People stand shoulder to shoulder at a late-morning “whistle stop” for presidential hopeful and Texas congressman Ron Paul in downtown Des Moines, Iowa. Though the crowd seems to be comprised more of media than partisans, the supporters are fervent – chanting, carrying signs, cheering loudly when Paul’s people take the stage. I hear more than one grizzled, grumpy journalist complain to colleagues that the scene is a “zoo,” a “circus,” then plunge headlong into the crowd regardless, searching for authentic Iowans to interview.
Welcome to Iowa: first state in the U.S. to caucus, and dang proud of it.
Earlier in the day, we stopped in at the Drake Diner, a busy local restaurant, to talk to breakfasting patrons about Iowa’s clout in the primary election system. In U.S. presidential races, Republicans and Democrats in each state hold preliminary elections called primaries or caucuses, and to put it simply, the winner of the collective primaries becomes the party’s candidate for president. A sparsely populated state with few votes in the Electoral College, and thus little sway in the presidential election, Iowa has long been the first state in the country to hold its caucus, drawing a lot of attention to an otherwise minimally influential state. So every few years, hordes of media descend on Iowa and fan the frenzy, and Monday morning at Drake Diner was no exception.
Two other news outfits were already circulating among diners hunched over big beautiful plates of eggs, bacon and pancakes. We joined the ambush, talking to a few tables of extremely friendly folks before tucking into plates of our own. As I ate, I overheard the couple behind me clucking about the frequent interruptions to their meal and the cyclical, and fickle, nature of media interest in Iowa “every four years, like clockwork.” On our way out, we passed yet another well-armed team of cameraman and officious-looking producer making their way into the diner.
Late in the afternoon, we hit the road for a popular pizza restaurant in Newton to catch former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at a campaign event. Santorum has been surging in the polls in recent days, picking up points with conservative voters in Iowa as other candidates lose their luster. At the insistence of our growling bellies, we arrived well ahead of the crowd and spent the extra time, yes, eating, but also talking to more Iowans. After the mob came and left – and let me tell you, that was one packed pizza joint – we chatted up a few more people before heading back to Des Moines.
None of this is remarkable at face value, but it was in fact incredibly remarkable in more subtle ways. Nearly everyone approached agreed to an on-camera interview, and among them, just about all had articulate and thoughtful answers to the questions we asked. They cared a lot about the responsibility and privilege of being the first state to caucus, and nearly all had met numerous candidates this year and several times in the past. One father-son duo were on what they called a “grass roots educational tour” through Iowa, attending Republican speeches and rallies to build the son’s understanding of the American political system. And to top that off, they were nice: friendly, approachable, and media-savvy.
Here’s the contrast: Even in the U.S. national capitol, it’s a rare occurrence to ask people on the street for their opinion on a current issue and receive a well-considered response. People frequently refuse to appear on camera, or seem suspicious of the motive for asking and have to be convinced. To top it off, they’re rude.
The weather in Iowa may be cold come caucus time, but the people are warm. And when you’re a pitiable journalist trying to make sense of what seems like chaos, that goes a long way.
(Angela Simaan is a producer in Al Arabiya’s Washington, D.C., bureau. Follow her on Twitter @AngelaSimaan)