Barry McNamara  |  Published January 16, 2024

In Iowa for the Opener

Monmouth students witness start of ’24 presidential primary season at a caucus across the Mississippi River in Burlington.

CAUCUS-GOERS: The three students who were in Burlington, Iowa, for one of Monday night's caucuses in the state are, fro... CAUCUS-GOERS: The three students who were in Burlington, Iowa, for one of Monday night's caucuses in the state are, from left, Anita Gándara, Cameron Shook and Payton Crims. In front are political science faculty members Robin Johnson and Andre Audette.MONMOUTH, Ill. – Whether or not they had a candidate in the race, Monmouth College students who made the short – and very chilly – trip to Burlington, Iowa, for Monday night’s first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses in the Hawkeye state came away impressed by the experience.

“When they told me about this field trip, I jumped on the idea of going to a caucus,” said Payton Crims ’27, a communication studies and political science double major from Alsip, Illinois. “The camaraderie stood out to me. I feel like being at a caucus is an American thing. Everybody was there. It felt like the whole town was there, strongly pushing for their candidate. Even though some people had different views, it still felt like a community thing.”

Led by political science faculty Andre Audette and Robin Johnson, Crims was one of three students who made the trip to Des Moines County’s Precinct 1 caucus at Aldo Leopold Intermediate School. The others were Anita Gándara ’24, a political science and communication studies double major from Chicago, and Cameron Shook ’26, a political science major from Morton, Illinois.

With 59 votes cast at the precinct, former president Donald Trump garnered 45.7% of the vote, about five percentage points behind his overall showing in the state. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had 41 votes and former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley 15. Fourteen votes went to biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, who ended his campaign after the caucus and endorsed Trump.

“We learned that the Iowa caucus sets the tone – at least in the media, it does – so I was really excited to see how things would turn out,” said Gándara. “Even though in the news, it might just say the one candidate the state voted for, I was excited to see how the results looked across the board. There was a pretty decent turnout for Ron DeSantis, but it ended up going to Trump.”

Let your voice be heard

Despite the weather, which saw below-zero temperature with wind chills even lower, those voting results meant 129 people came out to the Iowa school to participate in the caucus, including one voter who inspired Gándara.

“When we got there, there was an older lady – she’s 95 years old – coming out in sub-zero weather,” she said. “I thought it was absolutely amazing. I thought it was so awesome that she made that effort to come out and vote. It just shows how important voting is for her and how important voting is for us as Americans.”

“There was an older lady – she’s 95 years old – coming out in sub-zero weather. … I thought it was so awesome that she made that effort to come out and vote. It just shows how important voting is for her and how important voting is for us as Americans.” – Anita Gándara

Gándara said it’s important to not take the right to vote for granted, particularly because it’s a right that has been withheld from some groups in the past.

“She’s inspiring for me because I know there’s a lot of different historically marginalized groups who didn’t always have the right to vote, so being a part of different marginalized groups myself and making that effort to continue to vote and use everything you have to have your voice heard is really important,” she said. “It was really heartwarming to see her come out and still have her voice heard, even though it was freezing cold and she probably would’ve rather been at home, all warm.”

Crims, who is Black, agreed.

“My people died for my right to vote, so I feel it’s very important to at least try to get out there and vote,” he said. “Sometimes it might not matter as much as we think it does, but I think it’s still important to get out there and hit some ballots.”

Something different in Iowa

For Audette, Monday night’s Iowa caucus was an opportunity for students to see democracy in action.

“It’s useful to be able to see the inside process,” he said. “This is, in some respects, a form of direct democracy that we don’t often get to witness. It’s always interesting to see folks in their local communities getting out and involved in the political process, not just in terms of voting, but in terms of participation in political parties and supporting their candidates and making their voice heard. That’s something that I treasure being able to bring students to and encourage them to get involved in the political process in the future.”

Shook viewed the opportunity as a learning experience.

“I knew there would be people going up front and talking about the candidate they supported, sharing their views and opinions in public, rather than what we see in our own (Illinois) primary, which is private,” he said. “It was a different, interesting experience. It was definitely a good experience to be able to understand and learn about this unique process in America.”

Gándara said she first learned about the caucus system as a high school senior, which was also the school year when she voted in the 2020 Illinois presidential primary.

“The main thing to be watching next is how soon the rest of the field consolidates to create a one-on-one – to see if there’s enough anti-Trump support to overtake him in the primary.” – Robin Johnson

“I’ve always wanted to go to a caucus, which sounds kind of nerdy, but it was something I was really excited about,” she said. “When I got the email from our professors, I filled out the form so fast because I was so excited to get this experience. … I’m very excited for the presidential election. I’ve been keeping an eye on things, so it’s really exciting to be a part of the very first step of the primaries and to witness it firsthand.”

What’s next for the GOP?

Johnson, who hosts the Heartland Politics weekly radio show on WVIK-FM and had Haley as his guest for the most recent episode, looked ahead at the next steps on the Republican side of the presidential election.

“The main thing to be watching next is how soon the rest of the field consolidates to create a one-on-one – to see if there’s enough anti-Trump support to overtake him in the primary,” he said. “That’s the key – whether Haley or DeSantis can consolidate the anti-Trump vote to be viable the rest of the way. It’s got to be pretty quick, because the longer they go, they fracture the anti-Trump vote. It’s just going to be more and more hard to defeat him, if there’s even a majority out there for that, and I question whether there is.”

Listen Up …

Hear Robin Johnson’s post-Iowa analysis on WRAM-AM/WMOI-FM.

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