Iowa is a fairy tale. Somewhere between the crumbling bridges, the meth clinics, the jackknifed tractor trailers, the zombie combines steered by satellite, the putrid purgatories for dinner-bound hogs — somewhere among the wannabe novelists and suicidal farmers and drooling cage fighters sponsored by bargain hotel chains, down rutted byways to giant wind turbines, alongside ditches oozing with nitrates and Busch Light — is a loose menagerie of utopia, where Americans are pleasant, responsible and cooperative, where they pass down their civic duty like a trust fund, where they still have one hand in the fallowing topsoil, the other locked in fellowship with their neighbor, and their eyes on the future of the republic. This frontage road of a state, this frozen slab of soybean fields and carpenter gothic, has threshed the Democratic presidential candidates for a year now, and it will make the first winnowing of the field Monday, when about 0.1 percent of the country’s registered voters — after being harassed by campaigns and spoiled with millions of dollars — could set the course for the rest of our lives.
Some people, as usual, aren’t happy about it.
Iowa is small, they say. Iowa is white. Iowa is moving backward, or moving forward too slowly. Iowa is just a heartland fetish. Iowa votes for Steve King, the anti-immigrant congressman who’s badmouthed his way to obsolescence. Iowa is what America was, not what America is becoming.
“Iowa poisons the well,” wrote journalist Drew Magary this month, “and it’s in the midst of doing so once again, at a time when Americans can least afford to have an election that orbits around its phony agrarian horses---.”
Former Cabinet secretary Julián Castro put it more diplomatically in November: “It’s time that our presidential nominating process reflects our nation’s and our party’s diversity.”
Bernie Sanders is polling well here, but two young climate activists who came to rally with him in Iowa City know that something is amiss.
“We don’t believe that Iowa is necessarily representative of the entire country,” said Bridget Williams, 22, of Cedar Rapids. The arcane and time-consuming caucus process, she said, discourages participation from people who work multiple jobs, who can’t afford child care, who aren’t fluent in the procedure.
Campaigns in Iowa focus “more on getting people who have already been involved to stay involved,” added Dorothy Hogg, 22, rather than “bringing in new voices and perspectives that are representative of the country.”
Then again, what state — what process — truly represents the country? We are a nation of 327 million people who rely on 538 electors to select a president, after an epic primary process that stumbles through all 50 states (plus the District of Columbia). This goat rope has to start somewhere. Should it start with Louisiana or New Jersey, which more accurately reflect the race and ethnicity of the country? If we go by median household income, we’d start with Rhode Island. Maybe the first position should belong to the bellwether state of Missouri, whose electoral votes have aligned with all but three presidential contests since 1904.
But, no. Iowa, home to 1 percent of the U.S. population, goes first. It’s the law. (State law, but still.) It’s been this way for nearly 50 years. Over that time, the United States has changed. Iowa has changed. But the latter still guides the former.
What story is Iowa trying to tell us this time around, and should we believe it?
“There’s a bad funk in Iowa.”
Art Cullen loves his state. Laments it, too.
“We’re just whipsawing back and forth, and I think we’re going to whipsaw back. I think that Trump will not win Iowa . . . because people are really unhappy here.”
Extreme rainfalls are drowning crop yields. Trade wars have spooked one of Iowa’s top pork customers. (That would be China.) The Trump administration has been fooling around with ethanol policy, and Iowans see Big Oil beating Iowa corn. For generations, Iowans have been decamping to cities, or fleeing the state entirely. And 48 years of quadrennial obsession from the national media has corrupted local politics, too, according to Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times in the northwest corner of the state.
“It would be better for Iowa if we weren’t first, because we’re 35th in everything else, except literacy,” he says. “It would be good for Iowa, but it would be bad for the country. Because I do think that these are pretty pragmatic, moderate people.”
Pragmatism shaped Iowa’s early geography: Frontiersmen formed small towns spaced six to 10 miles apart, in square counties, to accommodate the needs of farmers, the stamina of horses, the pit stops of locomotives. From this blueprint grew a very localized government, including the caucuses, which began when Iowa attained statehood in 1846.
Iowa’s firstness? Pragmatism again. The state accommodates the needs of all those practical little towns with a multilevel delegate selection process: a thousand-plus precincts hold caucuses to furnish delegates to 99 county conventions, and on up the chain, to the district, state and national conventions. Back in 1972, this took forever; Iowa had to fire up the mimeograph machines in January to show up on time to the Democratic National Convention that July.
“It wasn’t that we were trying to be first — it just took us this long to get the paperwork done,” says Tom Morain, former administrator of the State Historical Society of Iowa. “Then the national press descended upon us. Jimmy Carter got a bump out of Iowa in 1976, and from then on, everyone wanted to do well in Iowa. It wasn’t ‘we ought to be first because we have superior knowledge.’ We were descended upon by you journalist people looking for a story.”
Oh, but Iowa loves the attention. How else could a state with shrinking relevance — Iowa has fewer than half the electoral votes it did in 1928 — garner so much focus and flattery?
“You only need about 40,000 Iowans to change the future of this country,” candidate Andrew Yang said in Des Moines in September, adding: “I did the math: Do you know how many Californians each Iowan is worth? One thousand.” When asked for that math, the Yang campaign said there was none, and that the candidate was just making a point. But anyway: “That is the magic of this state,” Yang continued. “This is the only place where democracy actually works.”
Tell that to Iowa’s teachers (whose wages have stagnated) or Iowa’s rural commuters (whose bridges are structurally deficient) or Iowa’s growing Latino population (whose demographic has zero representation in the state legislature). There’s mythical Iowa, picturesque cradle of electoral politics, and then there is real Iowa. Over the past 50 years, farms have evaporated, town squares have emptied, even fencing has disappeared as livestock has been separated from the land.
“A factory leaves, a church closes, school districts consolidate,” says Rachel Paine Caufield, professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. “And when you start losing gathering areas, people feel disconnected from each other, and therefore disconnected from institutions of government.”
Except on Monday, when democratic magic will appear for real in gathering areas across the state — in school gyms, town halls, churches. Iowans will physically divide themselves by preferred candidate. If their candidate fails to attain 15 percent support in the room, they can realign with another candidate. That means talking to each other about what is needed, what should be worried about, which of these outsiders can be trusted. Here, voting is not a solitary task performed in a curtained booth. It is an enterprise of togetherness, a bridge between the phantom idea of democracy and an actual roomful of people, way outside of Washington, trying to plot a way forward for everyone.
“There are very few venues left in American life where people come together and collectively make decisions,” Caufield says. “I think the rest of the country thinks of it as a quaint mythology of Iowa, but it’s real.”
Iowa, like America, is a land of myths. It is the bridges of Madison County. It is the reason Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama became president. It is where Donna Reed and John Wayne were born, where a future Starfleet captain named James T. Kirk will be raised, in the year 2228, six weeks after the Iowa caucuses (if we still have them in the 23rd century). Iowa is where you can play catch at twilight with the ghost of your father on a baseball diamond you built, inadvisably, because a voice in your head told you to.
“Is this heaven?” John Kinsella asks his son in “Field of Dreams,” a modern American fairy tale filmed outside of Dubuque. “It’s Iowa,” shrugs Kevin Costner, who returned to the state last month to sprinkle some stardust on Pete Buttigieg.
But what if the voice in your head is wrong? A couple of weeks ago, John Delaney was at a family restaurant in Muscatine, on the eastern edge of Iowa, because John Delaney was still running for president. He has been traipsing around the state longer than any other candidate, because he believes in Iowa’s magic: connecting with people here means plugging into the national oversoul.
Except it hadn’t been working.
“Your philosophy, your approach to the campaign — you’ve convinced me, and yet I don’t see the results in the polls,” said Davenport resident Charles Van Fossen, who’d driven down along the gray, slushy Mississippi River to eat with eight other Iowans and a bottom-tier presidential candidate.
“I don’t want to be in the corner alone” at the caucus, Van Fossen said. “I’m not afraid to do it, but I don’t want to be alone.”
Delaney, a moderate former congressman from Maryland, had just delivered a bracing diagnosis of America as his guests ate burgers and rice pudding. In the past decade, 80 percent of venture capital investment went to just 50 counties, Delaney told them, and outside franchises have supplanted local businesses and suffocated reinvestment in small towns, which are the blood vessels of Iowa, of America.
These Iowans in Muscatine were relieved to hear someone recognize this. But why hadn’t John Delaney caught on here? His wife, April, suggested that a “social-media primary” has weakened Iowa’s power. And Iowans are ticked off by the Democratic National Committee’s debate criteria, which they think have stolen their job of sorting viable candidates from wayward dreamers.
“This race became nationalized very early,” Delaney, who has since dropped out of the race, told the diners. “And I think that was unfortunate. Because I think what you all do, here in Iowa, is you figure out people. You figure out what’s in their head but also what’s in their heart.”
Iowa loves to feel, to talk, to listen, to prod. Iowa wants to see the barbecue sauce on a candidate’s rolled-up sleeves, the run in her stockings. Iowa wants to judge a candidate’s handshake, glimpse her treatment of staff, nab him in moments of fakery. Iowans shift their schedules to encounter candidates in fleshy 3-D, away from the terse theatrics of billboards and cable-news hits. They drive hundreds of miles on bad roads to knock on strange doors. They cram into mansions in West Des Moines to talk climate with billionaire Tom Steyer, or basements in Denison to potluck and divvy up precinct activity for Joe Biden. They welcome frozen canvassers for Amy Klobuchar into their warm foyers even though they’ve already committed to Elizabeth Warren. They show up to town halls on dark nights, as the sky spews sleet, so they can ask Buttigieg about the price of insulin, because they have friends or patients who can’t afford it. They let Delaney buy them dinner so they can ask about issues beyond their white, rural world: the crisis at the border, the mass incarceration of black men. They volunteer for positions of leadership, even if they’ve never thought of themselves as leaders.
“It feels really good,” says Anthony Miller, 22, who, despite crippling anxiety, has found himself a precinct captain for Buttigieg. “Especially being a volunteer — I have a place. And I haven’t felt that anywhere else.”
The Iowa that exists once every four years is made up — by politicians, by Iowans, by the journalists who stare at politicians and Iowans. But that feeling of belonging, of connectedness, of duty in laying the first brick in a path forward? It’s real. It doesn’t travel well, and you feel dopey trying to explain it after you leave, but it’s real.
The feeling of dread is also real. Outside Harlan, in western Iowa, the Rosmann family has been farming since the 1870s, without pesticides since 1983, organically since ’94. They’re worried about the path being broken, about connections being severed — how reckless consumerism is changing the climate, how money is corrupting politics, how Big Ag is breaking the food system and flushing poison downriver to the Gulf of Mexico.
“When we still had vibrant communities, when you had a diversity of agriculture, when land was held by as many people as possible — America and Iowa were at their best,” said Ron Rosmann at his son’s farm-to-table restaurant in Harlan two weeks ago. “That model can serve a lot of states.”
“We feel like we’re on our own little island out here, doing what we’re doing,” said David Rosmann, 38, referring to the family’s conservation practices. “I think if people in New York knew what was happening to land in our state, then I think they definitely would say we need Iowa. We need Iowa to change.”
Iowa is not one story or one feeling. Yes, you can drive through it and see, off an interstate, two giant signs that read “JESUS” and “TULSI.” Yes, you can meet Iowans who think Iran attacked us on 9/11 and therefore Solemani had it coming. Yes, it’s very white: more than 90 percent.
Also true: Iowa integrated schools 90 years before Brown v. Board of Education, and Edna Griffin led sit-ins in downtown Des Moines seven years before Rosa Parks refused to budge on an Alabama bus. Yes, Iowa is still a farming powerhouse — and the largest U.S. exporter of pork, corn and grain products — but barely 5 percent of Iowans are farmers. Yes, it’s in decline in some places: A majority of its counties have fewer people than 100 years ago. But its cities have flowered anew.
“We spend a lot of time, every four years, thinking of who we are, because of the whole national spotlight,” says Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, a professor at Iowa State University who researches U.S. agricultural history. “But I think people have no idea what Iowa looks like.”
It can look like anywhere. Teleport yourself to a farm and you might think you’re in Indiana, to downtown Des Moines and you might think it’s Cincinnati, to the suburbs of Dubuque in the autumn and you might swear you’re leaf-peeping in western Massachusetts. Iowa’s cities — Davenport, Sioux City, Waterloo — don’t overwhelm the state in the way that Chicago does to Illinois. On a clear day in the countryside, Iowa’s blue sky can feel Montanan in its bigness, but you can reach most anywhere in the state in two or three hours.
“Do you know Tolkien?” asked Rick Morain, a fourth-generation resident of Greene County, at a coffee shop in Jefferson (population 4,300). “When I was out East, going to school, I always thought of Iowa as the shire — kind of a bucolic area where people are more interested in the people around them than they are in the big world. I don’t think that so much anymore.”
“Rick’s modest,” said Jed Magee, a retired judge. “He’s a PhD from Yale.”
Across the town square from their regular meetup, a software start-up has taken over a facade built 174 years ago by a fraternal order. Iowa is disappearing in some ways, and reappearing in others. Iowa may feel provincial, but it knows the world.
“How many farmers 50 years ago would think about China?” Magee asked rhetorically.
“Now they’ve all been to China,” said retired columnist Chuck Offenburger.
Darcy Maulsby, who lives in the former railroad hub of Lake City, grew up during the farm crisis of the ’80s and listened to the disembodied voice that many young Iowans hear: If you have the brains, leave. She did, for a while. She traveled the world. She lived in Des Moines. In 2006, she came back to Lake City, where four generations of her family are buried. There’s one local grocery store left in her county. The Italianate-Gothic school building, long closed to students but preserved for history, is now a meeting place for Narcotics Anonymous. Outside of town, groves of oak and cottonwood mark where farmsteads used to be.
Maulsby, a writer and farmer, drives past it all in her SUV. Iowa has changed, she says, but Iowans haven’t. Elsewhere politicians have stripped “grass roots” of any meaning, but here in Lake City you can feel them, and see why Iowans trust them.
“We understand that grass roots are so powerful: the voices of the common people starting at the lowest levels, going to the highest levels, rather than from the top down,” she says. “That’s the magic of America.”
Magic, mythology, grass roots, democracy — they can sound like weak slogans for a sad-sack superpower. Except over lunch with Emilia Marroquín in Storm Lake.
Iowa is where Marroquín arrived 20 years ago. She’d grown up in San Marcos, El Salvador, hiding from helicopters and soldiers waging civil war. She was pregnant at 17, and tossed out of school and home. At 20, she immigrated to Los Angeles, met a man on the bus to work who had also fled El Salvador, to escape the clutches of junta forces and the guerrilla resistance. They became a couple. They married. Had children. After a shooting in front of their house, they wanted to relocate somewhere safer. A friend’s mother, living in Iowa, had always rhapsodized about life there. There were jobs. There was quiet. And a beef processor was paying to relocate new employees to Storm Lake.
Marroquín arrived there in 2000, with her husband and children, and little command of English. There was one Mexican restaurant in town, and only the cook spoke Spanish.
Marroquín signed up for ESL classes. She became a substitute teacher for Head Start, where her daughter was enrolled. It took her two years of part-time study at night, she says, but she finished her GED. Then she got a bachelor’s degree in human services from Buena Vista University. Last year, she was reelected to the city’s school board. Storm Lake is now 38 percent Latino, and Marroquín is demystifying the caucus process for other immigrants who thought they had to vote only once, in November.
“In California, maybe nobody would know that I exist,” Marroquín said. “Here, at least, we have our own world. There is a lot of people who are leaders in this community, and they are making a difference.”
She has found herself, at the age of 48, written into the myth. Two years ago her son Matthew, now 20, delivered a speech at a state oratory festival. He told a story about a boy and girl who escaped violence, found each other, worked hard and ended up in Iowa — a state that can make you a president, or just make you a life.
“Thank you, Mom and Dad,” Matthew Marroquín said at the end of his speech, a tribute to his parents and, in its final line, to Iowa: “This is our Happily Ever After.”