Democrats from coast to coast are getting in on the Iowa caucus experience

"Caucus tourists" are traveling to the first-in-the-nation state for a glimpse of the presidential field.

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By Maura Barrett and Priscilla Thompson

DES MOINES, Iowa — Homework, snacks and travel games were just a few of the items the Morgans loaded into their Honda Pilot to head to Iowa. The one thing the family of five was sure not to leave home without was their “North Carolina for Pete 2020” T-shirts.

The Morgans drove about 1,000 miles to Des Moines from their home in Carrboro, North Carolina, for the Iowa Democratic Party’s Liberty and Justice Celebration last Friday. The annual fundraiser featured 13 of the party’s presidential candidates, each hoping for a standout moment while speaking to thousands of attendees — many of whom, like the Morgans, are “caucus tourists” visiting from other states.

“It’s a historic time right now,” Duncan Morgan said while holding his 4-year-old son, Max — both sporting “Barnstormers for Pete” hats to keep warm in the drizzling rain. “We recognize the urgency of this election and that’s why we’re here. It’s why we brought our family, because it’s the most important things that’s happened, politically, in my lifetime.”

“It's so hard to watch the political process from afar,” Meghan Morgan told NBC News. “This year with the Democratic field, you really do have a lot of different ideas coming in. There's so many candidates, and we really have that full political spectrum.”

Siblings River, Max, and Xander Morgan entertain themselves on the 2,300 mile round trip drive from Carrboro, NC to Des Moines, IA for a family vacation to attend the Iowa Democrats' Liberty and Justice Celebration on November 1.Courtesy Meghan Morgan

The Morgans weren’t alone. Not far off stood a supporter waving a sign that read, “I traveled 1,745 miles from San Diego for Pete” while another showcased support from Alaska.

Party officials estimated that some 600 people traveled in from out of state for the event — an indication of how dedicated Democrats are to choosing the best nominee to go up against President Donald Trump in 2020.

Kedron Bardwell, a political science professor at Iowa’s Simpson College, equated the buzz to “political nerd spring break,” as out-of-staters travel in for large multicandidate events including this weekend’s Liberty and Justice dinner, or for single events.

“For outsiders to the process, it’s fascinating to experience the role of a small agricultural state in the middle of the most powerful country in the world and all the hoopla surrounding it,” Bardwell told NBC News.

While the Morgans were most excited to see Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who has risen in the polls, another caucus tourist, Frankie Farmer, made a similar trek from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to see Beto O’Rourke. The former Texas congressman surprised his supporters just ahead of the dinner by announcing he was quitting the contest.

Even before O’Rourke’s exit, Farmer acknowledged the possibility that he wouldn’t be the nominee but said she was eager to have a chance to see all candidates in hopes of finding a good “backup” to support.

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“There’s a lot of time before I start migrating into any other camp,” Farmer said, as she recognized that she likely won’t see all of the Democratic candidates again before Virginia’s primary on March 3, 2020 — Super Tuesday.

“The people in Iowa are very spoiled because they get all this attention and they have very few [electoral] votes,” Farmer said. “I don’t think it’s the best way for us to pick candidates — based on who does well in Iowa and New Hampshire, because there are two states that have very little diversity.”

Each cycle there’s criticism that Iowa’s older, whiter population doesn’t reflect the demographics of the country or the Democratic Party in particular, whose base is largely urban and nonwhite. Even so, Iowa’s caucuses have kicked off every presidential race since 1972.

While the Morgans said they were looking forward to the quintessential Iowa experience of interacting with candidates in person, Meghan Morgan said the presidential campaign should focus on the entire country, rather than just the early primary and caucus states.

“I don't begrudge any of the candidates for what they're doing, but I think this way makes other people, like people of color and people who live in places that these campaigns don’t touch, more disengaged, and they’re not going to come to the polls,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by Alicia Rockmore and David Kurtz, who traveled from California in September to attend the Polk County Democrats’ Steak Fry. That event, in a sprawling park just outside downtown Des Moines, featured nearly all the Democratic hopefuls and boasted a record crowd of more than 12,000 attendees from all 50 states, plus Canada, Japan, Germany and Sweden.

“Listening to candidates speak in 10 minute chunks is very different than just seeing what’s reported on them,” Kurtz said of experiencing stump speeches for the first time. “There’s more of a sense of what they represent, what they believe, and what they feel. I actually think it’s a little bit of a shame that, in most places, we don’t really encounter the candidates this way.”

Californians Alicia Rockmore and David Kurtz pose with the Iowa Polk County Democrats' mascot following a 17-candidate speech line up at the county's annual Steak Fry fundraiser on September 21.Courtesy Alicia Rockmore

Savvy caucus tourists have discovered that the cost of a plane ticket, hotel and VIP ticket for a pre-program event to meet the candidates in Iowa was far less than a high-dollar fundraising ticket to see just one candidate in California.

Polk County Democrats Executive Director Judy Downs said Democrats’ desire to win in 2020 has brought a lot of out-of-state faces to Iowa this year.

“People are taking this election very seriously," Downs said, adding that many "weren't necessarily politically engaged before Donald Trump got elected and now they are.”

“This is their first time to be involved in a presidential campaign, and they're taking advantage of the proximity, costs and accessibility of the Iowa caucuses.”

Iowa may get the candidates’ frequent attention with its first-in-the-nation status, but Democratic voters from across the country and abroad have their eye on the results here.

“It sets the stage for the choices that the rest of us will have,” Kurtz said of Iowa. “Should it be Iowa every time? I don’t want to get in trouble with Iowans, but I do think it’s good that the first time this occurs is in a very retail, personal, long-form way.”

Not every caucus tourist has to hop on a flight. With the frequency of campaign events in Iowa, residents in adjacent states are willing to drive hours to see their candidates.

Emily Beasley, a teacher in Freeport, Illinois, drove 90 minutes to Dubuque, Iowa, on a Monday night to see Buttigieg.

“I did not go to have ice cream with Bernie today,” Beasley said, referring to an ice cream social event Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., held in the same town just hours before. “I had to leave directly from school — didn’t get dinner. I'm not going to just see anybody.”

Mike Lee, from Albert Lea, Minnesota, went to that ice cream social for Sanders, and says he’d drive as far as 75 miles to see “anyone running for president.”

“It isn’t very often you get a national figure running for office coming to small areas,” Lee told NBC News in Northwood, in northern Iowa just south of Minnesota, at the Sanders event. “That’s the way it should be.”