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Xavier Students Get Up Close And Personal With Iowa Caucuses

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  From afar, the Iowa caucuses look like a chaotic state fair midway, with candidates playing bumper cars as they careen around the state in search of voters for Monday’s first-in-the-nation caucus.

Yes, it chaos – controlled chaos, but chaos nonetheless.

But when you are there on the ground, watching it up close, as 19 Xavier University students were last weekend, it is a whirlwind, but one that makes sense.

And, as the Xavier students found, one that the people of Iowa revel in every four years.

“People in Ohio are sick of politics by the time the election comes around; they can’t wait for it to be over,’’ said senior Liz Tate of Louisville, a student in Xavier’s Philosophy, Politics and the Public (PPP) honors program, who went on the Iowa trip.

“That’s not the case in Iowa; they’re not sick of it at all,” Tate said. “Iowans love it. They can’t get enough of it. They have fun with it.”

Part of the reason is that, every four years, Iowa is in the center of attention of the world of presidential politics; and everywhere one turns in this relatively small state, Iowans are likely to find a candidate, Republican or Democratic, trying to convince them to attend a caucus meeting and vote.

As university students, it is one thing to watch the debates on television and discuss the race in classrooms on the Xavier campus, but it quite another to experience it for themselves, if only for a few days.

The trip was organized by Sean Comer, Xavier’s director of government relations. Comer spent time scouring the Des Moines Register’s candidate tracker to get a handle on identifying some events the students could attend.

Associate professor Mack Mariani, chair of the political science department, and history professor John Fairfield went along. There were 19 students from the PPP program and the political science department who made the journey.

Xavier senior Liz Tate outside Bernie Sanders' campaign headquarters in Des Moines
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Xavier senior Liz Tate outside Bernie Sanders' campaign headquarters in Des Moines

  While some of the events were planned ahead, “the rest of the time we just winged it,’’Marianisaid. “We were based in Des Moines; and there were plenty of events there and within an hour-and-half drive. And when the students had down time, some of them volunteered to work on campaigns.”

They left at 4 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 23 in four cars and arrived in Pella, about 40 miles from Des Moines a little afternoon, where they went to a Donald Trump rally. It was jam-packed; and while some of the students, along with Mariani, stayed in an overflow room at the Trump rally, others went on to a nearby town hall meeting held by Republican contender Marco Rubio.

Kathleen Buch, an 18-year-old freshman from Wheeling, W. Va., went with the group to the Rubio event.

“I thought it was a really well done event,’’ said Buch, who said she doesn’t identify herself as a Republican or a Democrat but as a political moderate. “The man is a fantastic speaker."

There were about 400 people in the room, Buch said, “and he took a lot of questions. I think he connected really well with the people who were there.”

She was impressed by the fact that, at the Rubio rally, campaign volunteers were passing out cards to everyone in the audience with instructions on how to participate in Monday’s caucus.

“I saw that at several events,’’ Buch said. “Very basic information. Good grassroots politics.”

Xavier students gather for group photo with Marco Rubio in Iowa
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Xavier students gather for group photo with Marco Rubio in Iowa

Buch also attended an event featuring Ben Carson in Ames and a Bernie Sanders rally at Iowa State University in Ames.

Despite the seemingly chaotic nature of Iowa caucus politics, Buch said she thinks the process works. And she sees nothing wrong with a small and not particularly representative state like Iowa being first at bat in the presidential election. 

“Iowa is a very unique situation,’’ Buch said. “It’s very reminiscent of American history and the way things used to be in politics. And, now, the Iowa caucuses are just a culturally expected thing. People expect presidential elections to start this way.”

Tate is a Democrat; and she has worked in local campaigns here in Cincinnati in the past. But, until last weekend, she had no experience with presidential campaigns.

So she was among those Xavier students who volunteered their down time to work for a candidate. Her candidate is Sanders.

“He speaks very frankly about the things he cares about,’’ Tate said. “He is very sincere in his beliefs. And he follows through on the things that he says. He is consistent.”

So Tate went to Sanders campaign office in Des Moines and volunteered to canvass door-to-door. In fact, she spent much of her 22nd birthday – a week ago today – working for the Sanders campaign.

“I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a birthday,’’ Tate said.

She was impressed by what she encountered as she went door-to-door in Des Moines.

“In Iowa, when I knocked on doors, there were people who would invite me into their homes, offer me a cup of coffee and actually sit down and discuss the race and the issues,’’ Tate said. “That just doesn’t happen when you are campaigning in Cincinnati.

“I like the caucus system,’’ Tate said. “It makes sense. People go to a place on caucus day and you have to actually sit and talk with your neighbors about who you support and why.

“I think they do it right out in Iowa. This was an experience I won’t forget.”

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