DAVENPORT, Iowa -- Tens of thousands of Iowans will participate in the caucuses Monday night and what is motivating their votes will be as important as the final results.
In interviews with voters in Eastern Iowa in the four days leading up to the caucuses, several themes emerged:
1. The Voters Are More Discouraged And Weary Than Angry
The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump has led to much discussion of an angry, fearful American electorate, with some data supporting that.
But people interviewed here described their feelings in terms more like discouragement than anger. Those over age 60, both Democrats and Republicans, are worried that their children and grandchildren won’t have the same kind of life they did. In their words, this is not nostalgia, but an honest assessment of an America in which jobs are regularly outsourced, careers are fleeting and retirement pensions are almost non-existent.
The voters under 50 were often experiencing this directly. Many had children who were struggling to find steady jobs or pay off college loans. Some were anxious about what they felt were excessive costs for things that they think all Americans should be entitled to, particularly affordable health care and college tuition.
“I’m middle class, I’m not struggling,” said Sue Clemens, a 65-year-old occupational therapist in Davenport who backed Clinton. “I pay my fair share, everybody ought to. I worry about my kids.”
She said she understood the appeal of Trump, noting, “There are a lot of rural areas in Iowa, there are so many people who just want a fair shake.”
Jonathan Neavor, a 32-year-old who lives in Davenport, said the idea of free college tuition, as Sanders proposes, has deep appeal to him, because he had stopped attending the University of Iowa because he and his family couldn’t afford it.
“I am still paying $100 a month for the year and half I was there,” said Neavor, who is backing Sanders.
He added, “I’m not a fan of late-stage capitalism. We should not be afraid of socialism, countries like Sweden are doing a lot better than us on a lot of things.”
Karene Nagel, a retired health care worker backing Sanders, said, “I have friends with two jobs looking for a third.”
At times, these worries seemed overstated. One Republican woman, who was attending a Trump rally in Clinton, Iowa, but said she was leaning towards Jeb Bush, described the struggles of her daughter and son-in-law to find work after law school.
After 10 minutes of listing the challenges, she concluded the story: her daughter and son-in-law had found jobs as lawyers in Washington, D.C. and were repaying their loans on time.
The angst of the voters here is telling, in that it is likely to be higher in other states. The jobless rate in Iowa is 3.4 percent, much lower than the 5.0 national average.
“I remember when this was a great country,” said 68-year-old Pat Toppins, who backed Trump. “Now, we don’t have any jobs. Our industrial base has been shipped out. Our health care industry is corrupt. Our children aren’t being educated. It’s almost as though this country has been abandoned.”
“We have fantastic technology, like Apple,” he said. “But all the jobs that build the technology are out of this country.”
2. Sanders And Trump Are Telling People What They Want To Hear
If you listen to their stump speeches in full, Sanders and Trump are often the gloomiest candidates running for president, at times ignoring the technological, racial and economic progress of the last 30 years.
But what voters here have digested are the headlines of those candidates’ speeches. Trump can make America great, they say, repeating his central talking point. Sanders can make childcare, health care and college essentially free, as he promises.
When pressed on how unrealistic these ideas are, Trump supporters refer to his business experience, arguing no traditional politician is as sharp as the real estate mogul. Sanders' backers argue traditional Democrats like Clinton aren’t proposing ideas to make life better for the middle class, because they are too busy cozying up to the wealthy.
“Affordable child care would have revolutionized my life,” said 67-year-old Barbara Thompson of Davenport, who is backing Sanders.
She also noted that “I like getting the money out of politics,” another of Sanders’ goals that is very unlikely to happen.
“There’s so much corruption. Trump doesn’t need any of that, he doesn’t need the special interests,” said Chuck Michels, a 52-year-old carpenter supporting the real estate mogul.
3. College And Health Care Costs Are Big Issues
The Obama administration considers two of its biggest successes the Affordable Care Act and changes to college financial aid practices, such as increasing Pell Grants and streamlining the student loan process.
Voter after voter recited their struggles with high deductibles that left them wary of using their health insurance through Obamacare, and these were often Democrats who a minute earlier said President Obama had done an “exceptional” or “phenomenal” job as president.
“He quit going to the doctor after the first couple of visits. Everything was going to be out of pocket, so he couldn’t afford it,” said Clemens, referring to her son, who is 35.
Her son’s deductible is $6500 for his health insurance plan under the ACA, Clemens said.
Clemens said her son, who backed Obama in 2008, now “feels like Obama let him down.”
“I told him this is not the bill that Obama wanted, it was what we could get done,” she said.
Clemens, who is backing Clinton, added, “I’m not entirely happy with Obamacare either."
“If I got sick, I couldn’t afford to use it,” said 61-year-old Peggy Neavor, a supervisor at a dry cleaner in Davenport, referring to her health insurance, noting its high deductibles.
She backed Obama in 2008 and favored Sanders in this race.
4. The Trump Supporters Are Not All Working-Class People Or Those Wary of Immigration
Pat Toppins has bachelor and master’s degrees in philosophy, works in a white-collar job at a company that sells freight trucks and described how America is a “nation of immigrants.”
He is enthusiastically for Trump.
“The majority of the presidents were told, ‘here’s what you’re going to do” by big-money interests, said Toppins. “It’s not like that for him.”
“I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but my second choice is Bernie Sanders,” said Toppins. “We’ve had enough career politicians. I like what Bernie Sanders is saying, but how are we going to pay for it? He is talking about trillions of dollars.”
5. Trump Supporters Wish He Would Tone It Down Too
In interviews, Trump supporters drew a careful line. They were supportive of his ideas, like building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and enacting a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.
But they were voting for him despite his controversial rhetoric, not because of it.
“I wish he would be more inclusive. He doesn’t have to be politically correct, but he doesn’t have to be politically incorrect either,” said Toppins.
“There are a few comments we could live without, but sometimes they are tongue-in-cheek,” said Jim Finneran, a 54-year-old salesman at a company that distributes vending machines. “I like his brashness.”
“The key word is temporary,” Finneran said of Trump’s Muslim ban. “We need to make sure we know who is coming into the country right now.”
6. Sanders Should Worry About Ageism In Upcoming Primaries
Clinton supporters, particularly the elderly ones, repeatedly said that Sanders was simply too old to be president. They couldn’t imagine such a strenuous job at 74 years old and weren’t sure how Sanders could either.
These comments were striking, if only because Sanders’ age has not yet emerged as a major campaign issue. The 68-year-old Clinton is unlikely to attack her opponent for being old, but if Sanders won the primary, this could be fertile ground for the 69-year-old Donald Trump.
“He’s only two years younger than I am, and I’m too old,” said 78-year-old Jim Lasso, a retired mechanic who saw Clinton speak in Davenport and is backing the former secretary of state.
“I think he’s too old. He might be in good health, but you never know,” said Rose Arrington, a 65-year-old artist who is backing Clinton.
7. The Sanders' Movement Is Also An Anti-Clinton One
In interviews, Sanders backers listed candidates they previously supported. For nearly all, it was Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. They frequently referred to Clinton’s Iraq War vote in 2002 as a reason to oppose her.
It’s not entirely clear Clinton could have ever won over this bloc of voters. They are inclined towards the more liberal, anti-establishment candidate. This may point less to a flaw in Clinton’s campaigning than a kind of permanent fissure in the Democratic Party
“Hillary is politics as usual. She’s for the corporations. The things she believes in, I don’t believe in,” said Cynthia Lomas, a 61-year-old African-American musician who is backing Sanders. (She was one of the few blacks at any of the candidate events in Eastern Iowa.)
“She feels like a career politician who has nothing new to say,” she added.
John Bowman, a 71-year-old attorney in Davenport, said of Sanders, “Bernie voted against all of the wars. I’m a combat veteran. I want peace.”
8. Clinton As A Kind of Default Candidate
At Clinton’s Davenport event on Friday, hundreds of people waited in line outside in the cold to get spots near the front of the stage for her speech. They were excited to see Clinton and to vote for her.
But while Sanders and Trump supporters have very specific rationales for backing those two, Clinton backers gave a wide variety of reasons to back her, ranging from Clinton’s experience to electing the first female president to just being comfortable with her in the Oval Office.
“I have been to two Bernie Sanders events. I see all the young people there,” said Clemens.
“Until a couple of days ago, I was 50-50. Now, I just feel right with Hillary.”