When Iowa voters assemble in caucuses Monday evening to begin selecting presidential nominees, they will lead off a tightly packed parade of opportunities for Americans to state their verdict, including potentially bitter Democratic primaries culminating with the ultimate decision day on Nov. 3.
This vote feels momentous, said Chris Buskirk, publisher of American Greatness, a conservative website, because Trump supporters “hope that his reelection would finally legitimize him as president” and because the president’s opponents see one last opportunity to get rid of the man they blame for exacerbating the country’s divisions.
“But actually, I’m not optimistic that this election will solve anything,” Buskirk said. “The divisions and stresses in the country may be worse than they were three years ago. It’s almost a World War I mind-set now — it’s trench warfare, and you fight and scramble, and you get nowhere.”
In Iowa, for almost half a century the place where Americans begin the selection of presidents, the vote follows more than a year of intense campaigning. Ben Mowat, a 19-year-old from Colorado, chose to attend Drake University in Des Moines because he wanted to participate in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
“It feels weird,” the freshman said. “2020 was this idea, and now it’s here.”
Mowat, a volunteer for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., said he has been driven by the prospect of ejecting Trump from the White House, but his excitement is tempered by a sense of responsibility and even, sometimes, the dread of a possible loss.
“I feel guilty when I’m not knocking doors,” he said.
Katie Cameron and Susan Tille, sisters who drove more than two hours from Livermore, Iowa, to attend Trump’s rally in Des Moines on Thursday night, can’t wait to vote to assure a second term for a president they say has given the economy a healthy boost.
“He’s made a lot of positive changes,” said Tille, citing the growth in her 401(k) retirement account. “He’s done a lot of good for the economy.”
The sisters, who own a swimming pool store, want to send a message to Trump’s opponents, telling them to stop fighting his every move. Cameron, whose 2016 vote for Trump was her first after a lifetime of steering clear of politics, said she has become more politically engaged in the past three years and considers herself a member of his base. She’s no fan of some of Trump’s tweets, but she said Americans have gotten used to “how he communicates.”
By now, Frank Luntz figured that emotionally exhausted Americans would be hungry for unity, eager to embrace moderate messages and candidates who promised to find and claim common ground.
But Luntz, a longtime Republican consultant who conducts focus groups for news organizations, has been taking the temperatures of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states, and he has found that “people are desperate to vote, but the center has collapsed.”
“They want the pitchfork message, not the unity message — on both sides,” he said.
“I wish I was wrong, but that fear of losing the country is deep and very emotional, on both sides,” Luntz added. “The Trump side believes the left is trying to overturn democracy, and they will fight like hell to prevent it. And the Democrats have a disdain for Donald Trump that I’ve never seen. This isn’t as bad as 1968, but it’s pretty damn bad.”
In the ’68 election, amid the Vietnam War, riots in American cities, political assassinations and a widespread sense that the country was spinning out of control, Richard Nixon won the presidency with chilling TV ads reflecting the fear of crime on dark city streets and a slogan that spoke to existential angst in the electorate: “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.”
A similar root anxiety about the future of the country and the planet pervades many voters’ attitudes now.
Psychologists hear it from clients whether they are pro- or anti-Trump. “It is a collective anxiety, and it is bipartisan,” said Washington therapist Elisabeth LaMotte. “This is not a trusting time.”
On the anti-Trump side, LaMotte sees people for whom politics is a significant driver of stress, “but it’s more complicated than that.”
“I hear much more concern about the environment and the future of the planet than I did two years ago,” she said.
In the pro-Trump camp, she said: “I hear people say they can’t talk to certain people anymore. They’re feeling isolated and frustrated, like there isn’t permission to say what you think and feel, even to close friends.”
Many people have found it necessary to step away from the political fray: They limit their news diet, avoid talking to certain friends and get involved in community activities. Others have become more politically active.
“I tell people with political anxiety to do something productive or proactive, like volunteering for a campaign,” said Jennifer Contarino Panning, a clinical psychologist in Evanston, Ill. “Voting is a crucial part of that; in 2018, I saw people find some relief in voting. It gave a sense of hope, and people are desperate for that.”
At a Buttigieg campaign event in Ankeny, Iowa, flight attendant Tamara Galeazzi, 52, could hardly wait for Monday’s caucuses.
“It’s almost like, ‘Thank God it’s almost over,’ ” she said. “Being in Iowa, we hear it from Day One until the caucus. When the commercials start slowing down the day after, it’s like, ‘Thank goodness, normalcy.’ I’m nervous. Very nervous. This cannot go on for another four years. Just pick someone on our side, and stick with it. It’s very nerve-racking.”
But for many people, the vote is neither a sufficient salve to the stress of the Trump era nor a big enough cudgel to break through to people on the other side of the divide.
“I work primarily with progressives, and they looked to the Mueller report and the impeachment trial for some relief, and then nothing changed,” Panning said. “They felt hopeless and fatigued. Now they’re really hesitant to believe in anything.”
LaMotte said her patients in Virginia, Maryland and the District have edged away from politics over the past few years, choosing instead to engage in their local communities, finding relief from the stress of national news in getting involved with a Girl Scouts group or volunteering at a neighborhood school. She sees hope in a growing resilience, even if it’s not necessarily associated with voting.
Luntz has heard little such hope. The voters he has been surveying “have weaponized grievances and are seeking revenge against the other side,” he said. “Whatever the result of the election, half the country will believe America has been saved, and half will say it’s been destroyed. These two Americas do not eat together, do not play together. They say it’s too late for unity. They have simply lost trust.”
Some voters who crave a unifying message fear that their fellow Americans are too frustrated or exhausted to bring about change. Austin Bayliss, 32, sees worrying signs that antipathy to Trump may not be enough to carry Democrats to victory. That recipe failed four years ago, he said, “and sometimes I feel like I’m right back there.
“What are the Democrats going to do to close the enthusiasm gap?” said Bayliss, who runs a professional wrestling company near Iowa City. “You’d think the chance to hit back at Trump would be enough, but I went to Joe Biden’s event yesterday in Muscatine, and there were 60 people there and 45 media. I was the youngest person there.”
The enthusiasm gap Bayliss worried about was palpable at Trump’s rally Thursday. Martha Ahrens, a retired court system worker who traveled to the event from Boone, Iowa, said the Democrats’ persistent attacks on Trump have bolstered her support of the president, who she said can be “arrogant” but has done well with the economy.
Like a number of others at the Trump rally, she said she’s more excited to vote this year than she was in 2016. “Everybody is so tired of everything. They’re tired of the Democrats constantly since he was elected going after him,” she said. “It’s just one thing after another, you know, instead of focusing on what they’re going to do as president.”
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat who represents suburbs outside Richmond, unseated a conservative Republican in 2018 and spends many weekends meeting with constituents, making a particular effort to sit down with pro-Trump voters. She sees a divide so deep that one election cannot heal it.
“We used to debate ideas,” she said. “Now it’s just, ‘You think this, therefore you’re bad,’ a zero-sum game, us versus them. We’ve been moving to this place where our entertainment is disagreement.”
Nonetheless, the congresswoman says many voters this year “want a restoration of, just, decency, just respecting people.” To get there, however, will take many one-on-one encounters, not just a political platform and a bunch of ads.
“I walked into a place, and a woman started wagging her finger at me, saying, ‘I love Donald Trump,’ ” Spanberger recalled. “I said, ‘Ma’am, a lot of people do.’ She saw me and expected a fight. I don’t know that she wanted a fight, and that’s an important distinction. But I changed the tone and acknowledged what she said, and she softened, and we had a really good conversation.”
The yearning for a return to a less combative politics is palpable among many Iowans who plan to attend the Democratic caucuses. Mary Amborn, 78, from Ottumwa contemplated traveling to Des Moines on Thursday to protest at the Trump rally there, but she decided instead to stay closer to home and hear Biden speak at the American Legion Hall.
Amborn, who is leaning toward voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) but was still considering Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), said she’s doing well but feels compelled to vote against Trump on behalf of her 26 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including three who served in the military and one who is a homeless veteran “who can teach college calculus, but he can’t keep a home.”
“I am very, very happy,” she said. “I have a great retirement. I have wonderful medical. I worked the factory for years and years at John Deere. Now, the folks who have my job, when they retire, they will not have medical. And so I am worried about those that follow me. If I get it wrong, my 26 grandkids — they will suffer.” She wiped away tears. “I can hardly talk about it. I’m voting for them.”
After a 2016 election in which the long-standing leadership in both parties seemed out of sync with voters’ frustrations and concerns, Luntz sees a similar disconnect developing this time: “The Trump campaign seems overconfident,” he said. “Trump energizes people at his rallies but not beyond that hardcore group. They don’t understand the fatigue that some Trump voters feel. People are tired of having to defend Trump’s language.”
Luntz doesn’t see Democratic candidates clicking with voters either. “The Democratic message is so over-caffeinated against Trump that it’s overwhelming people who are already suffering from insomnia,” he said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
Toluse Olorunnipa and Isaac Stanley-Becker in Des Moines, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Ottumwa, Iowa, and Chelsea Janes in Ankeny, Iowa, contributed to this report.