the man says to his wife, “What state is he from?” After Hickenlooper talks in Winterset and the crowd leaves, he spots a piano in the back of the café. His eyes light up, and he walks over and plays a tune. Michael Bennet does a town hall in Creston. He doesn’t want to stop. “I can’t tell you what a wonder it was to finish the day with all of you. It makes me so happy. I wish my kids had been here and my wife to see it.” Some older folks whisper, “I don’t get it,” in Atlantic when Amy Klobuchar tells her classic joke: “I don’t use my campaign slogan anymore that I had when I ran for grade school council: “All the way with Amy K!" Biden tears up when he sees a bald eagle soaring majestically in the sky. It reminds him of his deceased son, Beau.
After the delayed reporting of results, there are many who want to strip Iowa of its first in the nation voting status. No doubt Democrats should switch to the simpler Republican vote counting caucus system. But Iowa should remain a place where voters take their job seriously, listen to candidates, talk to them, question them and after all that listening and questioning, winnow down the prospects. A place where a bald eagle can stop a speech, a piano can distract a candidate, and a totally unknown gay veteran can say, “Just call me Mayor Pete.”
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.