For one sophomore in the Colleges of Science and Liberal Arts, the matter was not up for debate — if Andie Slomka was in the same room as former Vice President Joe Biden at an Iowa campaign event, she would not be leaving until she took a picture with him.
But the picture soon became a footnote in her encounter with Biden. The candidate, after being directed through the crowd of reporters and fans who all wanted to experience a face-to-face encounter with him, met Slomka and offered an idea.
“Do you have your grandmother’s number?” Biden asked. “Call her, I’ll say hi to her.”
Slomka’s grandmother had been smitten with Biden since the presidential candidate’s days as a Delaware senator. There could be no greater gift, Slomka said, than a picture of her granddaughter with Biden, who is vying to challenge President Donald Trump head-to-head in this year’s election.
Slomka, dumbfounded, dialed her grandmother’s number and explained there was someone who wanted to talk to her, then handed the phone to Biden.
“Grandma, this is Joe Biden, how are you?” he can be heard saying in a C-SPAN video of the interaction. “You have a wonderful granddaughter.”
Slomka said she later followed up with her grandmother, who initially felt she’d been the victim of a prank, and confirmed the surreal exchange had actually happened.
“She was pretty much crying on the other end of the line because she was so happy,” Slomka said. “I never expected in a million years that would happen. (Biden) has a very strong character and a huge heart, the fact that he would do that for somebody ... it’s just incredible.”
It’s not uncommon to encounter a presidential candidate in Iowa, the state where constituents have the earliest opportunity in the nation to vote.
Slomka was one of five Purdue students who traveled to experience the Iowa caucuses while gaining technical training as an intern for the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship and Engagement. The group returned on Tuesday, capping a six-day trip filled with “cable pulling” to ensure smooth operations for camera crews, assisting in visual production at campaign events and serving as hosts to the Washington Journal, C-SPAN’s cable news show.
Professor Connie Doebele, managing director of C-SPAN’s center within the Brian Lamb School of Communication, planned and led the trip. She teaches a course with Lamb, the school’s namesake, that examines methods of presidential communication in an election year and said it motivated her to travel to Iowa with students to witness firsthand the energy and organization of presidential campaigns.
“Most of the students have only experienced Iowa caucuses on television, if that,” Doebele said.
Iowa has historically garnered outside attention from presidential hopefuls due to its first-in-the-nation voting status and its unique system of caucusing. Instead of casting private primary ballots like the majority of states do, Iowa voters show up to one of more than 1,700 gymnasiums, auditoriums or community centers across the state and sort themselves into camps based on their choice of candidate.
Alyson Dehaai, a freshman in Exploratory Studies, and Kyle Foley, a sophomore in the College of Liberal Arts, covered a 330-person caucus held at Valley High School in West Des Moines on Monday night.
Foley said the caucus process seemed exceedingly complicated in person, amplified by the movement that occurs when voters are trying to persuade supporters of less popular candidates to defect. A candidate must have support from at least 15% of registered voters in the building to qualify for any delegates, and if they don’t, pragmatism compels people to support their second or third choices.
“All the candidates’ groups started to try to convince people, so there was a lot of screaming and yelling,” Foley said. “People were trying to chant, they were singing. People were just very passionate, trying to get others onto their side.”
Dehaai said the caucuses were a mixed bag. They’re a return to the primitive roots of democracy, she noted, with groups openly debating face-to-face about which candidate is best fit to lead the nation. But the disorganization and the lack of accessibility to voters who’d rather spend minutes than hours lodging their opinions are problematic, she said.
Both students agreed a tangible energy permeated city streets and cramped gymnasiums alike. Hordes of media members and campaign surrogates packed hotels, they said, and neighborhoods filled with yard signs endorsing candidates made clear that Iowa’s verdict would drastically impact the coming months of the presidential race.
“There’s just this feeling in the air at caucuses that is different,” Dehaai said. “It feels like it’s buzzing with enthusiasm, like people all really care about who they’re voting for and they’re really passionate about it. There’s this sense of pride that you maybe can’t feel if you’re not there.”
But ambiguity surrounding final results roiled the Iowa Democratic Party’s reporting process, leaving voters and political enthusiasts dissatisfied with the anticlimactic finish.
The party introduced a new app, meant to expedite the transmission of vote counts to a central hub, that backfired due to user error and technological difficulties, the Iowa Democratic Party told national press. These difficulties were exacerbated by a new regulation requiring precinct leaders to report three times more data than they did in previous years.
Foley said all seemed normal until he and Dehaai left the caucus site to find out no numbers were being reported. He and the others watched as local news stations scrambled to fill television slots that had been reserved for reactions to results from statewide precincts.
As of Thursday morning, the state party reported 97% of results, which showed former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg leading with 26.2% of the vote, closely followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 26.1%.
Doebele noted that Iowa had been scrutinized for several reasons before this year’s debacle occurred, primarily for the difficulty inherent in caucusing and the lack of diversity across the electorate.
The state offers candidates a minuscule fraction of the delegates they’ll need to win the Democratic nomination, she said, yet drastically alters the fate of a campaign by rewarding strong performances and discrediting others. Doebele cited the building controversy over whether predominantly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire accurately reflect the interests of the nation as a whole.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 90.7% of the nearly 3.1 million people who live in Iowa are white. In New Hampshire, the proportion is 93.2% among approximately 1.3 million people.
Foley’s location was labeled by the precinct captain as relatively diverse, though that isn’t the image he remembered from scanning the crowd.
“It was a very old and very white crowd, for the most part,” he said.
Slomka had heard murmurings of the flaws in the state’s reporting process from various news outlets, but she was still captivated by the process unfolding before her.
She had gone from conversing with Biden, Buttigieg and businessman Tom Steyer at various campaign events to a 55-person caucus in the rural town of Milo, Iowa. There, she was impressed by the enthusiastic nature of the small crowd of attendees.
“The people who are involved are very proud of it,” Slomka said. “It really speaks to the heart of debate and discussion and political engagement among citizens. It allows people to feel like they have a stake in their democracy.”
Having now experienced the transition from starstruck to familiar when speaking with individuals whose faces appear on national television weekly, she said she understood Iowans’ zeal for choosing candidates. Voters are overcome by the notion that someone who might lead the nation can personally relate to them.
“Once you get up to them and you shake their hand, you realize that they’re just a normal person,” Slomka said. “Someone who’s crazy enough to want to lead the country, but still just a normal person.”