OTTUMWA — It’s not easy to tell exactly when caucus season begins in Iowa. There’s no official date. Candidates arrive quietly, months before announcing a run for president.
The visits begin with a focus on other matters. Candidates are wary of looking too eager to run. They visit to talk about agriculture, about business. They talk with organizers and potential supporters without mentioning what everyone knows is the reason for the visit.
The pace picks up after the midterm elections. Candidates form exploratory committees. As they make the leap into the race, the whispers turn into roars.
Susie Drish drove to Ottumwa in mid-March to hear Sen. Cory Booker make his first pitch to southeast Iowa voters. Drish is the chair of the Jefferson County Democratic Party. Like most in the audience, Drish’s presence was a signal of interest rather than support.
“We have to listen to everybody,” she said.
Booker’s campaign stop was the first by a formally declared candidate, though Rep. Tulsi Gabbard had been in town a couple times prior to her announcement. About 100 chairs were set out in a horseshoe shape in the ballroom at Hotel Ottumwa. They filled within a minute of the doors opening to the public, sending Booker’s staff scrambling to find more.
Iowans have been trained to look for potential candidates and watch their behavior long before they arrive in the state. Peggy Beeler of Ottumwa said she was favorably impressed by Booker’s conduct during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. It wasn’t the first time she had noticed him and liked what she saw.
When Booker announced a visit to Ottumwa, Beeler and her husband wanted to see him themselves. They plan to hear other candidates as the campaign unfolds. That’s typical. Most Iowa voters hear from a number of candidates before settling on their pick for caucus night.
“It’s way too early for that,” Beeler said. “Everybody is looking at what distinguishes them from all the others.”
Drish said voters seem to be focused on issues. Wages and jobs are always issues. But Drish also pointed to education and climate change. Worry is a common theme.
“We’re hearing that people are really concerned,” she said.
One of those people was Kim Morse, who was at Booker’s speech and showed up four days later when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand brought her campaign to Ottumwa. Morse is not your usual audience member for an early caucus visit. Politics never excited her.
“Never until this year,” she said. “I’ve never really been involved in politics. The craziness in the White House has driven me to it.”
Morse isn’t even a registered Democrat. But she worried that the middle class is losing ground, and that education — the key to getting into the middle class — is being shortchanged. She said funding for public schools needs to increase, but was concerned some members of the administration would prefer to shunt that money over to private schools by way of vouchers and similar programs.
Gillibrand and Booker were the first candidates Morse listened to, but she planned to hear others. The analogy sometimes used is dating different people in hopes of finding a connection. In the 2004 contest, supporters of John Kerry who had previously leaned toward Howard Dean began holding signs that read “Dated Dean, married Kerry.”
Morse was not yet interested in hitching up with a campaign.
“It’s too early to commit. There’s way too many to decide,” she said. “I’m going to see as many as possible.”
That’s a point even veteran caucus-goers agree with. Long-time activists like Drish know not to make any bets this early.
“I think it’s too early to tell. What do we have, 10 months to the caucuses?” Drish said. “It will be interesting. It’s special. Every four years.”