STORY BY TIM WEBBER
“There’s a lot going on,” Dr. Rachel Paine Caufield says inside her office at the Harkin Institute, and neither Republicans nor Democrats can deny that.
It’s a warm Friday afternoon, the beginning of what’s forecasted to be a gorgeous, but hot, holiday weekend.
There aren’t many weekends left before the Iowa caucuses, however, and that means that Caufield will be spending this one—like most others on the horizon—hard at work.
Caufield, the Associate Director for Citizen Engagement at the Harkin Institute, is one of four staff members who work at the Institute. The organization was founded in 2013 to expand on the work of former Sen. Tom Harkin and foster citizen engagement with the political process. But judging from the success of the Institute and its ability to put on events that connect with students, one would be forgiven for thinking that five times as many people work at the Institute.
The Harkin Institute’s skeleton staff does receive some assistance in the form of student interns, but with a field of presidential candidates that seems to number several hundred soon descending on Iowa for the first caucus of the election cycle, everyone will be stretched to the limit.
“This is going to be the busiest, most dynamic, most vibrant caucus season we’ve ever had at Drake,” Caufield said, and while some of that is due to the enormous field of candidates, much of the excitement stems from groundwork that was laid long before the birth of the Harkin Institute.
Drake University has been working hard over each of the past election cycles to establish a strong reputation within the political community and attract major events to campus.
In 2011, Drake hosted a nationally televised Republican presidential debate in conjunction with ABC News. This year, the university has been awarded a Democratic debate, which will be held on November 14 in Sheslow Auditorium in conjunction with CBS News.
“We’ve had a number of candidates, campaigns, parties, come to campus and say, ‘This is by far the easiest process we’ve ever experienced. You know what you’re doing,’” Caufield said. “When we start conversations about a debate, it is undoubtedly a huge advantage that we’ve done this before.”
But the debate, while undoubtedly important, is just one of many political events taking place in Des Moines and throughout Iowa in the coming months. And while Drake University is the one primarily holding the reins for the debate, the Harkin Institute and its Iowa Caucus Project will play a major role in connecting the citizens with the candidates during caucus season.
The Iowa Caucus Project website – iowacaucusproject.org – is filled with more information than most voters know what do with. It’s easily one of the most comprehensive political guides in the country, providing both current and historical information on every county in Iowa.
The front page of the website contains an interactive map. Click on a county, and you’ll pull up an overlay with demographic information containing everything from age breakdowns to gun ownership.
If the statistics seem cold and uninviting, the website also allows visitors to view a schedule of campaign events around the state, which they organize by county or candidate. A blog provides updates from the campaign trail. There’s even a section for students looking for internships with candidates.
The website paints a picture of Iowa—not the candidates—which Caufield says is by design.
“The national media oftentimes pops into Iowa,” Caufield said. “They point their cameras at a candidate. They leave. They write a little story about what’s going on in Iowa. But they don’t really know Iowa. They’re covering the candidates. We want to talk about the story of Iowa.”
A quick look at the Iowa Caucus Project website in Caufield’s office on Friday revealed Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Saturday visit to Iowa. But the big event last week — at least for the Harkin Institute — had already occurred.
Thursday evening’s Sussman Lecture, featuring Richard Rothstein, was a prime example of the Institute’s non-caucus work, focused on engaging citizens with political and social issues. The Harkin Institute often holds lectures and receptions for community leaders, elected officials and advocacy groups with the purpose of helping them forge a connection with students and community members.
“We think, sometimes, that politics is far away, it’s for important people who think important things, and they’re all brilliant and powerful and important,” Caufield said. “It’s just not true. This is a democracy. We’re all important. And quite frankly, they need us as much as we need them.”
Caufield described Rothstein as an excellent speaker — one of a growing list who have come to Drake through the Sussman Lecture series.
“We work on the principle of bringing in very high-quality lectures,” Caufield said. “That might mean that we have fewer (lectures), but we always want to make sure that they are very high-quality and filled to capacity — and they have been.”
Unlike some campus events that are sparsely attended, those put on by the Harkin Institute always draw a crowd.
“We’ve created a really great reputation for good events on campus that are worth going to, that aren’t a typical lecture where you’re going to sit passively in a room and listen to someone that you’ve never heard of talk about a topic you’ve never thought about before,” Caufield said.
As part of their efforts to engage students, the Harkin Institute often holds events in more intimate settings.
The organization presents small, private luncheons and receptions with dignitaries throughout the year, with ten students receiving the opportunity to meet the featured guest in a more personal setting.
The Institute attempts to select a diverse mix of students for each reception, and encourages everyone from first-year physics majors to senior politics majors to apply.
“Because we limit it to ten students per event, we’ve seen some really remarkable connections come out of them,” Caufield said. “Instead of sitting in a great big room listening to someone talk, you actually have a much more intimate experience. You can actually have a conversation around the table with these folks.”
Caufield gave an example of the connections the often come out of the receptions.
After an event featuring David Oman, a Drake alumnus currently working on the Jeb Bush campaign, Oman asked a student whom she was supporting in the upcoming election. After finding out that her candidate of choice wasn’t Bush, he asked her to find some time to come and meet Jeb Bush.
Three days later, at the Iowa Agriculture Summit, Caufield received quite a surprise.
“Jeb Bush walks in, and directly behind him is David Oman,” Caufield said. “And directly behind (Oman) was the student. She’s now working on the Bush campaign.”
Experiences like this are par for the course for the Harkin Institute.
This past summer, for the first time ever, the organization granted two students with a “D.C. Experience” scholarship, which paid for housing and travel to Washington, D.C. for an unpaid internship.
While some students may not receive such a special opportunity, everybody will have an opportunity to have an impact during caucus season.
“There are events happening in the Des Moines area, right under our noses, all the time,” Caufield said. “It is easy to go these events. It is easy to meet a presidential candidate—any presidential candidate. Any opportunity you have to go see them, you should go see them.”