OTTUMWA, Iowa — Caucus day was this city’s first day without its Target store, which closed forever this weekend. The Kmart has begun its going-out-of-business sale. Downtown, whole blocks are former this and former that.
Ottumwa, a 90-minute drive southeast of Des Moines, is a place where the people faring decently well are mainly up there in years. Younger Ottumwans tend to see this city of 25,000 people as a place to leave. Meatpacking and a John Deere farm-machinery plant once created expectations of 40-year jobs and lifelong pensions. Those expectations have been vaporized.
Frustration over the collapse of that compact, that foundation of the American middle class, rang out at the caucuses here Monday night, among the Republicans gathered in the auditorium at Ottumwa High School and among the Democrats at elementary schools and apartment buildings around town. There was a lot of talk about betrayal by both parties, about how the country’s past couple of choices for president haven’t managed to break the paralysis in Washington or restore the optimism that people here used to feel. In Ottumwa, people seemed eager to send a message: Something has to change.
At the Republican caucus, Gary Pregon wasn’t angry, like they say voters are on TV. He was no extremist, “like the people back east think we are,” he said. He was just sad, he said, as you are when you’ve lost something you loved.
Pregon, 74, put in a career at the waterworks; his wife, Karen, did time-efficiency studies at the Deere plant. They decided long ago that they’d retire at 57, and they did. They’d saved up. Things happened the way they were supposed to.
“We had one job that lasted a lifetime,” he said. “Can’t do that now. We’re blessed to be able to buy a new furnace. The generation behind us, they can’t even stay here. They have to leave town to get a good job.”
That sense that progress takes away at least as much as it provides led Pregon to Ted Cruz, who, like several of the candidates, poses this election in apocalyptic terms, as a choice about a society on the precipice.
Pregon doesn’t see such a dire situation. Nor does he see a John Kennedy or a Ronald Reagan — his favorite presidents — in the bunch. The candidate he liked the most, Mike Huckabee, “the one with the most Christian values,” Pregon couldn’t bring himself to vote for because “the man has no chance.” Seemed like a waste of a vote.
In Ottumwa, some people voted for candidates they thought might actually make poor presidents; they cast ballots for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders because they said the system needs a good, hard kick. Some voted for candidates they thought probably couldn’t be elected in the fall; they turned to Huckabee or Ben Carson because their church teaches one set of rules and their country is rapidly adopting another, and they believe their faith must govern. And some voted for the person they figure has the best chance to win while representing at least a decent portion of their worldview; they might not like Hillary Clinton or Marco Rubio, but the voters said at least those candidates might get something done.
Ottumwa’s Republicans had never seen anything like this. The turnout of 1,671 doubled the previous record of 850, set four years ago, said the county GOP’s chairwoman, Trudy Caviness. Precinct captains collecting votes in classrooms along the high school’s hallways ran out of ballots and hurriedly cut up pieces of paper to serve as makeshift ballots.
The final tally: Trump won with 35 percent, followed by Cruz with 30 percent and Rubio with 14 percent. No one else came close to them.
“This is the Trump phenomenon — and Cruz, too,” Caviness said.
A show of hands in the standing-room-only auditorium revealed that more than 4 in 10 attendees were caucusing for the first time. As entrance polls indicated, first-time caucus-goers were motivated to come out not only for Trump but also for Cruz, especially among religious conservatives.
Democrats in Ottumwa, by contrast, saw a small decline in turnout compared with their 2008 record, said Melinda Jones, the county party’s chairwoman.
Ottumwa sits in Wapello County, where more people are registered No Party than Democratic or Republican. It’s 94 percent white, a place where the average income is $23,000, well below the state average. Rick Santorum won here four years ago, and Mike Huckabee and John Edwards in 2008. The eventual nominees of both parties haven’t done better than third place here in more than a decade. But the independence Ottumwa voters have shown is in vogue this year.
“People here don’t necessarily believe Trump or Sanders is the best candidate to actually be president, but they are the best antidote to the main problem, which is the political parties,” said Ottumwa’s state senator, Mark Chelgren, who calls himself a nominal Republican.
Downtown, at the Second Street Cafe, Junior and Carolyn Minders debated their options down to the final hours. He liked Trump; she preferred Rubio.
“I don’t like Trump making fun of retarded people and picking on people, calling them stupid — that just does not sit well,” she said.
“Sometimes I think he’ll straighten things out,” Junior said. “Sure, he comes on strong. Too strong sometimes. But people are just sick and tired of what’s going on.”
Husband and wife for more than half a century, they battle these things through and sometimes even agree. This time, they agree on one thing: “We’re looking for the person most different from what we have now,” Junior said.
He’s put in 45 years at the Deere factory, still working. She retired from the same plant. They have five kids in their 40s, and they’re fine — it’s the grandchildren they worry about.
“They say it’s all computer jobs now, but the robots will take the computer jobs just like they took the manufacturing jobs,” Junior said. Deere once employed more than 2,300 people here; now, maybe 600. No wonder shops are closing. No wonder so many people’s kids move away for college and never come back.
The same concerns drove Peggy Beeler, born and raised here, to caucus for Clinton. Beeler, 59, remembers not long ago when Ottumwa was a regional shopping hub.
“I feel like my community is folding in,” Beeler said. “What in the world would happen if we lost John Deere or the meatpacking plant?”
The meatpacking and farm-machinery plants have strong unions and hire from the city’s growing Hispanic immigrant population; Beeler thinks Clinton would be sympathetic to unions and immigrants and make it easier for big employers to stay put.
Before heading to the caucus, Tyrel Davidson worked the corridors of the Quincy Place Mall, submitting a job application at the GNC health store, checking on his prospects at J.C. Penney. Davidson, 18, said his prospects were not great. With Target and Kmart going, the competition is stiffer, even for a young man willing to do heavy lifting.
“I would really just love to have a steady job where I can work and have a home to go home to,” Davidson said. “I’m not all that picky.” He shares a two-bedroom apartment with his mother and two unemployed friends. It’s a squeeze.
Davidson went back and forth between Trump and Sanders — Iowans can switch parties right up to the start of the caucus — before landing on Sanders. Davidson grew up homeless; he thinks Sanders would pay more attention to those in need.
“Trump is an all-out businessman; you know he can handle money,” Davidson said. “But it’s about helping out the little guys before those with abundance.”
Laura Bright’s decision came down to her worries about her two young children and whether they can ever feel safe again. “We are in small-town Iowa, but that doesn’t protect us from threats from ISIS,” said Bright, a 41-year-old social worker, using another name for the Islamic State. Her father, she said, was a Reagan Democrat — “socially conservative but concerned about working people” — but she can’t stomach the Democrats’ approach to the terrorism threat or their willingness to change the rules on marriage.
“I love everybody, but traditional marriage is so important to how we live,” said Bright, whose husband, Aaron, 44, has worked for UPS for half his life. “I can’t imagine my children growing up in a world where marriage doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean.”
The Brights put their evangelical church at the center of their lives. Yet when it comes to politics, they part ways with some in their congregation. “Our community’s getting more diverse, and that’s good,” said Bright, who is white. Her husband is black. “So I don’t like it when the candidates attack people because they are immigrants.”
That crossed Trump off her list. She had considered Cruz, but then she learned — from a TV ad sponsored by a group supporting Huckabee — that he gives little of his income to charity. “Ted Cruz doesn’t tithe,” Bright said. “That’s a really scary thought.” So she ended up with Rubio, who she said “is more compassionate about immigration, and he’s a real man of faith.”
At Ottumwa Baptist Temple on Sunday, pastor Travis Decker preached about King Solomon, who grew up rich and had unlimited possessions, yet arrived at old age sorely lacking happiness. The preacher never mentioned Trump, but his flock heard him clearly.
When Decker, a county chairman for the Cruz campaign, saw the results of last week’s mock caucus at the high school — students voted overwhelmingly for Sanders and Trump, with Clinton, Rubio and Cruz getting only tiny handfuls of votes — he concluded that kids just want to be taken care of. “Sanders and Trump believe it’s government’s job to take care of people,” the pastor said.
On Sunday, Decker preached messages of personal responsibility. Only borrow what you can pay back easily, he told seniors. Never have sex before or outside of marriage, he told young people.
On Monday, the people of Ottumwa met in caucuses to send a different message. They differ on philosophy and policy, but they want the government to break its paralyzing fever and do something about a country they believe is stumbling down a rocky path.