It’s early August, 2015 in West Des Moines, Iowa.
“If you build it, he will come,” whispers the voice in the cornfield. “If you build it, he will come.”
Inspired by the voice, Sarah Pratt takes to her work. With her sculpting tool in hand, she picks up the first clump of butter and begins to mold it onto a frame in the shape of a full-size farm animal. Soon she will transform the 600 pounds of low moisture, pure cream Iowa butter surrounding her into the crown jewel of the Iowa State Fair— the Butter Cow.
The Butter Cow has been a highlight attraction since it first appeared in 1911, but the cow will reach new metaphorical heights this year when it welcomes the Republican presidential frontrunner to the Fair. Sarah Pratt has built it. Now in the sweaty heat of the Midwestern summer, he has come.
Touching down in a clearing next to a cornfield, Donald Trump emerges from his self-titled helicopter and waves to a crowd of fairgoers. He glad-hands and baby kisses his way down a path lined with stands offering local delicacies: Deep Fried Nacho Balls, Golden Fried Peanut Butter & Jelly On-a-Stick, Corn in-a-Cup. Entering the agricultural building, he finally arrives at the Butter Cow— a creamy bovine carcass monument to all that is un-ironic about America. Trump nods his big orange head. Then he turns and walks toward the nearby soapbox to present offerings to the Gods of presidential primary season: Iowans.
SIX MONTHS LATER and the Iowa Caucus is now upon us. So much has changed. Midwestern summer has given way to frosty Midwestern winter. Sen. Ted Cruz, the newcomer from Texas who dreams of world domination, is neck and neck with Trump in pre-caucus polls. Marco Rubio and his fancy boots are gaining last-minute momentum. Across the aisle, an insurgent Bernie Sanders has overtaken Hillary Clinton in Iowa and maintains a solid lead in New Hampshire. The Benghazi hearings came and went and so did Michael Bay’s 100% accurate Benghazi documentary 13 Hours. The President delivered his final State of the Union and implored us to fix our politics. Kanye switched the title of his much hyped new album. Twice.
And yet, nothing changed at all. The Republican frontrunner is still running way out front in national polls and America still has its TV sets and Twitter feeds tuned to the Iowa Caucus channel. The Butter Cow is still on center stage. Politicians and pundits are still bowing down to their supreme Iowan gods.
Why? Because they’re first. They’ve been first in every primary election season since 1972 and under Iowa state law, they will be first forever. So here we are with our cameras turned to watch politicians schmooze with farmers, eat fried things on sticks, and compete for who can park their campaign bus in each of the state’s 99 counties the fastest.
There are two ways to approach the Iowa Caucus. The first is to recoil at how fucking ridiculous it is that one random state gets to play the lead role in determining the next president. The second is to revel in the intimate democracy of the thing.
To the first: what kind of sense does it make that a state of 3 million people gets to chart the political future of a country of 320 million? It’s undemocratic in the literal sense of the word: the few are empowered to make a decisive choice that affects the many.
They are a profoundly unrepresentative few. Iowa is a leading contender for least diverse state in the union. The United States is 63.7% white; Iowa is 91.3%. Hispanics, 16.3% of the US population and the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group, make up less than 5% of Iowa’s population. The United States is 13.2% black; Iowa is 2.9%. There are more black people in seventeen square blocks of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn than there are in the entire state of Iowa. It’s one of the most rural states in the country, dominated by the farming industry, which accounts for little more than 1% of all jobs nationally. By average age, it’s also one of the oldest.
Adding to the anti-Iowa chorus are the policy concessions that it squeezes out of its first-in-the-nation status. Take ethanol, a biofuel additive to gasoline made mostly from corn. You know who has a lot of excess corn? Iowa. But making biofuel out of corn is expensive, so Iowan interest groups made federal subsidies for ethanol production a deal-breaker campaign issue — pledge to support ethanol subsidies or die in the caucus. Presidential candidates across the spectrum take the pledge, year after year. In 2009, subsidies for ethanol (which is a net polluter of greenhouse gases) cost US taxpayers $6 billion.
It’s a presidential pastime to pander to Iowans. The amount of time and resources campaigns devote to the caucus is mind-fucking. Ted Cruz might have been the first 2016 candidate to start hitting the Iowa campaign trail; he got there in July of 2013, only six months after he was sworn in as a US Senator.
So small but important is the state of Iowa that candidates campaign for individual votes. In December, Martin O’Malley held an event attended by one lone voter, who apparently left the one-on-one interview still undecided. President Obama recently recounted a story from his successful Iowa campaign against Hillary in 2008 about cold calling a high school senior to try to win her caucus vote. After pleading his case for several minutes, she said “I’m in a yearbook meeting” and hung up the phone.
To review: the Iowa Caucus forces future presidents to make unrequited phone calls to high schoolers, shoves multibillion-dollar ethanol subsidies down taxpayers’ throats, and voices the collective will of an old, white state unrepresentative of the American electorate. In the process, it distorts campaign issues and drowns out the democratic voice of hundreds of millions of Americans like me who are registered in later-voting states.
And yet, I still find myself falling for Iowa. Even after everything my left brain has laid out for me, all the ridiculousness of vote pandering and ethanol subsidizing, I can’t shake the feeling that what happens in Iowa in presidential election years is something rare and special.
In spite of its undemocratic-ness, the Iowa Caucus is intimate democracy at its best. Of course it’s absurd that the most powerful person in the world has to cold call random teenagers for votes, but it’s also a perfect refutation of our otherwise corporatized political system. It’s an experiment in near-direct democracy in which small groups of everyday people have the power to shape the course of a presidential election.
Think of it this way: if you just happen to walk into the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in Iowa City at 2:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in January, there’s a decent chance that someone running for the most powerful elected office on Earth will come up to shake your hand and ask you to job interview them in front of reporters and TV crews from The New York Times and CNN. And if later that afternoon you happen to tell your coworker that you thought Rand Paul seemed like a cool guy or Martin O’Malley had an interesting idea about a national community service requirement, BOOM! That’s a bump from 1.6% to 1.7% in the polls and Drudge Report runs a headline proclaiming Rand’s heating up or O’Malley’s got momentum in Iowa.
It’s still a pandering, unrepresentative clusterfuck, but it’s beautiful in its own way. The Iowa Caucus is that rare moment in American politics that can make you feel warm and democratically fuzzy inside, like Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 DNC or this new ad from Bernie Sanders:
On Monday, the old, white, rural voters of Iowa will cast the first caucus votes of the 2016 presidential election. Some of them will vote for Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Others will vote with more compassion and foresight. All will be engaging in an experiment in the most intimate kind of democracy we have in America. And three-and-a-half years from now, Sarah Pratt will once again hear the voice in the cornfield and start work on building a new Butter Cow. Heeding the creamy, glutinous call of democracy, he— or she—will come.
Will Kirkland is a Chicago-based student and writer. He apologizes to his friends from Iowa for kind of shitting on their state. He’s never been there but he would love to try the Corn in-a-Cup, which he’s told is “the Caviar of Iowa.”
1. The Code of Iowa (what Iowans call their state legal code) decrees that the Iowa caucuses “shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus, or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state.”
How exactly Iowa came into possession of this vaunted place in presidential elections is an interesting question with fairly boring answer. After the nightmare 1968 Democratic convention, the DNC formed a commission to reform the party’s nomination process to increase accountability and give more power to primary voters. They set up a new system and Iowa ended up randomly scheduling their caucus first for the 1972 season. No one really cared, so they did it again in 1976. That year, dark horse candidate Jimmy Carter staged a come-from-behind victory on the heels of a surprise win in Iowa and by the time people realized how important voting first was in setting the course of the campaign, the Iowa legislative enshrined the privilege in state law. They’ve bullied every candidate or party leader who has proposed reform ever since.
2. In New York City, the standard rule of thumb is that 20 avenue blocks are about equal to one mile, with street blocks averaging about 3.5 avenue blocks in length. (I measured it in Google Maps just to be sure; it works). This means that one square mile is approximately 5.7 square city blocks (all of the blocks between Lexington and Third Avenue from 51st street to seven-tenths of the way toward 57th street, for example). This is true for all parts of NYC that are on the Manhattan-equivalent grid system, which includes the many parts of Brooklyn, including Bedford-Stuyvesant.
The average density of Brooklyn is 36,732 people per square mile. According to the New York Times, the Bed-Stuy neighborhood is 89% black. This means that the density of black residents in Bed-Stuy is about 32,500 per square mile. Blacks make up 2.9% of the population of Iowa, with a total population of 3,123,899, which means that around 90,600 black people live in Iowa. Given that 5.7 square Bed-Stuy blocks are equal to one square mile averaging 32,691 black people, in just 17 blocks of that one Brooklyn neighborhood there are more black people (97,500) than in the entire state of Iowa.
3. I’m registered to vote in the state of California (average aged, diversified economy, 38% Hispanic, 13.6% Asian, and 6.6% black), which doesn’t hold its primary election until June 7, by which time the nominations will be signed, sealed, and delivered. Each individual caucus goer in Iowa is exponentially more important than me and my 38.8 million friends in California.