by Cade Olmstead
The Iowa caucuses are a landmark occasion of the American election cycle. Many hear about it across the country but few get the opportunity to experience it. As an Iowan, I know all too well about the hype of the Iowa Caucus, and this year, with my turning 18, I was able to engage more fully in the electoral process through volunteering my time with the Bernie Sanders campaign and caucusing at my local precinct. Additionally, this experience has given me inspiration in continuing democratic socialist movement in the United States beyond the Sanders campaign.
I have been following Bernie Sanders since the summer of 2013. I always knew him to be a beacon of progressive and social democratic values, and I had the chance to hear him speak in Iowa for the first time after he began exploring a run for the presidency in November of 2014. Even that early on, there was an energy in the room. Voters in this room still felt that real change had not come about and the establishment was failing them. Little did we all know what that energy would manifest into in the months to come. When Bernie announced his run in May, the ground forces began to develop. It was in August of 2015 that I became a volunteer for the campaign. A field director had just moved into the nearby town and was trying to make some contacts, and I happen to be one of the people he reached out to. My first introduction into American political campaigning began.
Over the course of the next few months, I aided the Bernie staff in phonebanking and canvassing the area. It is an experience that will forever be with me. Not only did I make many friends through the campaign, but I could see the effects of my efforts firsthand whether it was on the phone or trying to convince a voter on a street corner. As a volunteer, you are a vital component of the campaign. For instance, when a voter says “Who’s Bernie Sanders?”, it is up to you to provide that first introduction, that first impression. That first impression can make all the difference in who the voter decides to pledge their support for in February. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the campaign, and it is quite amazing what you can accomplish as one. As a volunteer, I had some unforgettable moments. I was once a part of a small group of high school students who had the opportunity to meet Bernie before a speaking event. In this small meeting, I recall Bernie asking “Who wins when the American people do not get out and vote?”. He turned his view directly to me, and I confidently responded “The billionaire class.” And he replied with the strong affirmation “That’s right.” It was a star-struck moment for a politically engrossed teen. My other most notable moment of the Caucus was having Bernie and Jane Sanders sign my copy of Michael Harrington’s Socialism: Past and Future. It was during a volunteer meeting, and while Bernie was trying to make his way to everyone in the room, Jane’s face lit up at the mention of Harrington’s name.
Now while the Iowa caucus is itself a single event, it is more appropriately viewed as a period of time. A period of time, whether the rest of country views it positively or negatively, where candidates come to our great state to make their case. As a result, I was able to listen to speeches by many candidates on more than one occasion. These candidates included Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, and Rand Paul. There were a constant stream of events even within a few miles of my home. As a local observer, an Iowan, you can see how the energy and message of a campaign changes over time. For instance, every time that I have heard Bernie speak, and I believe it is around 10 times, he seemed more confident, powerful. There was a greater sense of urgency in his message. It is my wish that this be something everyone across the country could experience. As a frequent local attendee of caucus events, there is an analysis that is just not present anywhere else.
The atmosphere of my local precinct’s caucus was tame, but there was a palpable excitement in the air. Of the turnout of around 140, there was a great mix of young, old, male, and female. The initial preference group selection placed Bernie, Hillary, O’Malley, and Undecided in greatest to least number of people. Each of the preference groups produced a speaker to put forward their case in a minute. Our speaker recalled upon experiences of his childhood and blended those into the aspirations of the future for his own family now. Sanders as a result was able to gain all the O’Malley and Undecided voters except for one. While both Sanders and Clinton ended up receiving the same number of delegates (and no, we didn’t have any coin tosses here!), it certainly was a success for the campaign. I have no doubt that it was the number of youth who were key in the success of not only my precinct but the state as a whole. I was lucky to also be selected as a delegate to the county conventions where I will once again pledge my support for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Not only was I helping to elect a candidate, but I was and am a part of a greater movement. The Iowa caucuses afforded me with an experience unlike any other, one which forever will have an impact on my future. As a result of it all, I have made many new contacts throughout the state and learned about successful organizing. I am now looking to continue the movement and establish a YDS chapter on my campus this Fall in addition to growing the overall presence of DSA in the state of Iowa. We cannot let the energy of the movement slip away. DSA and other organizations have to take a stand and make their presence known. Whether that means volunteering on the Sanders campaign, starting a chapter, or even simply a social media presence. The Iowa Caucuses allowed me to do this, and now I urge others to join in. Your efforts will be worth it, and the experience will be worthwhile.
Cade Olmstead is a YDS member from Iowa
and incoming Public Administration major at the University of Northern Iowa.