AP Government students observe caucus in Bettendorf, Iowa


NT Educational Foundation

130 AP Government students at the convention center where the Iowa Caucus was held

The caucus center was electric as Iowans, excited to exercise their voice and to fulfill their civic duty, walked in. Supporters of specific candidates stood at the doors handing out stickers and candy and preaching why one should vote for their candidate in a last minute attempt to gain more voter support.

On Feb. 4, 130 New Trier students taking AP Government traveled to Bettendorf, Iowa to observe a caucus. The excursion enabled students to talk to Iowans and witness a caucus firsthand.

AP Government teacher Lindsay Arado said most Americans do not understand the complex caucus process.

“By taking our students to see the caucuses, they have a deeper understanding not only of the process, but of the limitations of this type of election.”

Many students were surprised by the magnitude of the caucus.

Senior Olivia Tussing’s first reaction was that it was chaotic and crowded.

“There were multiple precincts in one giant room, so it was super loud and crammed full of people. The precincts were only separated by a thin black curtain which didn’t block any sound,” added senior Zoe Siegel.

Robin Forrest, who also teaches AP Government, said “There was a concert type atmosphere as people were coming into the convention center.”

In order to participate, Iowans need to physically go to the caucus, and they must stay for the duration of their precinct’s caucus. The caucus in Bettendorf started at 7:00 PM, and lasted until 9:00 PM.

“Generally, fewer than 18% of eligible voters turn out for the caucuses. It’s hard to caucus; people who work at night, people with children, those who are traveling, and people with disabilities, to name just a few groups, struggle to attend,” said Arado.

The actual caucus is split into two rounds. During the first round, supporters of each candidate tell participants about their candidate’s values, trying to persuade people to vote for their candidate. Then participants get to pick a candidate, and they physically stand against the wall near their candidate’s poster.

The people are then counted by one precinct leader or a captain to determine how many votes each candidate received.

Each caucus counts the votes by hand which creates the potential for error. The app designed to count caucus votes state-wide also malfunctioned.

“The press that came out of Iowa after the caucuses played out with some problems with the reporting of the results, could have been fuel for people looking for the caucuses to be eliminated, and replaced with something else,” said Forrest.

While the caucus system enables conversation and collaboration to be a part of the voting process, many students found the process to be overwhelming.

“I think that Iowa should definitely switch to a primary because of how chaotic the caucuses are. All of the counting for viability is done by one person walking around and physically counting each person caucusing for that candidate, which is pretty easy to mess up,” said Siegel.

In order for a candidate to be viable, they need 15% of the total amount of people caucusing to support them. If they do not get enough people, all of that candidate’s supporters pick a different candidate who was viable during the second round of caucusing.

One of the largest caucuses had 242 people participating. Each candidate then needed 37 people to be a viable candidate.

Andrew Yang did not receive enough people during the first round to be viable, and so all of Yang’s supporters had to pick a different candidate to support during the second round.

“One specific moment that stuck out to me was when I diverted away from the main group and watched this one precinct in which the Biden team was getting heated at the Buttigieg team for trying to claim viability unfairly,”said senior Tommy Serrino.

“It was pretty hilarious to see all of these random Iowans get very worked up at the vote counter guy. Pete’s team was pretty rattled about the whole thing, and the Biden people tried to get me to help them until I told them I was an observer.”

Inside the caucus, supporters in each corner of the room advocated for specific candidates.

Tussing said, “I talked to a lot of campaigners and people caucusing about who they were voting for, but the one that sticks out to me was a Pete Buttigieg representative. I did not know much about Pete, so it was helpful to be introduced to him and his policies through someone who campaigns for him.”

Outside of the main room, each candidate had booths that gave out stickers, buttons, and candy.

The most surprising part for Siegel was how supporters of a candidate tried to lure other caucus- goers to support their candidate.

“I don’t really think being able to offer someone chocolate-covered pretzels should allow a candidate to get an extra delegate or become viable. Bribing people with snacks is not very democratic,” said Siegel.

The caucus system allows voters to engage with others to make an informed decision.

Some appreciated the unique opportunity the caucus offered to have face to face conversations about candidates, issues, and policy.

“It feels like there’s very few other opportunities for those kinds of conversations to organically happen,” said Forrest.

While primary elections can be very solitary, caucuses encourage discussion with neighbors about why supporters favor a candidate, or policy.

Senior BJ Moses-Rosenthal spoke to a woman who supported a candidate whose policy he didn’t agree with. He was surprised how that encounter helped him understand not just the choices she made, but how complicated voting can be.

“I didn’t expect much to come of the encounter. However the lady spoke about how she supported the candidate because of a deep personal connection they shared in their respective upbringings. I came away respecting the woman’s voting choice and on a larger scale now realize that people support candidates for variousreasons and aren’t necessarily an extension/caricature of the people they support.”

Not all students felt caucuses create a democratic environment due to how peer pressure plays such a large role in which candidate participants select.

“I would like to share that the trip, while very fun, did not make me feel like our elections were very secure and protected from outside influence,” said Serrino.

Senior Kathryn Hemmer was more critical, “While the caucus process allows voters to debate and share ideas, it’s an overwhelmingly archaic and ineffective system. Caucuses restrict voter privacy, diminish turnout, and create voting debacles because of their chaotic and time-consuming nature.”