The Ripple: Northwestern students canvass for presidential candidates in Iowa

MAYA MOJICA: We weren’t viable. We only had 33 and it was very disheartening when they said the viability. The girl I was with, the high school intern, started crying. It was really tough. We were really sad.

MAYA RETER: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Maya Reter. Welcome to our first and special episode of The Ripple, a biweekly podcast about the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern community. Over the weekend, dozens of Northwestern students made their way to canvass for candidates before the Iowa caucus on Monday, the first opportunity to vote in the Democratic presidential primaries. The results here set the stage for the primaries in the coming months leading up to the nomination. In the past nine competitive Democratic presidential races, the Iowa Democratic caucus has correctly predicted the nominee seven out of nine times. Like many others, Adam Downing, the College Democrats’ director of public relations, sees this election as a testament to the country’s values.

ADAM DOWNING: I think the nominee field that we have right now in the primary is one of the widest we’ve ever had. Going from the far left for people like Sanders all the way to the more, you know, moderate side with people like Biden and Buttigeig. These are principles and individuals we believe are doing the best thing they can do for the country. We want to make sure that we are advocating for them. As much as, you know, we’re advocating for the policies and the individual nature of it.

MAYA RETER: In preparation for this past weekend, the College Dems planned trips to canvass in Iowa. Some of them fell through due to logistical issues or lack of interest, but students were still able to canvass for Warren through the organization. Other students joined phone and text banks or canvassing shifts for other candidates. For the Warren canvassing shift, College Dems headed to Iowa on Sunday.

IOWA RESIDENT: Did y’all read my signs?


IOWA RESIDENT: Who are you with?

CANVASSER: Elizabeth Warren.

IOWA RESIDENT: I’m going to vote for her. She’s already got my vote.

CANVASSER: Oh, awesome. Okay, cool.

MAYA MOJICA: Hello, are you Jennifer?

JENNIFER: Yes, I am.

MAYA MOJICA: I’m Maya, and this is Sophia. We’re with the Elizabeth Warren campaign, so we’re walking around to see if you are ready to caucus for Elizabeth Warren on Monday?

JENNIFER: I’m planning on caucusing. I don’t know yet who I’m gonna support.

SOPHIA BLAKE: We were wondering if you planned on caucusing for Elizabeth Warren

IOWA RESIDENT: I have no idea what I’m doing.

MAYA MOJICA: It was kind of a last minute decision. One of my good friends worked for the Warren campaign over the summer in Iowa, and she got the opportunity to go back and she had some extra spots in her car and she knew that I was a Warren supporter and she was like, “Do you want to go to Iowa?” And I was like, “I guess,” so I dropped all my responsibilities that I had.

MAYA RETER: This is Medill sophomore Maya Mojica. Instead of going with the College Dems for one day, she went to Iowa from Friday to Tuesday.

MAYA MOJICA: We definitely did a lot. We did a lot of canvassing. We went rural canvassing, which like a lot of people don’t do, and I think that was something that the Warren campaign was really trying to capitalize upon because a lot of campaigns don’t make the trek to go knock on doors in the middle of farms. But that meant a lot of trudging through the mud, like all my clothes are very muddy now, like met a lot of farm animals. But for someone like me who like I’ve never canvassed before, and I would consider myself probably pretty shy, but I ended up having so much fun and people were way more receptive, even in rural places.

IOWA RESIDENT: These are people from Elizabeth Warren.



IOWA RESIDENT: Are you interested in riding with them?

MAYA MOJICA: No one was outwardly mean to me, which is not really what I was expecting. And then you had some like really awesome conversations where like people would not really know how to caucus or be like, “Oh, I’m an independent, I don’t know if I’m going” and you explain it to them how it works and really trying to make it accessible because a caucus is objectively not accessible if you have to work a service job or if you’re elderly or sick or a single mother.

IOWA RESIDENT: I have seven children in this household right now, so I’m kind of busy.

SOPHIA BLAKE: Well, if you are able to make it, a lot of the campaigns will offer free childcare if you need help.

MAYA MOJICA: It was really rewarding to see people who when you originally knock on their door be like, “Oh, I’m not really super into politics,” like see them kind of like light up as you described to them what Elizabeth Warren stands for and fighting for the working person and like that you can actually caucus. There was one door I knocked where the woman didn’t speak English, and I know a little bit of Spanish. It’s not very good. I don’t know if she ended up caucusing, but I tried my hardest, and I think I explained to her what a caucus was and how it worked in Spanish. She was really grateful, and it was very rewarding.

MAYA RETER: And for the Democratic primary where the candidates were close in the polls leading up to the caucus, every vote mattered. There were still many undecided voters, and each campaign was trying to sway voters to join their team. That leads us to Monday at 7 p.m. local time when Iowa residents went to 1,681 precincts across the state. Isabelle Sarraf was at one of these precincts.

ISABELLE SARRAF: Usually their caucuses are held in somewhere like a gym or a church or a building, where a lot of people can congregate. And so what you do is you show up, you could even register to caucus the day of, and you can walk into your caucus area. There are signs posted around the area of every single one of the 11 democratic candidates. There’s also a section for undecided voters, so if you come into the caucus and you still are choosing between a couple of the candidates or you’re simply not educated about the caucus, you basically just sit in the undecided section.

MAYA MOJICA: So we’re all decked out in our Warren gear. We had little Statue of Liberty hats on, and we’re like catching people at the door and if they were in support of Warren we’d give them a sticker and a wristband and tell them where to go. I had never witnessed a caucus. It was really crazy to see. It didn’t feel like something that was like government or like official. It was just very much a lot of people in a room. The observers had a section in the back where we weren’t supposed to be counted, and we as observers are allowed to go talk to people and try to convince them basically. It felt like a game of Survivor like that TV show where you like try to swing people over to your side.

ISABELLE SARRAF: So what happens is in the first round, what you do is you kind of just sit in the corner of where a candidate is. There’s a 20 minute timeframe where this happens because if you sit in the corner of the candidate before the end of the first round, you’re not 100% committed to them the second you sit down, you could switch to a different candidate. Or if you’re undecided, what happens is that there are precinct captains for every single campaign, or there should be, at least for the ones that are very organized and do a lot of organizing on the ground in Iowa. Precinct captains from each campaign could go to the undecided section and persuade them to join their, their candidate.

CAUCUS ORGANIZER: So now we are going to allow candidates to have one minute, so some, a spokesperson for each candidate that have representatives here.

CAUCUS GOER: Just real quick, I think that Joe has the most electability against Donald Trump.

CAUCUS GOER: I am here to represent Amy Klobuchar. Amy’s from Minnesota. And she was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, becoming Minnesota’s first female Senator.

CAUCUS GOER: What has appealed to me about Pete is primarily I want to first emphasize, I didn’t know who the guy was. I just thought who was that? And once I studied him, I knew there were some things that definitely resonated with me.

ISABELLE SARRAF: So after the end of the 20 minutes, the number of people sitting in the corner of each candidate is counted. And what you need to have to be what is called “viable” for the next round is at least 15% of caucus-goers in your caucus.

CAUCUS ORGANIZER: The first alignment is important. Because we want to make sure that first of all, you are supporting the candidate that you really want to support.

MAYA RETER: This is one of the caucus organizers. After explaining the rules for the first round, she ended with this:

CAUCUS ORGANIZER: Are there any questions about that? I feel like the more I talk about it, the more confusing it becomes.

MAYA MOJICA: We weren’t looking too good. We did have like an older district, so the median age was quite old. There was like 200 something people there altogether, and there was 118 people for Pete, and so Pete was obviously viable. Biden was viable by one, so you need to 42 he had 43, and then Amy Klobuchar was viable by 43 and we weren’t viable. We only had 33. And then you got to do a second realignment.

ISABELLE SARRAF: When you caucus for a person in the first round and they are viable, it was a new rule that was imposed this year that you are locked in for that candidate. But if your candidate was not viable or you are still undecided, then you could go to any of the other candidates in the room.

MAYA MOJICA: At that point, they like release you, so we’re like running around. We beelined to the Yang people and were like talking and then we went and talked to Steyer about climate change policies because Warren’s policies come the closest to Steyer’s, so we’re like, okay, we got them and then like, the big hurdle was the Bernie people because we were like, right next to each other and Bernie people are sometimes notoriously stubborn in their love for Bernie. And I was like, I don’t know if we’re going to get them to come over to us, but we’re not going to be viable without them.

We just had one on one conversations with everybody, and we were like, “Listen, we’re all in this together. Like we both want a progressive candidate.” And miraculously, like as soon as a few people started coming over, like more and more people were like, “Oh, my candidate’s not viable.” When we finished I was like, “Wow, we like did that” We would have had no delegates before and now I think we have two from that.

MAYA RETER: For Isabelle, the distribution of these delegates wasn’t as straightforward.

ISABELLE SARRAF: After the second round, you take the number of people sitting in the corner for candidate times the number of delegates allowed for this precinct equals a number.

CAUCUS ORGANIZER: Everybody should have a card here. Okay, so we’ll do it just like before. I’ll pick up the cards now and count as I do. One, two, three, four, five, six.

ISABELLE SARRAF: You divide that number by the number of people total in the precinct at the moment, and then you get a number for the delegates and that number usually is not an even number. Like in my precinct, Biden had 2.447.

CAUCUS ORGANIZER: And Bernie Sanders with 31 times 12 equals 372 divided by 152 equals 2.447, and some of you might have been doing it along with us. The Biden and the Sanders have the exact same percentage, so what we do here, it’s in the rules, is we need someone from the Biden group and someone from the Sanders group, and we’re going to flip a coin to see which one gets three. And which one gets two. Yes? Are you with me? All right, so if there’s someone that feels real lucky from one of those two groups who would like to step up.

ISABELLE SARRAF: There was an 18 year old girl that stood up and said, “I’m going to be the representative for Sanders.” And there was an older man in the Biden section that was the representative for Biden. They basically decided that Bernie would have heads. Biden would have tails. Flip the coin.


CAUCUS ORGANIZER: Biden has two delegates. Bernie has three delegates.

MAYA RETER: At the end of the night, America waited, anticipating the results of the caucus. But a few hours in, the Iowa Democratic Party said there were inconsistencies in the results due to issues with a new app the party was using. They decided to delay announcing the results.

But regardless of what comes out of Iowa, primaries will continue to steer the course of the Democratic Party throughout the next few months. College Dems are planning on engaging in political discussions across campus and making sure every student votes, especially students from contentious states.

ADAM DOWNING: We’re hoping to do a lot of different things not only to inform people about the candidates, not only to inform people about the electoral process, but also just to make sure that any kind of political discussion that needs to be had on this campus is being had in a really constructive and useful way. We want to make sure that every single one of these events is open, so whether, you know, you bleed blue, and you want to go in and you want to really engage in a strong democratic debate, or if, you know, you come from maybe a different part of the political spectrum, either to the left or to the right of College Democrats, we want you to come in and be able to have a space where you can not only flush out your ideas and be around other students who are politically interested, but also have a safe space to kind of engage in politics here on campus.

MAYA RETER: Thanks for listening. We’ll see you on Thursday with our regularly scheduled episode of The Ripple.

This episode was reported by me, Maya Reter, Clare Proctor, Dan Hu and Isabelle Sarraf. It was produced by myself and Kalen Luciano. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected],
Twitter: @kalenluciano, @ceproctor23, @MayaReter, @thisisdanhu, @isabellesarraf

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