SIOUX CITY, Iowa — During a campaign stop, Ben Nesselhuf didn’t just meet Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker — the Sioux City resident had Booker stay at his house overnight.
“I had been supporting Cory for president,” Nesselhuf said. “The campaign reached out to see if it would work for him to stay with us. It was part of their strategy for Corey to stay in people’s homes.”
Nesselhuf is no stranger to politics. The Vermillion native served as District 17 lawmaker in the South Dakota Legislature from 2001-2011. He served as chair and executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party until moving to Sioux City in 2013.
When it came to meeting candidates, the Booker overnight stay lent new meaning to up close and personal. However, Nesselhuf and other Iowans who participated in Monday’s caucus are used to both Republican and Democratic presidential suitors seeking their votes.
“This campaign season has been such a blast and so much fun,” Nesselhuf said. “It’s been really frenetic and intense the last several weeks.”
In the past week leading up to the caucus, Sioux City received visits within a four-day span from Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden.
Sanders was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), popularly known as “AOC,” and film director/activist Michael Moore.
The Republicans also made their presence known in Iowa, Nesselhuf said.
“(Vice President) Mike Pence was also here in Sioux City during that four-day stretch, and (President) Donald Trump held a rally in Des Moines,” he said.
The Republicans also held caucuses, with Trump winning 97 percent of the delegates. For the GOP, this year was low-key compared to 2016 when more than a dozen presidential candidates sought the party’s nomination.
AN OUTSIDE SPECTATOR
During Monday’s caucus, Joan Logue also attended the same location as Nesselhuf but for very different reasons.
A South Dakotan, Logue lives near Wakonda and is a registered independent in Clay County. However, she teaches in the Sioux City school district and wanted to witness Monday’s events firsthand.
“I was curious and wanted to know more about it,” she said. “I teach high school, and my students are mostly 17 and 18 years old. If we’re going to talk about the caucuses at school, I wanted to experience it so I knew what I was talking about.”
In addition, Logue held a personal connection to the caucus.
“My son lives in Sioux City and is very involved in politics. He’s 23 and a registered Democrat. This was going to be his first caucus,” she said. “The plan was for me to go to the caucus with my son and watch. But a former co-worker called up and asked if I would be interested in working the caucus as a volunteer.”
Logue was immediately intrigued by volunteering, allowed for non-residents.
“That sounded more fun than just watching it,” she said. “I would have a front-row seat to all of it, and I could then share my stories.”
Nesselhuf learned about Logue’s presence. “When I heard there was a South Dakotan in the room, especially from Wakonda, I had to find her,” he joked.
Logue wore a special badge and tag identifying her as both a volunteer and observer. “That way, people knew my role and that I wasn’t participating in the caucus,” she said.
In her volunteer role, Logue helped caucus goers sign in for the evening and made sure they received their cards for indicating their candidate preferences.
“I found the whole thing fascinating,” she said. “It was organized chaos, but everyone was polite. It was your Iowa, South Dakota, Midwest nice.”
Logue was impressed with the Iowans’ seriousness in choosing their candidates. “You had some people who were truly undecided right up to the caucus,” she said.
THE FOCUS OF ATTENTION
Nesselhuf noted the national and international attention focused on the Iowa caucus, which is the first test in the nation. In comparison, party nominations are usually decided by the June primary in South Dakota.
“Back in South Dakota, I was a ‘super delegate’ (to the Democratic National Convention) when they had power, and I never even got so much as one phone call from anyone running for president,” he said. “Now, here I am, just a guy in Iowa, and last spring I had Cory Booker sleep at my house.”
Nesselhuf shared the joke about the national reporter asking the Iowa woman what she thought of the front-running candidate. “She told the reporter, ‘I just don’t have a very good feel for him. He’s only been in my kitchen three times,’” he said.
The light-hearted story reflects reality, Nesselhuf said.
“Iowans demand retail politics. Folks have been around for years, and they’re not easily impressed,” he said. “They just accept it as fact that they’ll see a candidate meeting with 20 people, ask questions and maybe get a selfie.”
Nesselhuf argued against any efforts to drop the caucuses or move Iowa out of its spot as first in the nation ahead of New Hampshire’s primary. Some critics say Iowa doesn’t reflect the nation because of its rural nature and smaller population.
“Every solution comes with its own problems. ‘Oh, let’s go to Illinois (as the first test).’ You would only wind up with a primary where the purpose is raising money. You would never get someone as engaged with the people as you see in Iowa. You would be giving it up,” Nesselhuf said.
“I think everyone wants to dig on the Iowa caucuses, but then you need to come up with a replacement, and no one can agree on one thing. You can go to regional primaries, but then you need $100 million. In Iowa, you can have Jimmy Carter who moved to Iowa for a year and won (our caucuses) in 1976.”
Nesselhuf also countered the argument that Iowans are overwhelmingly white and don’t represent the national make-up.
“People argue that Iowa isn’t diverse enough. But during the last several months, the top four in Iowa were trending as the same top four in South Carolina (with a large black population), so I don’t see how that matters,” he said.
“We have the most diverse field (of candidates) in the history of the party, and the majority of African-Americans are supporting Joe Biden, so where does that matter (in terms of voters’ race)?”
Booker dropped out of the race ahead of the caucuses, leaving Nesselhuf looking for an alternative candidate to support. He chose Warren with the need for choosing a second candidate under the caucus rules.
“If a candidate isn’t viable (by receiving at least 15 percent of those in attendance), then those supporters can go to a second candidate,” he said. “But there are strategies where supporters of one candidate can leave and help another candidate remain viable.
“I’ve seen people for one candidate work to deprive delegates for another candidate. On Monday night, a group in Des Moines banded together to get a delegate for Cory Booker, even though he wasn’t running.”
And some caucus goers pull out altogether, Nesselhuf said. “I heard there were precincts where Sanders wasn’t viable, and his supporters just signed off their cards that they were leaving the caucus. To me, that’s a waste.”
Under the caucus rules, one candidate could win more votes while another candidate could pick up more delegates, Nesselhuf said. For example, Sanders could pile up more votes in certain areas, but Buttigieg could have more votes spread across the state and win more precincts.
On Monday, problems arose in recording and sending the outcomes from each precinct. While some criticized the new technology used, Nesselhuf also pointed to the additional information compiled for greater transparency.
“This year, there were three different types of information that needed to be recorded,” he said. “And it was being done in 99 counties with about 1,700 precincts. That’s a huge amount of data.”
Disputes surrounding elections are bipartisan in nature, Nesselhuf added. In 2012, he noted, the Iowa Republican Party initially announced Mitt Romney as the caucus winner but later gave the win to Rick Santorum based on recanvassing.
As a volunteer, Logue chose to stay the entire evening and watch the caucus unfold.
“You could watch people move around (to supporting different candidates) as the night went on,” she said. “It was very neighborly, and I think it was because people knew everybody else.”
Logue acknowledged the reporting glitches, which she said often occurs when introducing any new technology.
She was also bothered by the national criticism of Iowans, who she saw as dedicated to the election process and making the best choices for the good of the nation.
“It’s quite a commitment to spend an evening like this,” she said. “People also don’t like hearing volunteers getting criticized.”
Nesselhuf pointed to the energy found at the caucus site and the pick-up of 45 Democrats under Iowa’s same-day voter registration.
“People were very upbeat, and it’s all out in the open,” he said. “I know, with my caucus, how things ended up.”
Nesselhuf sees the Democratic field continue to whittle down, but he also believes the race can go down to the wire and even taken to the convention.
“The real X factor in this race is Michael Bloomberg,” Nesselhuf said. “He’s doing something that has never been done successfully, and that’s skipping the first states. So far, he has been spending something like $300 million on Super Tuesday states.”
DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
The current presidential race reflects the major social changes in recent years, with voters not disqualifying a candidate for being divorced or openly gay, Nesselhuf said. “Those issues went from being big things to something you don’t hear much about,” he said.
While not casting a vote at the caucus, Logue believes the experience will help her when students discuss issues from war to the environment. She also remains committed to her work with voter registration drives back home in Clay County.
“For me, that’s an important thing — that people vote,” she said. “And with its caucus, Iowa is doing something other states aren’t doing. People are having a voice in all of this.”
Nesselhuf agreed, noting it’s citizenship at its best.
“I enjoy it so much, being in a room with your neighbors talking politics and trying to convince each other to join with your candidate,” he said. “It’s just fun, and it’s the quintessential democracy.”
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