Caucus tourists ask: Why should Iowans have all the fun?

Ethan Appleby, 35, of New York, is visiting Iowa to watch the Democratic campaign unfold.
(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

In the days and weeks before the Democratic presidential primary’s first contest in Iowa, some Iowans have been sheltering in their homes and not picking up the phone to avoid the furious campaigning of this year’s competitive race. They’re ready for this thing to be over.

But not the roving bands of caucus tourists who have descended on Iowa from across the country, who are thrilled to get a chance to see the candidates up close. Some will even get to witness Iowa’s caucus system unfold Monday night.

Ethan Appleby, 35, a tech entrepreneur from New York City, saw the hit musical “Hamilton” the same week that Donald Trump was elected in November 2016, and he realized he needed to learn more about the history and current state of the country.

In the following year, Appleby read three dozen books about the founding fathers before embarking on several trips to Middle America, including one in 2019 to the Iowa State Fair, where he saw several presidential candidates speak.

Appleby returned Thursday for the caucuses and landed in Des Moines. He went to campaign events featuring former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and businessman Andrew Yang.


“I just found it really fascinating, being on the ground, hearing Iowans talking about what they thought,” Appleby said Saturday as he sipped a beer at the bar at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Des Moines, one of the Iowa watering holes where political operatives and journalists congregate and share secrets of the trail.

Kelley Orris, 52, a private detective from Pittsburgh, Penn., came to Iowa with a tour group of about 30 people.

“We just wanted to witness the process,” said Orris, while waiting in line for a Saturday town hall event for Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in Indianola, a city south of Des Moines.

Janet Wolf, 65, a retired county supervisor from Santa Barbara, first came out with her husband to watch presidential candidates campaign in Iowa in 2016, and they even went a step further: They got invited to watch a caucus in person by a caucus chair who used to live in Santa Barbara.

Wolf, coming from a state where primary balloting is private, was stunned in 2016 to watch the semipublic and “pretty contentious” display of neighbors debating which candidates to support.

“They know how you vote,” Wolf said. “That’s something I’ve grown up with, is your vote is private. Well, it’s not so private here, everyone knows.”

She admired how seriously Iowans take their caucusing. “People are so engaged,” she said. “I love that, as a politician and a citizen.”


Wolf and her husband enjoyed their 2016 trip so much that they returned last week with two friends they’ve known for 40 years. They’re also getting the true caucus experience of being grilled by journalists: So far, she’s already been interviewed by NBC News and ABC News, and she’s encountered famous TV journalists such as CNN’s Dana Bash and NBC’s Katy Tur.

“It’s just so fun. It’s so funny,” Wolf said, and her friends have been thrilled by the trip too. “They’re just dying. We’re all just kind of pinching ourselves. One day gets better than the next.”

Not all the out-of-staters are mere tourists: There are armies of volunteers who have arrived to help boost their preferred candidate.

Andrew B. Jones, 34, an attorney from South Bend, Ind., came to Iowa to support the campaign of Sanders. Not Buttigieg, his former mayor.

“I’ve known Peter for 15 years,” Jones said at a Sanders rally in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night, where the band Vampire Weekend gave a concert in support of Sanders. “He’s a smart, kind, decent human being. And I supported both of his mayoral candidacies. ... He cut the ribbon when I opened my law firm. I just don’t think he’s the right candidate for president.”

Sanders’ campaign is fueled by many such out-of-staters, if his Cedar Rapids event, which an estimated 3,000 attended, is any indication. Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig asked the crowd how many attendees were from Cedar Rapids. There was a decent cheer. Then he asked attendees how many were from elsewhere from Iowa. There was another decent cheer.

Then Koenig asked the crowd how many people were from outside Iowa, and the audience gave the largest cheer of all.

Pearce reported from Indianola and Mehta from Des Moines.