Story by Sarah Fulton
Photos Courtesy of Rachel Paine Caufield, Emily Grimm, and Jacob Van Sickle
Presidential election season starts in Iowa, and it starts at Drake University. As the national media focuses on Iowa, Iowans have the opportunity to meet candidates in person and shape how the election plays out.
A political opportunity so “magical” that politics professor Rachel Paine Caufield did not believe it was truly possible before experiencing it herself.
“I had studied the Iowa Caucuses and I thought that I was a myth. I thought that you could trip over a presidential candidate myth,” Caufield said.
However, after coming to Drake University in 2008, she literally almost tripped over a candidate.
“I was driving south, perfectly normally, it was dark. All of a sudden, I notice that someone was crossing the street in front of me. I slammed on my breaks and then realized that it was Joe Biden,” Caufiled said. “One more foot and Joe Biden would not be.”
After experiencing the close nature of the events, Caufield said Iowa is the perfect place to host the first round of caucuses. Iowans are “not the least bit scared” of approaching a presidential candidate and asking questions that matter.
“We have strong parties, both Democrat and Republican, an engaged electorate, high level of education, our issues are represent of many different places and without huge media market so retail politics still work,” Caufield said. “I do not think there are many states where you could get the same advantages and cultivate the same involvement. “
That ideal environment extends to Drake.
“Drake is a natural place for us to do this. We are not the only college in Des Moines, but I think it is fair to say that we are a big fish in a small pound,” Caufield said. “Our students are able to really get involved.”
The benefits also go in the reserves direction.
“On the most crass level (the caucuses) is really good for us. There is a tremendous economic advantage for the city. There is an opportunity to shape the debate,” Caufield said. “For Drake, there is the opportunity to get Drake’s name into the public sphere.”
Caufield said one of the biggest benefits Drake receives is the opportunity to get involved in the political sphere with internships.
“(My favorite part is) hearing all the student stories after the debate, all the weird fun moments people had. We had a student to make sure all the candidates got to the stage,” Caufield said. “He was the one on the elevator when all of the candidates came down. He said it was the most awkward elevator ride ever, but what a remarkable experience.“
“There are plenty of positions to go around. … There is so much activity and they need so many people,” Caufield said. “Our students have unparalleled opportunity.”
“It was really cool because it was a paid internship, and it was pretty incredible that it was my first semester into college,“ Grimm said.
During her internship, Grimm preformed several different duties for ABC, including office work and greeting candidates.
“I was able to talk to all of the candidates and Diane (Sawyer) and George (Stephanopoulos). They asked what I was interested in, what I was studying,” Grimm said. “I think it was amazing that they had such a genuine interest in what the students were doing.”
In addition to chatting with broadcast journalists Grimm said she learned their trade secrets.
“I think (the most surprising lesson was) learning the technological side of the debates, the tricks they use,” Grimm said. “They put a distorted lenses on Diane Sawyers face to make her look more youthful.”
Alumni Jacob Van Sickle also learned lessons when he interned for Mike Huckabee during the 2008 Iowa Caucus. While many feel that retail politics work in Iowa, Van Sickle learned that money also speaks.
“It’s all about the money. I believe Huckabee could have gone all the way, but he did not have the national funding that McCain and Romney had,” Van Sickle said. “It was the blood and sweat of real people that gave him victory in Iowa, but it could not survive without the all mighty dollar.”
However, his internship experience was not all negative. After spend the day making cold calls for the Huckabee campaign, Van Sickle and one other volunteer were invited to attend Huckabee’s daughter’s birthday party.
“I was amazed to find that Mike Huckabee, even though he had no one to impress, was working the grill and bringing food to people,” Van Sickle said. “He shared jokes, talked with us and was a real person.”
Van Sickle was also asked to speak at the Boone County caucuses on behalf of Huckabee.
“Since Romney was our main competition, my plan was to wait until after the Romney’s representative spoke,” Van Sickle said. “I had an arsenal full of points, and I was planning to clean the floor with whoever spoke for Romney.”
That representative was Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.
“So, I, a punk 20-year-old, spoke after the governor. At the end of the night, we won Boone County by a wide margin,” Van Sickle said.
This is the opportunity of the caucuses, that “punk” kids get to a vital role in the poltical process.
“But really, with Drake being in Des Moines, Iowa, students who are willing, and many who aren’t, can be thrown into the political process and help choose the most powerful leader of the world,” Van Sickle said. “Or, in Huckabee’s case, a Fox News host.”
Alumni Jordan Grant agreed. Grant worked for Tim Pawlenty during the Straw Polls leading up to the Caucuses and now works for the House Republican Cause in Pennsylvania.
“The Iowa causes is the most unique part of the presidential nominating process. Iowans expect retails politics, shake their hand, and answer their question,” Grant said. “It is a right of passaget. You have to go through the causes.”