As the Iowa caucuses come into political focus, student groups and individuals on campus have debated whether the first round of primary contests is inaccessible or holds disproportionate sway in the political landscape.

On Feb. 3, Iowans will kick off primary election season by voting for their favored Democratic presidential nominee at the Iowa caucuses. The Iowa caucuses are considered especially significant since they are the first contest of the primary election season and are often viewed as a strong measure of how candidates will perform throughout the rest of the primaries. For that reason, many student groups — including those focusing on specific political candidates and others aiming to promote voter participation generally — have ramped up their get out the vote campaigns.

“Polls and other measures of success have a necessary degree of uncertainty,” said Voter Engagement Director of Every Vote Counts Jonathan Schwartz ’21. “The Iowa caucus is one of the first opportunities to actually see how well candidates are doing at attracting a very important subset of the country.”

For the student groups supporting a specific candidate, the outcome of Iowa will help set the tone of the race. According to Nader Granmayeh ’23, campus coordinator for Yale for Pete, and Campus Corps Leader at Yale for Bernie Ryan Dougherty FES ’21, both groups have been phone banking ahead of the Iowa caucuses in order to help turn out the vote in their candidates’ favor. Furthermore, both Granmayeh and Dougherty hope to plan trips to New Hampshire to canvas for their respective candidates, since New Hampshire is more accessible from New Haven than Iowa is.

Granmayeh described the Iowa caucuses as a “springboard” that can help show Pete’s potential and propel him forward. Doughterty expressed similar sentiments, citing that a win could “create enormous momentum for the [Sanders] campaign.”

Iowa’s caucus system is also notable because of its distinct structure. Instead of casting a vote for a preferred candidate via secret ballot — as the majority of the Democratic primary election contests are structured — Iowans gather by precinct at a caucus site and discuss their choice of candidate before forming groups based on their preferred candidate.

Deniz Ince ’23 hails from Iowa City. While she has never officially caucused before, she observed the Democratic caucus leading up to the 2016 election. For her, the caucus system allows for greater conversation and represents a “raw form of democracy,” as people are physically showing up for their candidate and talking about why they support them. Still, Ince does not believe the open-nature of the system is perfect.

“I think people knowing how you’re voting is a way to incite conversation because I feel as though there are a lot of people, especially now with politics being so polarized, that under a closed ballot system can avoid having conversations that we need to have,” Ince said. “But I also know that it’s an environment that is very conducive to peer pressure, so you have to really be a strong person.”

Rasmus Schlutter ’21, also an Iowa-native, spoke about the openness of the caucuses. He questioned the “very anonymous separation of politics and personal life that we try to attain in the United States,” and believed that the political discourse that the caucuses spark have the power to “build consciousness” and create a line for communication. But Schlutter qualified that his position is idealistic, and he doesn’t know how much of that productive debate actually occurs at the caucuses, as he’s only ever observed them and has never participated in one.

While there is no doubt that the Iowa caucuses are politically significant, many people question why. Forrest LaPrade ’23, an Iowan from Des Moines, shared criticisms of Iowa’s caucuses. He explained that many people question why Iowa is the first state to have a primary contest, when Iowa’s demographics represent neither the Democratic party, nor the country. Liam Elkind ’21, Elections Coordinator for the Yale College Democrats, agreed with this criticism, stating that Iowa is over 90 percent white, and relying on such a “homogenous group to represent the feelings of America is inherently fraught.” He said he hoped to see this flaw in the primary system changed in the near future.

LaPrade also noted that caucuses are also generally viewed as less accessible than primary elections. If individuals have inflexible work schedules, need to work night shifts, have disabilities or cannot find child care, they often cannot attend the caucuses.

“If you can’t go, you lose your vote,” LaPrade said.

On the other hand, LaPrade discussed the reforms to the caucuses that have been proposed by the Democratic party. In an effort to make the caucuses more accessible, the Iowa Democratic party attempted to create a virtual caucus, which allows people to caucus remotely. However, due to security concerns amid heightened threats of election interference, this change was never implemented.

Instead, satellite caucuses will be introduced for the first time this year. While most of these will take place in Iowa — in locations like nursing homes — there are satellite caucuses occurring in various locations around the country, and the world. LaPrade plans to attend an Iowan satellite caucus in Jefferson Market Library in New York City.

“I am very excited to meet other Iowans who are living near New York City and going to the caucuses,” LaPrade said. “In general, I do think it’s true that Iowans take their role as voters very seriously, and I think it will be really fun to meet other people who are into the process and recognize the importance of their vote enough to go to a weird satellite caucus.”

According to Real Clear Politics, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders leads the pack in polling in Iowa ahead of next week’s primaries, garnering 23.3 percent support as of Sunday evening — one percentage point more than former Vice President Joe Biden.

Julia Bialek | julia.bialek@yale.edu

JULIA BIALEK
Julia Bialek currently covers student policy and affairs. She previously covered campus politics and is a sophomore in Saybrook College majoring in political science.