Iowa anxiety: Caucusgoers say the pressure to get it 'right' has never been higher

Many voters in this first-in-the-nation contest say they feel special pressure to pick a winner this year, leaving them more conflicted and confused than ever before.
Image: Democratic Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg Campaigns Across Iowa
Many Iowa voters say they feel special pressure to pick a winner this year, leaving them more conflicted and confused than ever before.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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By Lauren Egan

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Marty Wartick likes Pete Buttigieg, but she also likes the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

On one hand, she was convinced the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was the best person to win back the Midwest. On the other hand, she worried he could fall flat after Iowa, when voting moves to more diverse states where Buttigieg polls in the single digits.

“I worry that he doesn’t poll as well in other states — and I know some people are looking for reasons to take the caucus away from us,” the retiree from Cedar Falls said at a University of Northern Iowa event for Buttigieg earlier this month.

With just days to go before the caucuses, Iowa voters like Wartick say they are struggling to get Iowa “right.” Many describe feeling anxious and pressured. These voters feel they need to balance electability against Trump with electability in the Democratic primary — qualities that some see at odds with each other.

“Whoever wins here is going to have momentum,” Julie Gross, 67, of Waterloo, said. “We’ve got to make sure that is the right person to take on Trump. Otherwise, I guess it wouldn’t make us look too good.”

Few voters are completely sure who that person is.

“Every week, I try someone new on and just kind of see how I feel,” said Wartick's husband, Steve, who caucused for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in 2016 and remains undecided in 2020. “There are ups and downs to all of them, and I just don’t know.”

Although inspired by Buttigieg’s message — and confident he could beat Trump in the Rust Belt — Wartick herself left his Cedar Falls campaign event still unsure of whom she would support.

Iowans are known for taking their time to settle on a candidate, but the burden many feel to pick a winner has led to a particular indecisiveness this year. In a Des Moines Register poll earlier this month, 40 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers said they had made up their minds, while 45 percent said they could still be persuaded to support another candidate. Thirteen percent said they did not have a favorite candidate yet.

Eager to coalesce behind a nominee and focus resources on the general election, Iowans are especially worried that candidates' vote totals Monday night could be extremely close, offering little clarity to the crowded primary. This dynamic has caused some to say they will go into their caucus location with their top picks, but will make a game-time decision on whom to support depending on who other caucusgoers are gravitating toward and which candidate appears to have the best shot at winning their caucus location.

"It is really stressful," said Nayeli Marquez, a student at Drake University, who is leaning toward Sanders but still showed up to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speak at a community event in Des Moines two weeks before the caucuses. "It's especially stressful since they all kind of get along. It will probably be a caucus-night decision when I see what other people do."

Hanging over some voters’ heads is the fear that if Iowa gives momentum to a candidate who flops, national party leaders could push to restructure the primary voting order.

Iowa Democrats say that although conversation about reordering the primary calendar happens every four years, the voices are louder this time around. Few presidential candidates have been willing to defend Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status and some, such as Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, have called for change. Many believe a more diverse state deserves to be the first to vote for the party nominee.

"As a party, we can't say to Black women, 'thank you, you are the ones powering our victories', and then begin our nominating contest in two states with barely any Black people," Castro said in a November statement during his since-suspended presidential campaign. "I appreciate how seriously Iowans take their first-in-the-nation status, but our nation has changed tremendously in the past 50 years."

Iowa is 90.7 percent white, according to census data. New Hampshire, the second state to hold a nominating contest, is 93.2 percent white.

“I don’t want to lose the caucuses here,” Kristen Kuiper, a preschool teacher from Waverly, said as she thought through whom to support — Sanders or Buttigieg. She recognized that Buttigieg does not poll as well outside of Iowa, particularly in states with a large percentage of black voters.

“I’m sure that African Americans have a valid reason for not supporting him, I just don’t know what that is. Maybe that is what white privilege is, I just don’t know. But it is something I will think about on caucus night,” she mused, dreading a drawn-out primary. “But when Obama won, we put him on the map. If Pete can do that here, it's like the same thing and the support will follow.”

Some caucus veterans have dismissed the idea that voters are overly anxious about whom they will pick as their top choice this year.

“The month before the caucus is always a period of uncertainty,” said Troy Price, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, adding that Iowans were taking “a little bit longer to wade through their top choices” because of the sheer number of candidates in the race.

“This is absolutely every four years as we get closer to caucus day, people focus more and more on electability,” said Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines-based attorney who has played key roles in numerous presidential campaigns in the state and previously supported Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., before he dropped out. “With the current occupant of the White House, people might be a little more panicked,” he conceded.

But for Kuiper, just the thought of losing Iowa’s slot as first-in-the-nation was enough to keep her second-guessing her choice.

“That’s about all we have here,” Kuiper said. “The caucus and corn.”