This article is drawn from reporting by Yahoo News correspondents, photo and video journalists covering the presidential campaign in Iowa, including Garance Franke-Ruta, Holly Bailey, Hunter Walker, Alyssa Bereznak, Liz Goodwin, Craig Rice, Charity Elder and Khue Bui.
Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Muscatine. Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Council Bluffs. Pocahontas, Hiawatha, Dubuque. The names form a spare poetry of their own, a song of exploration and settlement that commemorates Native Americans, French-Canadian trappers and hunters, 19th-century homesteaders who crossed an ocean and half of a continent to put down roots in its phenomenally fertile soil. You can plot them on a road map, where they form the nodes of a dense web of lines representing the increasingly frantic travels of 14 presidential candidates following the oldest rule of politics: You go where the votes are.
In Iowa, where third-place Democrat Martin O’Malley recently held an event in the town of Tama (population 2,877) that drew an audience of exactly one, that could be anywhere. On Saturday alone, the public schedules of 14 candidates from both parties listed a total of 52 stops, only one of them (by O’Malley) in the state’s capital and largest city, Des Moines. The prize for narrowcast campaigning probably goes to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who had a stop planned for Hamlin, described in Wikipedia as “an unincorporated community” in Audubon County. Runner-up appeared to be Jeb Bush, who was scheduled to speak in Okoboji, population 807 — or 38 fewer than the town of Hubbard, where Cruz brought his message to a place whose leading attraction, as listed on the town website, is the burial site of Herbert Hoover’s grandfather. He was, presumably, a Republican.
O’Malley’s agenda included six towns, tying him for most ambitious scheduling with Republican Rick Santorum. Only Donald Trump scheduled a visit to the city of Clinton — which, for the record, was named for New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton, no relation to the “worst secretary of state … in history” or to her husband, whose family name at birth was Blythe.
Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley speaks at the Martin O’Malley Unplugged event in Ames, Iowa. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
With about 3 million people sprinkled in towns across its 56,000 square miles, Iowa represents a unique test of stamina for candidates, their staffs, and the long-suffering journalists who cover them. This reflects both its first-in-the-nation status and its complex system of choosing convention delegates by caucus, which requires supporters to show up in person in one of the state’s 1,681 precincts. In theory, a single voter in the right place could make a crucial difference, which explains the lengths candidates will go to reach people. They careen from diner to feed store to American Legion Hall in the towns strung out along the Union Pacific rail lines, with their Main Streets lined with modest red-brick shops, their handsome clapboard churches and the silent field guns of their war memorials. In most cases, unless the towns are within commuting distance of a city, their populations peaked, or leveled off, around 1950. They are overwhelmingly white. Okoboji, according to the 2010 census, had an African-American population amounting to 0.1 percent, or eight-tenths of a person. The Native American population of Cherokee, where O’Malley planned to stop, was 0.3 percent.
Where the candidates stop, the press caravan pulls up nearby and disgorges its hordes, who have been frantically texting back and forth with their colleagues in other entourages, enabling such illuminating exchanges as the one that took place between Cruz, leaving a bar in Fenton (population 279), and a reporter bearing the portentous news that Donald Trump had referred to the Canadian-born senator as an “anchor baby.” Cruz dramatically paused as cameras scrambled over to shine lights on him. In the spotlight, he turned around and replied, “Ha. Ha. Ha.”
“That’s it?” a reporter asked. “Ha ha ha?”
As Cruz turned to board his bus, a second bus pulled up nearby, and seeing it, Cruz aides rolled their eyes. It bore a poster of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who has been stalking Cruz on the trail, and as the Cruz bus left, the Insultmobile pulled out to follow, joining the caravan of staffers and reporters in their cars heading to the next event about 20 miles away. Cruz’s bus, in the lead, seemed to be attempting to lose its pursuer, while campaign staffers in a minivan tried to get between them. Arriving at the next stop, his handlers managed to hustle the candidate indoors before he had to confront his puppet nemesis.
Republican candidate Gov. John Kasich looks at a book about one of his heroes, former president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)
To Iowans, the quadrennial madness is both a cottage industry and a source of pride, mingled with amusement. The National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids enjoyed an unusual moment in the national spotlight when Ohio Gov. John Kasich toured it recently, honoring, among other things, his own Czech and Croatian heritage. Iowa makes excellent ice cream of its own, but the caucuses were an excuse for a visit by Ben and Jerry, who created a custom flavor in honor of their preferred candidate, their home state senator, Bernie Sanders. As an election nears, residents in every state display lawn signs for candidates along the roads, but Iowa fans are so ardent that one supporter of Donald Trump commissioned a portrait of his hero, 4 by 8 feet, and mounted it, lit by floodlights, outside his home in West Des Moines. A banner for sale at Raygun, a small Iowa chain of novelty stores specializing in politically themed T-shirts and other campaign paraphernalia, captures the prevailing attitude of locals toward the would-be leaders of the free world: “Iowa! For some reason you have to come here to be president.” A T-shirt expresses the same sentiment toward the correspondents and bloggers who follow in the candidates’ wake: “Sorry to interrupt your meal, but are you alive and have an opinion on the election?”
Adam Peters wearing the “Berniehead shirt” at a Sanders rally in Muscatine, Iowa. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
It was at a Raygun store that Adam Peters of Iowa City bought the Berniehead shirt that has made him a sensation on Reddit: a black tee covered with pictures of the Vermont senator wearing variations on his characteristic expression, the one that seems to be saying: I ordered my tea 10 minutes ago, young lady! Peters got himself photographed wearing the shirt to Sanders rallies all over the state and soon became a minor political celebrity on social media in his own right, notwithstanding that, as Peters learned from a campaign staffer, Sanders actually thinks the shirt is creepy.
Iowa voters get to assess candidates on their own, distinctive terms, such as what kind of shots they are. A wall at CrossRoads Shooting Sports, in a suburb of Des Moines, bears a display of targets that bore the brunt of assaults by various Republican candidates. An early sign of trouble ahead for Bobby Jindal came from the fact that he missed the target entirely, while Cruz put his bullets in a tight cluster right at the bull’s-eye, autographing the target later with the emphatic, if slightly chilling inscription, “The fight for liberty never ends!” For her part, Hillary Clinton turned Iowans’ fondness for firearms to her own political purposes, telling a rally in Ames how “when I’ve traveled around Iowa the last couple of months, I have heard about … what happens when children, young children, toddlers, kids in elementary school find that loaded gun in the closet or under the bed.”
And, of course, Iowa voters, at least the Republican ones, take religion seriously. Cruz likes to wrap up his speeches by quoting II Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people that are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear their prayer from heaven and forgive their sins and I will keep their land”), underscoring his own connection both to God and to the one who now sits at God’s right hand, Ronald Reagan. What the “mainstream media” don’t report, Cruz adds, is that Reagan took his oath of office on a Bible open to that very verse. (If you don’t believe it, you can read it right here, in the New York Times.) Cruz’s out-of-state supporters, housed in a dormitory in Des Moines, begin each day with a prayer. His wife, Heidi, recently visited “Camp Cruz” to give a pep talk, which she ended, naturally, with a Biblical citation: “It does say in Matthew 10:6 to be clever as a serpent and soft as a dove for God,” she said, earnestly, albeit incorrectly: The verse is Matthew 10:16.
At the Machine Shed restaurant in a suburb of Des Moines — the name refers to the agriculture-themed decor of the place — Yahoo News correspondent Holly Bailey and photographer Khue Bui checked with the hostess before sitting down to lunch: “Is a candidate here?”
“They are always here,” she replied.
Republican candidate Dr. Ben Carson leaves lunch at the Machine Shed in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)
The candidate du jour was Ben Carson, who, the waitress confided, would probably soon stop at their table to pose for a picture. But he walked out without doing any campaigning, and Bailey realized, with a bit of a shock, that he was actually in the restaurant to eat lunch.
By Monday night, it will all be over, and Iowa will revert to its status as a not very significant (in Electoral College votes) swath of flyover country. Campaigning with his pregnant daughter, Ivanka, on Thursday, Trump jokingly urged her to have her baby in Iowa, which he said would guarantee his victory in the state. It now appears the honor of being the birthplace of Donald Trump’s grandchild will go to some other lucky state, but who knows what treats may be in store for Iowa, come 2020?