“We just need change,” Artman said of why he had decided to back Buttigieg. He ticked off a litany of attributes he had been looking for in a candidate: “truthfulness, energy, the ability to think quickly on their feet … a vision for the future.” He thought Buttigieg best embodied those things.
But when it came to openly advocating for his chosen candidate among people he knows, Artman was more the silent type.
A lifelong Democrat, he was shocked when Donald Trump won here four years ago — flipping Wapello County, a working-class area in rural southeastern Iowa that had voted Democrat since 1976. Ottumwa, the county seat, had been hit hard by job loss, and many people, including some of Artman’s closest friends, thought Trump would be the person who could save their town and others like it and voted for him.
After a series of tense conversations and “arguments that just went nowhere” in the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, Artman decided it might be best to keep his political views to himself. For the better part of the past four years, he has, even against the backdrop of a Democratic race in Iowa that is more unpredictable than any in recent memory.
Though Buttigieg’s ground game is relationship-based, built around the hope that supporters will advocate on the former mayor’s behalf to their own family, friends and colleagues, Artman admitted he found it awkward to talk to people about who they were caucusing for, especially in a town where politics had become a minefield.
He was not just avoiding the topic with friends or acquaintances. He did not even know who his wife of 47 years was planning to caucus for. “I have no idea,” Artman said. “No clue. We don’t discuss it. She won’t tell me. And I don’t ask.”
As unusual as it may sound in a state where many Iowans are open, almost to a fault, about their decision-making process about who to caucus for, Artman is not an anomaly.
In a town that has drawn heavy attention from the candidates, including multiple visits from Buttigieg, former vice president Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), operatives from several campaigns said organizing in the Ottumwa area had been especially hard this election season because of voter reluctance to talk about politics.
While most Iowa towns, even the smallest ones, are dotted with campaign signs on streets and in front of homes, they are hard to find in Ottumwa — even as several campaigns, including Warren’s, have been organizing in the area for months. Local Democrats say they are expecting close to record turnout on Feb. 3, but whom those people are going for is more of a mystery than usual because people just do not want to talk about it.
“It’s just been difficult to get people to come out of the closet, not just as Democrats but for a candidate,” said one 2020 operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak about strategy. “Ottumwa has just been a hard place to organize, maybe the hardest in Iowa.”
But the campaigns are trying. The four candidates at the top of the polls have field offices in the city and have been fanned out across the county, even in rural areas where grain bins have been painted with “TRUMP” in support of the president.
Warren organizers are working out of an old hair salon just outside downtown Ottumwa called “Total Perfection,” a logo that remains on the front window and is now framed by the senator’s liberty green campaign signs.
The Sanders and Buttigieg offices are blocks apart in the city’s urban center, nestled in a sea of empty storefronts and streets ripped up by construction, as local officials try to redevelop the area. Biden’s team, which arrived later than the other campaigns, is working out of space on the other side of town.
While the race here remains unpredictable, there are some hints of how voters are shaking out — and of how fluid the campaign remains.
Four years ago, Sanders performed well with working-class voters on the south side of the county, including union workers affiliated with the local John Deere plant, which has been hit hard by downsizing in recent years. When Hillary Clinton won the nomination, many of those workers backed Trump, helping him flip the county. But ahead of Monday’s caucus, some of those workers are said to be considering Sanders again — along with a mix of blue-collar workers who have not always turned out to caucus but who appear to be making up the Vermont senator’s coalition of support here.
“Sanders is running a different kind of campaign here than four years ago,” said Zach Simonson, the local Democratic chair for Wapello County. “His strength has always been with younger people, but he’s broadened it compared to 2016. … I’ve been surprised to hear people I definitely hadn’t thought were interested in Bernie Sanders saying they think he’s running a more positive campaign and like what he’s saying.”
On the north side of the county, home to some of the area’s wealthier and more educated voters, people were divided among Biden, Buttigieg and Warren. Simonson sensed Biden was getting another look from voters who had been aligned with Buttigieg amid questions about the former mayor’s lack of experience, including in foreign policy. And while local enthusiasm about Warren had dampened compared with last summer, she was still the best organized in the county.
“It still feels like anything could happen,” Simonson said.
Back at the Buttigieg rally, Artman admitted he was a little curious about who his wife would ultimately support. She knew he liked Buttigieg and had been volunteering for him, though he had not really gotten around to telling her he was actually planning to caucus for him.
“I guess she’ll know now,” he said of confessing to a reporter.
But he would not dare try to influence her caucus choice. Voting was a personal thing. It was none of his business. “I don’t try to persuade her on anything and vice versa,” he said, adding it was the secret to a long marriage in a state full of political junkies for which caucus season could be especially fraught. “She’s got a mind of her own. I’ll find out on caucus night what she does.”