As a kid who grew up on the west coast, the midwest has always befuddled me. This land of blizzards, corn fields, cheese, and a severe lack of ocean was a complete mystery. And to be quite frank, this was a mystery I had zero desire in solving.
However, from January 4 to 9, I found myself in Des Moines, Iowa with a group of around 20 other Duke students. I put on my best ski gear and braved the snow to observe a truly Iowan experience — the presidential caucuses. Although we missed the caucus itself because we had to be back in Durham for the first day of classes, we had amazing opportunities to meet presidential candidates, get behind-the-scenes tours of debate stages, meet with journalists and campaign teams, and speak with Iowans to understand their voting priorities.
“My favorite part of the trip was getting to meet all of the presidential candidates and ask them questions of my own,” said first-year political science major Evan Brown.
Duke professor Mark Dalhouse has been taking students to the Iowa caucus for multiple election cycles starting in 2008, first at Vanderbilt, then at Elon, and now at Duke. Students who are interested in politics visit Iowa to observe rallies, volunteer for presidential campaigns, and to learn more about the Iowa caucus. He says the trip is intended to help students learn lessons in bipartisanship and make our campus less politically polarized.
When asked about polarization on Duke’s campus, Professor Dalhouse said “I think the very first step is doing what we did in Iowa; talking to individuals and learning their story, seeing people who might have different belief systems than we do as people, not as “them.” I think this demystifies stereotypes and enables us to see that we have a lot more in common with those on the other side of the political fence than we might think.”
The Iowa caucus is a way of nominating a party’s presidential candidate. As a party-run process, Democrats and Republicans both have their own particular methods for caucusing. For 50 years, Iowa has been the first state that each party has held their caucus in. However, after Biden took office in 2021, he changed the processes for Democrats. You can read more about that decision here. That means that this year, only Republican Iowans participated in this coveted first-primary-of-the-election-season tradition. Registered Republicans across Iowa come together in school gymnasiums, church basements, and community centers to advocate for their primary candidate of choice and submit a secret vote.
On the first day, we attended a Vivek Ramaswamy rally and back-to-back CNN town halls with Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. The Ramaswamy event took place in a small room in a motel; he brought out his wife and kids.
“I thought that Vivek was a very intelligent man and very well-spoken,” Brown said. “But, at that event, the solutions to our country’s problems that he proposed solidified, to me, the fact that he is not my candidate.”
Ramswamy suspended his campaign on caucus night after an underwhelming performance that he felt left no real shot at a presidential nomination.
At the CNN town halls, we got to see the media-trained versions of Haley and DeSantis as Iowan voters asked their questions to the two candidates.
The second day, we went to a DeSantis rally at a wine bar. He was accompanied by Representative Chip Roy of Texas. Freshman public policy major Amaia Clayton said, “The DeSantis rally was packed, and people seemed especially eager to engage and ask him lots of questions.” DeSantis finished second in the caucuses but suspended his campaign on January 21.
On the third day, we saw Haley at her own event at a vineyard. She was introduced by New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu. Clayton said, “She had a unique method of talking about her policy goals… [she] was very intentional in explaining the ‘why’ behind many of her policies.”
We also attended an event for former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson at a restaurant. As an underdog in the Iowa caucus, he dropped out of the presidential race shortly after the results came out. “It was interesting to see that when he had a much smaller audience than the other candidates, of which many were students, he altered the issues that he spent the most time talking about,” Brown said.
This year, the Republican primary candidates were heavily overshadowed by former President Donald Trump. With 51% of the votes, he was crowned the winner of the Iowa caucus only minutes into the vote counting process, proving his decisive lead in the polls. Following behind him was Ron DeSantis with 21.2% and Nikki Haley with 19.1%. Vivek Ramaswamy received 7.7% of the votes and candidates Ryan Binkley, Asa Hutchinson, and Chris Christie (who called off his campaign days before the caucus) all received less than one point.
When speaking to voters, the candidates very clearly fell into two camps: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Voters at Ramaswamy, Haley, and DeSantis rallies all echoed their disapproval of the chaos that tended to follow Trump. Although all three candidates had praises for Trump’s policy priorities, they emphasized his tendency to get caught up with media frenzy and make enemies. That said, Trump won every single district in Iowa except Johnson County, where he was losing to Haley by a single vote as of January 17.
On the topic of Trump, Professor Dalhouse said, “Trump changed this Caucus just by the steady accumulation of his continued command of the front pages in the news. He is the story and everything else is tangential. His four trials, his successful planting of the idea that our voting system is “rigged,” and his successful articulation of the anger I referred to earlier made him the prohibitive favorite in Iowa. Also, he has a much better on the ground organization than in 2016 when Ted Cruz beat him.”
“If you crunch the numbers from this Iowa Caucus, it’s quite interesting,” Dalhouse said. “In Iowa, there are 719,000 registered Republicans. Only about 56,000 came out on Caucus Night; of those, nearly half voted AGAINST Trump. This suggests to me that he has some structural weaknesses even among Republicans. I think this also suggests the strong potential that he will bleed votes all year long into November and that number will go up if he is convicted of even one felony between now and November. I think that will give a lot more Republicans pause before voting for him. As the old baseball saying goes, ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’”
As someone who was raised in a very Democratic area and family, I had never truly been immersed in Republican politics like I had on this trip. Although I went into the trip with caution, I can confidently say that it was an extremely eye-opening experience.
Talking with Iowan Republicans, it was obvious to see that they were Americans who had much in common with me. At the rallies, it was clear that Democrats and Republicans both saw similar problems with our country: increasing rates of mental health disorders, a broken immigration system, a lack of access to affordable housing, and much more. Obviously, the pathways to solving those problems are where the political parties tend to diverge.
This did leave me with a lot more perspective on political polarization. On one hand, common viewpoints can spark bipartisan and productive conversation. On the other, the two parties so clearly see the same things from completely different angles.
The next step for the candidates still in the running is the New Hampshire primary, which will take place on January 23. You can read more about the NH primaries and what to expect here.
Post by Emily Zou, Class of 2027